In order to complete the activity
worksheet, you will read a one-page introduction, look closely
at a bill from an actual gin repairer, and study a diagram of
how a cotton gin works.
April Ellison was born in 1790, one of
perhaps a dozen slaves on a plantation in South
Carolina. His owner trained him as a cotton gin builder and repairer,
apprenticing him at age 10 to William McCreight, a gin maker in
Winnsboro, South Carolina. He worked as an apprentice in McCreight's
gin building shop for about six years, learning how to work iron
at the blacksmith's forge, how to use the tools of the machinist
to turn and shape metal, and how to work wood at the carpenter's
Ellison stayed at the shop for another
eight or so years, working as a craftsman there. He married at
age 21 or so, and at age 26 was given his freedom by his master.
One of the first things he did was to change his name (April
was a slave name) to William, the name of his former owner (and
possibly, his father). And before long he went into business
for himself, as a master cotton gin builder and fixer.
Ellison was a successful businessman and
mechanic. By 1860 he owned, in addition to his gin shop, a large
plantation, and as many as 60 slaves. (It was unusual, but not
impossible, for Africans in America to own slaves; some 3,800 black
slave owners were registered in the 1840 Census.) Ellison is
an example of a slave who, because of his technological and business
skills, was able to earn his freedom and enjoy substantial financial
The attached repair bill indicates that
Ellison completely dissembled, rebuilt, and reassembled Waites'
gin. The work was complicated and intricate, both delicate and
heavy, and required all the skills of a gin maker. It involved
hundreds of parts fitted snugly into a compact, sturdy machine
that had to run smoothly from sunup to sundown during the ginning
season. It probably took about 12 days for Ellison to do this
|Click to view larger image of Ellison's|
bill to Judge Waite
Following is one page from the account
books of William Ellison, an African American gin fixer. The
bill for gin repairs was sent to a local plantation owner.
Cylinder made new and wood tran $8.00 7 new saws @4/8 7.00 37 Saws cut deeper in the teeth @ 25 c.a.p. 8.25 New brush @$12 12.00 Taking off 41 ribs and hamering them wider
and polishing them @20 c p
8.20 Mending frames and putting in new (illegible) 1.25 New brush nut and stuff and covered
2.50 New band nut and collers ribbed 1.25 Brush bearer .62 1/2 Cylinder bearer .50 Englabing Screw 1.00 1 Bench 1.00 4 dozen of wood screws @ 1/2 .50 2 hooks for hinges .50 1 crest hook and stapel .25 Hopper board and hanging 4.50 Facing and checks 1.00 TOTAL $58.325
|Drawing by William Rahr, Sammamish High School,Bellevue, WA. Used by permission.|
The cylinder is the main piece of
the gin which has the saws fastened to it. The saws look like
circular saw blades, about 45 blades on each saw, spaced at intervals
of about 3/4" along the cylinder. Saws were typically about
8" in diameter, made of iron, with about 160 teeth spaced
evenly around the edge.
wore out quickly from the hard work they did tearing apart the
cotton. To cut the saws deeper meant filing all 160 points to
the same angle, each about 1/4" deep. This was tedious,
painstaking, and painful work. "c.a.p." means
(we think) cents a piece, so there is a multiplication mistake
here -- the total should be $9.25.
was a hollow, leather-sheathed cylinder covered by rows of pig-bristle
brushes. It rotated in the opposite direction of the saws, and
pulled the ginned cotton off of the saw blades. As might be expected,
the brushes wore out very quickly.
were the wooden supports between the brushes. As the gin was
used, the ribs became rough, and the cotton would catch, and then choke
or clog the gin. The "20 c-p" is probably 20
cents per, that is for each of the 41 ribs. These are more repairs
for the brush.
A "bearer" is what we would call a "bearing," the metal piece on which the brush turns.
The hopper board fits on top of the gin, above the saws; this is where the seed cotton was dropped.
|Drawing by William Rahr, Sammamish High School, Bellevue, WA. Used by permission.|
What to do
William Ellison's Total ____________________
Your Calculated Total ____________________
Difference, if any ________________________
Number of hours worked (hours per day multiplied by the number of days) _______________________
Total amount of bill (use Ellison's total) ________
Wage earned per Hour (total of bill divided by number of hours) _____________________________
Comments and questions to
the Lemelson Center:firstname.lastname@example.org
Last Revision: 6/5/98