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Eli Whitney sowed the cotton seeds of the American Civil War

Posted in America, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Industry, Inventions, War on Thursday, 29 March 2012

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This edited article about America’s cotton industry originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 679 published on 18 January 1975.

Whitney's cotton gin, picture, image, illustration

Intruders examining Eli Whitney’s cotton gin

Those were the days, the old soldiers sighed, when they were fighting the British. But now ten years had passed since the peace treaty finally put an end to the war and confirmed that the United States was a truly independent nation.

They stared out of the windows of a stately home on the Georgia plantation, watching the black slaves at work in the fields. What a crazy world it was, they all told each other, a world full of nations clamouring out for cotton, but here in Georgia, in the heart of the cotton-growing belt, they couldn’t afford to grow it. There was just no way of separating cotton quickly from its seed, and by hand it took ten hours for even the best slave to clean a single pound of cotton.

Their hostess looked around at the officers-turned-planters, who had all served in the War of Independence against Britain under her late husband, General Nathaniel Greene, and who now owned many of the plantations in the neighbourhood. Then she thought of the young man from Yale University who was serving as a tutor in her house and she uttered some historic words.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “tell your troubles to Mr. Whitney. You say you want a quick way to separate cotton from its seed. Ask him. He can make anything.”

The officers knew that young Eli Whitney was good with his hands, but they could not know that, within ten days, he would invent a machine which would not only make their fortunes but change the history of the world.

Whitney had been born far from Georgia in Massachusetts in 1765 and he had grown up on a farm. His father discovered with delight that Eli could repair anything that he or his neighbours brought him. He was good at his books, but his idea of heaven was pottering about in a workshop, tinkering with anything mechanical. To get enough money for his experiments he would make hatpins, nails, walking canes and anything else that would bring in much-needed cash.

Yet it did not seem that his gift could be anything more than a hobby, especially after he had headed South in 1793 after graduating from Yale. On the boat sailing South, he had met a Mrs. Greene, who had invited him to stay at her plantation near Savannah. There he went when he heard that the job he was seeking had been given to somebody else.

Which brings us back to his invention.

Like many of the best ideas it was simplicity itself. It consisted of a revolving drum, which dragged the cotton through a wire sieve. The seeds were left behind and were swept by a revolving brush into a container. Within a few days of making his first machine, he had improved it to operate even more smoothly, though the principle was the same. So it came about that his invention, known as a cotton gin, (gin being short for engine), revolutionised the cotton industry. It could “clean” as much cotton in an hour as several slaves could clean in an entire day.

Sadly, others discovered his machine before he could get it patented. His workshop was raided and his gin was easily made, and soon it was in use all over the Southern States of America without its inventor benefiting by a single dollar.

But there was a long term result from his invention, which no one could have foreseen. In only two years, the sale of cotton overseas had shot up from 138,000 lbs to 1,601,000 lbs, and slavery, which seemed to be dying away, suddenly became all important to the South. Through no fault of Whitney, slaves were in colossal demand because cotton was king, whereas, before his invention, it seemed that most slaves would soon be free in the cotton areas for want of anything to do. And slavery was to be the main reason for the great American Civil War (1861-65), though the right of individual states to decide their own future – with or without slavery – was equally important. So it might be said that Eli Whitney, who died in 1825, started a civil war forty years later.

Incredibly, he served the North as well as the South with his other great invention. After the disappointment over the money side of the cotton gin, he returned home and started manufacturing firearms by a revolutionary new method. Before his time, each gun had been made by skilled craftsmen, but he began having unskilled men making separate parts of a rifle which were then put together to make a whole. These parts were interchangeable, meaning that they could fit any rifle, being cut by a special machine he also invented. This “milling” machine was the start of mass production, one of the corner-stones of modern life. So the amazing Mr. Whitney pulled off a staggering double.

In fact, he pulled off a treble, for mass production gave the industrial North the advantage in the Civil War after the South’s early successes, and helped them to final victory. So it could be said that, years after his death, he was responsible for the South breaking away from the Union and starting a war, and for the final Northern victory. Which must be an all-time record, for any one man.

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