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Eli Whitney
Mary Bellis
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The Eli Whitney Museum

The Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney

From Mary Bellis,
Your Guide to Inventors.
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Eli Whitney 1765 - 1825

Eli Whitney was the inventor of the cotton gin and a pioneer in the mass production of cotton. Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts on December 8, 1765 and died on January 8, 1825. He graduated from Yale College in 1792. By April 1793, Whitney had designed and constructed the cotton gin, a machine that automated the separation of cottonseed from the short-staple cotton fiber.

Advantages of Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin revolutionized the cotton industry in the United States. Prior to his invention, farming cotton required hundreds of man-hours to separate the cottonseed from the raw cotton fibers. Simple seed-removing devices have been around for centuries, however, Eli Whitney's invention automated the seed separation process. His machine could generate up to fifty pounds of cleaned cotton daily, making cotton production profitable for the southern states.

Eli Whitney Business Woes

Eli Whitney failed to profit from his invention, imitations of his machine appeared and his 1794 patent for the cotton was not upheld in court until 1807. Whitney could not stop others from copying and selling his cotton gin design.

Eli Whitney and his business partner Phineas Miller had decided to get into the ginning business themselves. They manufactured as many cotton gins as possible and installed them throughout Georgia and the southern states. They charged farmers an unusual fee for doing the ginning for them, two-fifths of the profits paid in cotton itself.

Copies of the Cotton Gin

And here, all their troubles began. Farmers throughout Georgia resented having to go to Eli Whitney's cotton gins where they had to pay what they regarded as an exorbitant tax. Instead planters began making their own versions of Eli Whitney's gin and claiming they were "new" inventions. Phineas Miller brought costly suits against the owners of these pirated versions but because of a loophole in the wording of the 1793 patent act, they were unable to win any suits until 1800, when the law was changed.

Struggling to make a profit and mired in legal battles, the partners finally agreed to license gins at a reasonable price. In 1802, South Carolina agreed to purchase Eli Whitney's patent right for $50,000 but delayed in paying it. The partners also arranged to sell the patent rights to North Carolina and Tennessee. By the time even the Georgia courts recognized the wrongs done to Eli Whitney, only one year of his patent remained. In 1808 and again in 1812 he humbly petitioned Congress for a renewal of his patent.

Eli Whitney - Other inventions

In 1798, Eli Whitney invented a way to manufacture muskets by machine so that the parts were interchangeable. Ironically, it was as a manufacturer of muskets that Whitney finally became rich.

Continue > Background on the Cotton Gin: What It Does, How It Works

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