When Whitney first moved to Georgia in 1793, short-staple cotton had only recently been introduced to Georgia as a major market crop. Small crops of long-staple, or Sea Island, cotton had been successfully cultivated along the coast since the close of the American Revolution (1775-83) but could not be grown upland. Only short-staple cotton could be grown upland, but early efforts by planters to profit from this variety were thwarted by the time-consuming task of removing
The state of Georgia appointed a commission to solve the problem, and efforts were made to create a device that could efficiently clean short-staple cotton. Long-staple cotton gins had existed long before Whitney's invention of the short-staple cotton gin; the churka (or charkha), for instance, had been used in India for centuries to clean long-staple cotton, and was introduced to the South in the mid-eighteenth century.
The churka was a small, hand-operated machine that used two hardwood pinch-rollers to grip the cotton fiber and pull it away from the seed, but the device was useless on the short-staple variety of upland Georgia. Successful modifications of the churka soon followed its introduction. In 1772 Mr. Krebs of Pascaguola, in present-day Mississippi, created a gin similar to the churka that was introduced
In 1793, with the success of Georgia's cotton industry at stake, Whitney set to work in a workshop provided by Catharine Greene (the widow of Nathanael Greene, by whom Whitney was employed as a tutor on the Greene plantation, Mulberry Grove). Within months Whitney had used his familiarity with New England textile machinery to produce a working cotton gin that could produce up to fifty pounds of cotton daily. A small version of his design could be operated by hand, while larger versions could be powered by horses or water.
The Key to the Cotton Kingdom
The economic impact of Whitney's gin was vast; after its invention, the yield of raw cotton nearly doubled each decade after 1800. The gin, whose invention coincided with much of the Deep South's opening to white settlement, helped to facilitate westward expansion into these potential cotton-producing areas. By the mid-nineteenth century America was supplying three-quarters of the world's cotton.
A direct result of this growth was an expansion of slavery. While the cotton gin reduced the amount of labor required to remove the seeds from the plant, it did not reduce the number of slaves needed to grow and pick the cotton. The demand for Georgia's cotton grew as new inventions such as spinning jennies and steamboats were able to weave and transport more of the crop. Although the percentage of slave population to total population remained virtually unchanged from 1790 until 1860, the number of slaves in the South increased dramatically. By the end of the antebellum era Georgia had more slaves and slaveholders than any state in the Lower South.
Whitney and Phineas Miller, his business partner, had originally decided to produce a large number of gins, install them throughout Georgia and the South, and charge farmers a fee for using the gins. Farmers throughout Georgia resented having to pay what they felt was an exorbitant tax, and opted instead to make their own variations of Whitney's design. Miller brought lawsuits against the makers of these lifted versions, but because of a loophole in the wording of the 1793 patent act, he and Whitney were unable to win any suits until 1802. In a desperate effort to make a profit, Whitney and Miller began selling licenses to manufacture the gin, but they failed to make a large return by the time Whitney's patent expired in 1807. Whitney's troubles were the first test of whether the nation's new patent system could interpret what a patent could and could not protect, and it helped to shape the laws by which the system now operates.
In the mid-1880s Robert Munger of Texas developed "system ginning," a process by which seeded cotton was fed continuously into multiple gins stands, from which the fiber was immediately pressed and baled. Munger's system effectively ended the era of plantation gins and small cotton-gin makers and merchants.
The modern cotton ginning process has continued in Georgia and the Southeast and can also be found in the major cotton producing areas of the southwestern United States and overseas. Cottonseed oil, one of the by-products of cotton production, is commonly used in potato chips and other processed foods. Some consumers are wary of cottonseed oil in foods, as it contains highly toxic gossypol, and is taken from one of the most chemically intensive crops grown in the United States.
Today, only a few technologically sophisticated firms produce cotton gins based on the designs of specialized engineers. The largest of those companies, the Lummus Corporation, located in Savannah, has brought short-staple cotton production back to its roots at Mulberry Grove.
Angela Lakwete, Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
Mildred Lewis Rutherford, King Cotton: The True History of Cotton and the Cotton Gin (Athens, Ga.: privately printed, 1922).
Daniel Augustus Tompkins, The Cotton Gin: The History of Its Invention (Charlotte, N.C.: privately printed, 1901).
Elizabeth Hargrett, University of Georgia
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