889 - 1940 Famous Americans: 1c Eli Whitney
U.S. #889 from the 1940 Famous Americans Series.

On March 14, 1794, Eli Whitney received the patent for his cotton gin nearly five months after first applying for it.

Born in Massachusetts in 1765, Whitney was the son of a farmer and was a talented mechanic and inventor from an early age. As a child, he’d built a nail forge and a violin, among other things. After graduating from Yale College in 1792, he hoped to study to become a lawyer, but needed money. Instead, he took a job as a private tutor on the Georgia plantation of Catherine Greene (widow of Revolutionary General Nathanael Greene).

Living on the farm, Whitney quickly learned of the struggle of Southern planters. Many were growing short-staple cotton, a variety which was time-consuming to clean by hand. At that time, the average cotton picker could de-seed about a pound of cotton per day. Greene and her plantation manager Phineas Miller encouraged Whitney to devise a machine to improve the process. He believed that creating such an invention could be quite lucrative, so he set his plans to become a lawyer aside and spent several months designing and building his cotton gin (“gin” being taken from “engine”).   Whitney’s new machine allowed one person to remove seeds from up to 55 pounds of cotton in a single day.

785 - 1936 1c Army and Navy: Washington and Greene, Mt Vernon
U.S. #785 – Whitney invented the cotton gin on the plantation of Nathanael Greene’s (pictured on the right, above) widow.

Whitney applied for a patent on his new invention in October 1793. But it wasn’t until March 14, 1794, that his patent was officially approved. He and Miller, now his business partner, considered their options and decided to give the cotton gins to local farmers and take 40% of their profits in return. The farmers didn’t like this idea, seeing it as an unfair tax, and made their own versions of Whitney’s invention. Whitney and Miller filed several suits against these farmers, but were unable to win any of them until the patent law was changed in 1800.

Eventually Whitney and Miller decided to license the patent at a reasonable price – $50,000 to South Carolina alone. One drawback of Whitney’s invention was that it fueled the growth of slavery in America. Though it reduced the amount of labor needed to remove seeds, it didn’t reduce the people needed to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, it made cotton so profitable for plantation owners that it increased their need for land – and slave labor. Some even claim that it was the cotton gin that eventually led to the Civil War, as it rejuvenated the slave industry.

81912 - 1989 Eli Whitney Cover
Item #81912 – Commemorative cover marking Whitney’s 223rd birthday in his hometown of Westborough, Massachusetts.

Though Whitney is most famous for the cotton gin, he made another significant contribution to technology just years later, in 1798. As the U.S. faced the threat of war with France, the government contracted Whitney to manufacture 10,000 muskets in two years. Although he wasn’t the first to utilize any one of the methods, Whitney combined power machinery, interchangeable parts, and the division of labor in a way that had not been seen in America. Though it eventually took him 10 years to fulfill his contract, Whitney is often credited as an early pioneer of American mass-production.

Click here to view the original drawing for Whitney’s patent.

Click the images to add this history to your collection.

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  1. The development of seed-extracting cotton gin was a fantastic example of the spread of industrial revolution from Europe to the New World. It is sad however that these days, the same attempts to monopolise technology at the expense of ordinary people (viz southern States farmers) still goes on. Today, Monsanto has revolutionised the genetically modified cotton seed to resist disease, etc. Unfortunately, the introduction of this technology into countries like India is creating mayhem, when Monsanto has sole patent rights, and countries like India again fall prey to aggressive predators in search of Rupees. Remember how the British East India company used to get cotton from Indian farmers for next to nothing, ship it to the Lancastrian Mills to turn it into goods, and then sell this back to the Indians at incredibly inflated price, while stopping them from starting their own mills … hey presto! a few more millionaires in UK. In a similar fashion, by modifying cotton seeds, Monsanto then can claim rightful patent ownership of Indian cotton seeds (50% and counting), thus despoiling, as we British did back in 1800s, the people of India of a fair future.

    I know this is not the complete story by any means, and in any case Mystic’s article is to celebrate Mr Whitney’s inventiveness; one more example of USA’s growing innovative endeavour. GdR

  2. These are still great and I’m a big fan of Mystics and these fantastic “Day in History” articles, except, I read them all last year! What’s the chances that you get your great writers back on this project and choose one of myriad other choices each day?

    1. Hi Roger,

      Thank you for the kind words. Mystic started the This Day in History series in July 2015. So we haven’t repeated dates quite yet. Thank you for the support!

  3. Scott#785 Listed as 1C Army- Washington-Greene. May be because of his contract to manufacture muskets for war. Why Mt Vernon is not explained in the story.

  4. Interesting that Whitney’s invention of the cotten gin encouraged an increase of slavery, but his design of mass produced muskets led to it’s demise at hand of the Union in the Civil War.One of the alpha and omega of inventors.

  5. Dr. Des Rosiers,
    Your article is certainly interesting. However, when your assert “It is sad however that these days, the same attempts to monopolise (BTW sp.) technology at the expense of ordinary people..”, you add a huge opinion that while it may hold substance, it takes your history lesson into the realm of political comment & posturing. Not appropriate for this venue…in my opinion.
    Michael H. Lubas

  6. It seems too mild a word to say that the spread of slavery and its continuation was a “drawback” that came out of the invention of the cotton gin. It gave slavery a new lease on life at a moment when it was declining.

  7. A very informing and updating essay about a not-to-well recognized name in American history. Mystic, you continue to be GREAT in your articles !! Just keep it going … and THANK you !

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