Cotton is such a widespread part of our lives that we often take it for granted. It’s present in our clothes, bedding, curtains, towels, and so much more. Cotton goes through a lengthy process to being made into cloth. In the past, sorting the fiber from the cotton plant’s seeds posed a major difficulty since it was a slow, tedious task that had to be done by hand. Everything changed when a Massachusetts inventor named Eli Whitney introduced the cotton gin.
Eli Whitney grew up during the late 1700s in a farming family. By the time he was a young man, he already had considerable knowledge and hands-on experience of farming work. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he was to be an indirect factor in the great divide between the Northern and Southern states. Before Whitney ever invented the cotton gin, American was actually witnessing a marked decline in slavery. This was primarily because landowners found that their crops, such as cotton, tobacco, and rice, were producing rather poor profits. To recoup their losses, many of them released the black slaves in their employ. In 1793, by sheer chance Whitney happened upon a conversation one day where several men were discussing how much easier it would be to process cotton if they had a machine to separate the fibers instead of having to do it by hand. Whitney was intrigued and drafted the details of a prototype to show to a potential investor. Just a few days later, he had created a working model of the machine. While he was immediately offered a sum of a hundred guineas for his model and the rights to it, Whitney turned down the offer. Instead, he focused on refining the model and the way it worked. The final version was known as a cotton engine, which was later shortened to cotton gin. According to Whitney, it could efficiently separate out the fibers from cotton plants approximately fifty times more efficiently than the traditional method.
At the time, Whitney had heard from a number of people that his cotton gin would amass him a large fortune. Even so, he preferred to approach it cautiously, without too many high hopes. By March of 1794 he received a patent for the cotton gin. Very soon, landowners saw the potential of the gin but ironically Whitney did not gain much from its popularity. He did not have sufficient funding to mass-produce the machine, and model’s fairly simple design made it easy for others to copy it. He tried to cope with this latter scenario through legal means but found that it only served to reduce his already limited resources. Since many people were now copying Whitney’s design and making their own versions or models of the cotton gin, cotton production suddenly soared. At the time, slavery had already been abolished in the north. However, the southern landowners were quick to take on more slaves to boost output on their cotton farms. During the early 1800s, they shipped in slaves by the thousands. All of this directly gave way to a sharp increase in the amount of slave states in the south as well as a change in population. By the mid-1860s, one-third of all Southerners were slaves. A difference in opinion regarding slavery between the north and south states was one of the major reasons why the Civil War began during 1861.
While Whitney certainly did have good intentions when he built the cotton gin, there was no way for him to predict how drastically it would cause an entire country to split in two. Considering that he passed away in 1825, he did not even have a chance to witness the effects that he inadvertently caused. However even well after the Civil War ended, the basic technology of the cotton gin continued to be used, modified, and improved upon. Today we use electronic cotton gins that are capable of processing vast amounts of compacted cotton bales automatically.
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