By Anant Gupta
Who would have thought that the invention of a new device could start a war, bring about a manufacturing revolution and lead to employment of millions? Probably the technology that has had the maximum impact in history: economically and socially, the cotton gin was revolutionary, in true sense of the word. Its founder, Eli Whitney was also responsible for ushering the culture of mass production in America, which helped create a solid base from where the economy boomed.
The gin debuts in the South
A law graduate from Yale, Eli was offered a job as a tutor in South Caroline. En route to his first job across the seas, Eli befriended Catherine Greene, the fiancé of Phineas Miller – the owner of cotton plantations in a rich estate called Mulberry Grove. The plantations made brisk business by fulfilling the demand of the entire South for cotton.
To serve their purpose, Miller grew two varieties of cotton on the farm – a black seed cotton variety and a green seed variety. Like monozygotic embryos, both varieties though identical in appearance were poles apart when it came to handling them. The cotton fiber from the black cotton seeds was easy to clean, and was exported readily to the South. However, the farm faced perennial shortage of such variety, and they had to rely on the green seed cotton, which was more abundant in nature but proved to be difficult to pick. The cotton fiber stuck tightly onto the seeds, making it hard to separate the fiber from the seeds.
Whitney realized that speeding up the process of separation of fiber from the seeds would ramp up the production of cotton fibers. Also, the market for tobacco, the lone cash crop apart from cotton, was steadily declining. Sensing a business opportunity, Whitney set to work – devising the design of a new Cotton Gin (short for engine) which could pick apart the fibers from the seeds. Working in Catherine’s secret workshop, Whitney took 5 months to produce one of the greatest inventions which signaled the beginning of an automated era. The device was simplistic, and had 4 major components – a hopper to feed the cotton ball; a cylinder which had hundreds of fine bristles to pick apart the cotton seed from the fiber; a brush which acted as a screen to stop the separated seeds from entering the collecting container; and a stationary breastwork that strained out the seed while the fiber flowed through.
The gin cut short separation time dramatically; in some cases by a factor of 10. Such was Whitney’s confidence in the gin, he once conceded to his father – “One man and a horse will do more than fifty men with the old machines,” wrote Whitney to his father. . . . “Tis generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it.”
With his eyes set on amassing a fortune, Whitney and Miller initially decided to sell the machine to plantation owners all over South. However, the move proved to be cumbersome; putting together a gin from scratch was more time-taking than they had imagined. Instead, they decided to simply provide their services of separating the fiber from the seeds to the farmer. In return, they demanded 2/5th of the future cotton produced as part of their profits. If telling the farmers to buy a machine was bad enough, asking them to part with their own cotton was even worse. This move infuriated the farmers to no end, and was met with a lot of resistance.
Instead of sending their cotton to Whitney for separation, the farmers decided to create their own version of the cotton gin to improve efficiency. Though the original design had been patented by Whitney, a loophole in the patent stopped Whitney from filing a lawsuit. Soon mass proliferation of pirated gins took place, and Whitney and Miller were robbed of their fortunes in front of their very eyes. It was only in 1800, when the patent rules were changed, could the duo file lawsuits against the offenders. Eventually, the amount gathered from the lawsuit just nullified all the expenses they had accumulated over the years.
Mass production puts America on the map
For Whitney, second time proved lucky when he was called upon to supply muskets in large numbers. Ever the tinkerer, Whitney convinced the then President-elect – Thomas Jefferson to produce 10,000 muskets in two years through a specially devised method of mass production. The contract was given to Whitney. Over the course of 2 years, Whitney was able to produce only 500 muskets. However, the government’s confidence in his ability did not fade and he was given an extension. It took Whitney 10 long years to finally achieve the humongous number of 10,000 muskets to his credit. Whitney showcased the replaceable parts to the President himself, when he assembled a rifle out of a pile of random musket parts. Triggering a revolution in mass production, Whitney’s invention helped the government keep pace with the ferociously increasing demand for muskets as the war went on.
Why the cotton gin could have sparked slavery
The cotton gin, though not profitable for Whitney, was a revolutionary machine on two counts. Firstly, it started the mass production of cotton on a large scale and was the flag bearer for other inventions to come which would cater to the masses. Ford’s Model T and Kroc’s hamburgers – both followed the same philosophy. However, the impact of the gin was more considerable on a completely different level – it sounded the bugle horn for slavery in America.
The gin helped the farmers get rid of the most tedious task at hand – separating fibers from the seeds. Till then, even with the little amount of cotton they grew, the plantation workers could sell only as much – since the separation process would take a very long time. All that changed with the arrival of the gin. Farmers were now producing cotton at tremendous rates, and could feed the growing appetite for cotton of the South, North and Great Britain with more ease. Soon, a new problem came to surface – shortage of cotton plants in the plantations itself. With an eye on the immense fortune in front of them, plantation workers bought men and women as bonded labor to fulfill the task – thus setting the wheel in motion for slavery to penetrate America.
Though Whitney’s contribution may be judged solely on his invention of the cotton gin, the mark his invention made on world history make him one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 19th century. Ever the tinkerer, Whitney richly deserves plaudits for catapulting an entire nation to the league of foremost suppliers of quality goods all around the world. His direct impact on slavery is highly debatable, though condemnation of the eventual outcome is universal.
Remember the Titans is a weekly ode to the inventors, geniuses, and business pioneers who left the world better than they got it. Check out stories of other Titans here.
Anant Gupta is a writing analyst at Qrius
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