History Timeline 1790s

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  • 1794 Detail

    March 14, 1794 - Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin, which could do the work of fifty men when cleaning cotton by hand.

    Eli Whitney

    It would not be his largest contribution to the manufacturing world, at least to some, but to most, the invention by Eli Whitney of the cotton gin, a device that allowed for a huge expansion in the cotton trade, still in its infancy in the first decade of the formation of the United States, is his most noteworthy. The economy of the South would be forever changed.

    Whitney was born to a wealthy farming family in Massachusetts, and worked in his father's shop, manufacturing nails during the American Revolution. In 1792, Eli graduated from Yale with a desire to be a lawyer, migrating south thereafter and becoming a private tutor to pay the bills and pay off college debts. He worked for Nathaniel Greene's widow, Catherine Greene, on her plantation, Mulberry Grove, in Georgia, and became a business partner of her next husband, Phineas Miller.

    The process of picking and separating the seeds from cotton had been a laborious effort in an industry newly born in 1789 at the mill of Moses Brown, via Samuel Slater, in Providence, Rhode Island. Separation by hand could produce only one pound of lint of cotton per day. There was a need for a mechanical device, an engine, that could do the separation once the slaves in the fields had picked the crop. Eli Whitney was challenged with the idea. It took him only one week to invent the concept.

    In its simplicity, the engine was a wooden drum with hooks that would grab the cotton, pulling it through a mesh. The cotton seeds would fall off, not making it through the mesh. Whitney's cotton gin could now generate fifty-five pounds of cotton per day through one machine.

    Words from Eli Whitney About the Patent Process


    "I returned to the Northward for the purposes of having a machine made on a large scale and obtaining a Patent for the invention. I went to Philadelphia soon after I arrived, made myself acquainted with the steps necessary to obtain a Patent, took several of the steps and the Secretary of State, Mr. Jefferson, agreed to send the Patent to me as soon as it could be made out so that I apprehend no difficulty in obtaining the Patent. Since I have been here I have employed several workmen in making machines and as soon as my business is so that I can leave it for a few days, I shall come to Westboro' ... I am certain I can obtain a Patent in England. ... How advantageous this business will eventually prove to me, I cannot say. Tis generally said by those who know anything about it, that I shall make a Fortune by it. I have no expectations that I shall make an independent fortune by it, out think I had better pursue it than any other business into which I can enter." Source: "The World of Eli Whitney," 1952.

    Eli Whitney applied for the patent on October 28, 1793, and was granted it the next year, on March 14, 1794, with validation not occuring until 1807. With patent law in its infancy, only established four years earlier in the Patent Law of 1709 and added to in 1793, and the need outweighing the capability of Whitney and partner Miller to produce enough machines, the design was infringed upon. Fighting the lawsuits took all the profits from their company, which went out of business in 1797.


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    Impact of the Cotton Gin


    Once the patent had been validated, Whitney saw some profits, but never became rich off that invention. It was his manufacture and process of making interchangeable parts for muskets, ten thousand sold to the Army in a contract signed in 1798, where he began his manufacturing empire, using the American System of mass production in his factory in the Connecticut north.

    As per the cotton gin and its role in the American South. There is little doubt that the invention of the cotton gin augmented slavery, as it augmented its capacity, with slave labor, to process raw cotton to great heights. In 1793, cotton exports were 500,000 pounds; by 1810, they were 93 million pounds. By the middle of the 19th century, the United States was providing three quarters of the world's cotton. It became the chief export of the United States for the next seventy years, over half of the value of all exports. So, yes, it would be accurate, in our opinion, to lay some of that blame on a machine that could assist its production.

    However, in an odd turn of events for the legacy of Eli Whitney and its unfortunate attachment to augmented cotton production and slavery, by the end of the Civil War, the ability to manufacture, both weapons and other items, would end the conflict in favor of the industrialized north and his system or part in the system of interchangeable parts and the American System of of Manufacturing, mass production, played a large part. Was slavery made profitable by the cotton gin invention? Yes. Did Whitney's role in the American System of Manufactuing after that lead to its eventual demise. Yes, as well.

    Image above: Montage of Woodcut of patent design of Eli Whitney's cotton gin, 1823, American Farmer, and Portrait of Eli Whitney, 1820's, Charles Bird King. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Example of a Whitney designed cotton gin, Browntown Cotton Gin, South Carolina, 1987, Jack E. Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress. Info source: National Archives; Library of Congress; "The World of Eli Whitney," 1952, Jeannette Mirsky and Allan Nevins; Wikipedia Commons.

    Cotton Gin

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