Student Activity Packet

Activity #1: Inventing the Cotton Gin? A Class Debate


The simple historical statement found in most social studies textbooks tells us "Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin." After reading the student essay "Why A Plantation?" and the stories of four claims to the gin's invention, you will debate who actually did invent the cotton gin. Through this debate, perhaps you will find that simple historical statements, such as this one, may be more complex than they first seem. Following the debate, you will discuss the nature of invention, the importance of history, and the nature of historical evidence.


Most textbooks say simply, "Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin." But inventions are rarely so simple a story, and the invention of the cotton gin is no exception. Who really invented the cotton gin? Was it the work of lots of people, with no one inventor? And why does it matter who invented the cotton gin, anyway? You will need to think about these questions, and read the material below, before taking part in the debate over "Who Invented the Cotton Gin?"


Eli Whitney's cotton gin, demonstration model
1973. Courtesy of National Museum of American History,
Washington, DC.

The cotton gin was a machine designed to remove seeds from picked cotton. Before the use of the cotton gin, it took a very long time to separate the seeds from the fibers by hand -- working hard, a person could only clean about a pound of cotton a day. Ginning made it possible to process the cotton crop quickly and economically, which meant that many more landowners started to plant cotton. One person could clean the seeds from fifty pounds of cotton in one day. The picking of cotton required intensive labor, but the principal bottleneck had been removed. So the cotton gin was important because it made cotton a profitable crop. Just as carding, spinning, and weaving machines made it profitable to produce large amounts of cloth in factories, the cotton gin made it possible to grow large amounts of cotton on big farms called plantations. The northern factories were ready to accept as much raw cotton as the southern growers could ship them.

Thanks in large part to the cotton gin, cotton growing became very profitable, and cotton quickly became the most important crop across much of the southern United States. In 1793, before the cotton gin, some 187,600 pounds of cotton was harvested in the United States. Just two years later, the cotton harvest was over 6 million pounds, and in 1810, it was some 93 million pounds.

The work involved in growing cotton was hot and difficult. In the South, most of this work was done by African slaves. It is generally accepted that the gin's ability to quickly remove seeds from cotton, together with the difficulty of mechanizing the planting, cultivating, and picking of cotton, helped to fasten slavery on the South. Many African Americans feel strongly that the invention of the cotton gin prolonged the abuses of slavery. In 1790 there were about 657,000 slaves in the Southern states. In 1810 there were almost 1.3 million.

Invention and Patents

Lately, Eli Whitney's long-standing claim as sole inventor of the cotton gin has come under fire. Some historians credit a woman who supported Whitney at the time of the invention, or the slave community in general. The gin is also said to be a common device of the period, and Whitney is portrayed as an opportunist who took advantage of the patent system to claim ownership. Eli Whitney just got the credit, it is suggested, because of his skill in manipulating the legal system to get a patent.

The American patent system, provided for in the Constitution, was designed to encourage the creation and use of new technology. An inventor would describe an invention, both in writing and with drawings, and submit the description with a model to a government official. (In the country's first years, patents were submitted directly to the Secretary of State!) If the invention was judged to be new and useful, the official would give the inventor a patent. The patent meant that for 14 years (later changed to 17 years) the inventor owned the new invention. Inventors could license their ideas to manufacturers, or make or use them themselves. The government would not issue any other patent for the same idea, and the inventor could sue in the courts anyone who used the patented idea without paying the owner of the patent for permission to use it! A useful patent meant that the inventor could make a lot of money.

In exchange for this governmental protection, the government published the patent specifications, which had to provide enough information so that other people could understand the invention -- thus adding to the general available technological knowledge. And at the end of the 14 years, anyone could use the invention for free. The idea behind the patent system was twofold; it would increase the amount of technology, by providing a way for people to make money off of new ideas, and it would make new technology widely available, by publicizing ideas, that might otherwise be kept as trade secrets.

This exercise presents some of the evidence for the claims of four different groups, each of whom says they invented the cotton gin. People say that:

The evidence for each claim is presented below. Each group will present their best evidence to the patent examiner, but you should also consider what the other groups might say and try to refute their ideas.

While you are preparing your arguments, you will want to think about the following questions:


Eli Whitney. Courtesy of National
Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

Eli Whitney was born in Westborough, MA in 1765. He was always interested in machines, working in his father's woodworking shop, taking apart a watch and putting it back together. At age 14, he set up a nail-making and then a pin-making shop, and earned a good bit of money. (Note: The evidence for Eli Whitney's early life was written after he became famous for invention, and while he was fighting the battles over his rights to the cotton gin. How reliable are these sources likely to be?)

Whitney attended Yale University, graduating in 1792. He went south to take a teaching job, but instead he wound up living on the plantation of Catharine Greene, in Georgia. There he listened to planters describe the difficulty of cleaning the seeds from cotton. Because of his past success with mechanical problems, Whitney decided to tackle the problem. Before long he had arrived at his basic design, which had a cylinder spiked with wire teeth. The raw cotton was fed onto the cylinder and as it rotated the teeth passed through narrow slits in a piece of wood, pulling the cotton fibers through but leaving the seeds behind. Even though Whitney's gin tended to cut the fibers, thereby lowering the selling price of the cotton, it was so much faster that it was still by far the most profitable way to get the seeds out.

