The cotton gin is probably one of the most famous, and most impacting, inventions in American history, and its inventor, Eli Whitney, is a name known by most schoolchildren. It is a machine for sorting out cotton, removing the seeds and seedpods from the fibers, which automated a manpower-intensive task. The name is simply a shortening of the name cotton engine, and simply refers to the fact that it was a basic machine.
The early history of the device actually dates back thousands of years, to simple machines from as far back as the 1st century. These machines were simply rollers, based on similar tools used to grind grain. Although they did the job, they required a great deal of skill and control by the operator, making them ultimately little more effective than hand sorting. Improvements appeared sometime in the 12th century, in both China and India, and by the 16th century were being used fairly widely throughout the Mediterranean. Even this improved two-roller device was still not incredible efficient, however, and it wasn’t until the modern cotton gin that the automation of cotton separation became truly feasible.
In 1794, Eli Whitney was awarded a patent for his cotton gin, although historical evidence suggests that the original idea may indeed have been from a woman, Catherine Littlefield Greene, who for social reasons did not apply for the patent herself. Within a few years, improvements had been made to Whitney’s original design, and the machine became a staple of American and English cotton processing. The invention allowed the cotton industry to boom like never before, changing the face of textiles and having ripple effects throughout the industrial world.
As the processing of cotton became easier, the price of cotton fabric plummeted and demand skyrocketed. Clothing once made out of other materials began to be made out of cotton, and people from all classes were suddenly needing huge amounts of it. As a result, plantations boomed throughout England and the American South, replacing other crops and leading to mass clearing of land to make space for huge cotton plantations.
These new plantations created an increased demand for manpower, as well, leading to a boom in the slave trade. Enormous numbers of slaves were brought into the United States to work the fields to supply the cotton that had become such a sudden commodity. A great deal of the wealth of the American South in the Antebellum period can be directly traced to Whitney’s invention.
Whitney’s improved cotton gin was able to process around 50 pounds (23 kg) of cotton lint a day, making it an enormous improvement over earlier methods. The machine itself was quite simple, with a large cylinder made of wood that had rows of spikes around it. These spikes grabbed on to the cotton lint and pulled it through a tight grid. The tines of this grid were spaced so closely together that the small sticky seeds found in cotton lint couldn’t pass through them, becoming caught, and allowing only clean cotton to make its way through.