Whitney was producing and selling his gins in 1794, but he ran into problems manufacturing them and could not sell nearly as many as he wanted to. In addition, the design was so easy to copy that other mechanics made their own or even made them to sell, disregarding Whitney's patent. Furthermore, many others found small ways to improve the gin, and some made significant improvements, such as replacing the wire teeth with rows of toothed disks like dull circular-saw blades. Whitney filed 24 lawsuits between 1795 and 1805 to protect his patent rights.


Catharine Greene, 1807. Courtesy of
General Nathanial Greene Homestead, Coventry, RI.

Mrs. Catharine Greene, the widow of a prominent general in the Revolutionary War, lived on a plantation in Georgia. She hired Eli Whitney as a tutor. Once there, he got interested in the cotton ginning problem. Mrs. Greene supported him, giving him food, lodging, and encouragement while he developed his gin. According to a recent biography of Greene,

One evening, . . . Whitney remarked that he had reached an impasse. The unfinished model was brought downstairs and placed on the dinner table. As the company gathered around, Whitney cranked the wooden cylinder of his new machine, applying raw cotton from the upper side. As the fibers were caught up by the cylinder teeth and carried through a row of narrow slots, the seeds were wrenched free and dropped below. There remained one last problem to be overcome. The fibers, though separated from their seeds, continued to cling to the cylinder teeth, eventually clogging the slots. It was Caty who first perceived a solution. Seizing a hearth brush standing at the nearby fireplace, she applied it to the cylinder. The bristles were too limber to remove the cotton efficiently, but Whitney was impressed. "Thank you for the hint," he said. "I have it now."


Slaves harvesting cotton. From The Progress of Cotton,
1835-40 Courtesy of Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, RI.

Slaves, because they were not citizens, could not register any invention with the patent office. Their owners could not register a slave's invention either, since the law required that the patent be issued to the actual inventor. Consequently, any free person wanting to patent something could not acknowledge any contribution from a slave. And so it was easy to steal a slave's ideas and patent them.

According to Portia James, in The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930,

Eli Whitney . . . has been charged with borrowing the idea for the cotton gin from a simple comblike device that slaves used to clean the cotton. Whitney is said to have merely enlarged upon the idea of the comb to create the cotton gin, which works very much like an oversized comb culling the seeds and debris from the cotton. Whitney may have borrowed the idea, which though valuable was still incomplete. He may have used the principle behind the slaves' device and applied it to the broader problem--how to clean vast quantities of cotton.

Another historian writing about the problems facing African American inventors has noted:

"Whether slave or free the Negro could not proceed far in matters requiring the sanction of government except under the tutelage of some white man. Often what the Negro actually developed was exploited by the white man by whom he was employed or through whom he endeavored to find recognition." (Dorothy Yancy, "Four Black Inventors with Patents," Negro History Bulletin 39 [1976]: 574.)

So, while historians have accepted the theory that Eli Whitney's cotton gin idea came from an African slave, this claim remains impossible to prove.


Southern plantation house. Courtesy of The Library of Congress

The cotton gin is an ancient invention. As long ago as the 1st millennium BC, mechanical devices were used to remove seeds from cotton. The roller gin, which used two smooth rollers to squeeze the seeds out of the cotton, was used in the Bahamas and on the Sea Islands of Georgia, where long-staple cotton was grown in the 18th century. One person operating this hand-cranked gin could produce about 24 to 30 pounds of cotton a day.
Roller Gin. Courtesy of National
Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.

Quite a few inventors improved the roller gin, though none of them are famous today. The problem was that the roller gin could not remove the seeds from short-staple cotton. Nevertheless, according to this perspective, the mechanical gin was already commonplace, and Whitney's gin is just another mechanical gin. The real key was mechanization, and that was already the accepted way to gin cotton.

Click above to see a Quicktime video of a roller gin demonstration
from the Smithsonian's Hands-On-History Room.

Even considering just the gins for short-staple cotton, it seems clear that Whitney's invention was only one small step in the production of a usable gin. Several inventors had developed ways to use saw-like devices to gin cotton before Whitney, but none worked very well. (One was Hodgen Holmes, a mechanic in South Carolina, who had begun to apply for a patent of a sawtooth gin five years before Whitney, but was unable to successfully complete his application.) Whitney's patent, granted in 1794, used spike teeth -- which were not as easy to make and use as gins that used sawteeth, as Holmes had suggested. Holmes finally received a patent on the sawtooth gin in 1796. (Indeed, Whitney turned to sawteeth in his later models.)

Whitney's gin, southern planters argued, was just one step along the way to a workable gin -- and not the most important step. His real skills, they claimed, were manipulating the legal system to get credit and having good business skills that enabled him to sell many gins (he received royalties worth some $90,000).

Copyright © 1998 The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved.

Comments and questions to the Lemelson

Last Revision: 6/5/98