The Life of Eli Whitney

January 12, 1825

4 days ago, the United States lost a key figure in modern agriculture and production. Eli Whitney, born in 1765, was an “inventor, engineer, husband, and father“. He is survived by a wife and seven children. Whitney will be remembered for his ingenious inventions, including interchangeable parts and the cotton gin.

The cotton gin was created by Whitney to assist in the production of short-staple cotton. The machine, used by nearly all cotton farmers, works by separating the cotton fibers and the seeds, a notoriously difficult task. The freshly picked cotton is passed through a brush wheel, where the seeds are pushed out into a small space, and the cotton used for cloth falls into a bucket. With this new development, many farmers are more efficient in their production of cotton, allowing for more crop production. Prior to his invention, the way of extracting the seeds was to separate the seeds by hand, where, “A man could seed only one pound of cotton in a day.

In order to honor his memory, I returned to South Carolina to talk to cotton farmers who use Whitney’s invention and have been benefited by his work.

“It’s amazing,” said James Abel, “I can get nearly one hundred times as much cotton for the same time.” Abel works on a small farm in Georgia, has no slaves, and purchased a cotton gin for $60. “6 years ago, [cotton] was [bought for] 32 cents a pound, but all of a sudden its dropped back down to 14 cents” Abel explains, “The more people who get cotton gins, the more product they can make. That’s caused the drop, but its still good money. If I didn’t have the gin I would be in a lot more trouble.” He showed me where his eldest son, James, was working the machine. He was forcefully cranking the handle, while white, fluffy cotton flew out the back of the machine into a bucket (7). James told me he had started cranking about 40 minutes before I had arrived and had already seeded about three pounds. If he kept that speed consistent, he could seed 50 pounds of cotton in a day. Having noticed the family’s lack of slaves, I asked him about his reasoning behind it, but he refused to comment. I respected his decision, and decided to leave.

After that interaction, I wondered about the ties between the cotton gin, increasing cotton economy, and slavery. The logical progression would be to find a large plantation. Deep into Georgia, one of the largest cotton plantations is owned by Robert Stafford on Cumberland Island. The family plantation is over 1,000 acres and they own almost 150 slaves. However, only about 100 of these slaves work out in the fields. The other 50 are split between the home and manning the cotton gins (13). “For us, the cotton gin has been a blessing,” Stafford explains, “See, we used to own fewer slaves, but they did much harder work. We had them picking seeds out of cotton for hours on end, but with the cotton gin, we can give them the luxury of just turning a crank.” He went on to tell me about how the ease of production has allowed his plantation to grow. “But, obviously, the bigger the farm, the more slaves we need. However, its not an issue given how much money we make,” Stafford said “The gin has made this industry so profitable (5). I bet every farmer in the south is debating whether to get into the business; because its only getting better.” The cotton produced at Stafford’s plantation is sent to many different cities where it is used for a variety of items, but usually cotton clothing. This has lowered the price dramatically and has allowed for even lower-middle class americans to afford comfortable clothes.

Without Eli Whitney, none of this would be possible. The current state of american cotton would not be nearly as profitable, and the farmers in the south have Whitney to thank. His invention has revolutionized cotton production and has turned the south into a strong economic force. The farmers using the gin have a stable and efficient business (much more stable than tobacco and more efficient than rice). His inventions have marked a dramatic shift in the south as we go into a new age of fast agricultural production. Inventors in the future will be greatly influenced by his work and dedication to progressing america. Eli Whitney will be greatly missed.

Thank you for reading,

                 Benjamin Thomas

Works Cited

  1.  Eli Whitney’s Original Patent: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/cotton-gin-patent/
  2. Eli Whitney Short Profile: http://www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/152.html
  3.  Eli Whitney Biography: http://www.biography.com/people/eli-whitney-9530201
  4.  Letter from Eli Whitney Jr. to his Father:  http://www.teachingushistory.org/ttrove/Whitney11Sept1793.htm
  5.  Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History. 2005. Reprint. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2008. Print, 391-400.
  6. How the Cotton Gin Works: http://www.eliwhitney.org/museum/eli-whitney/cotton-gin
  7.  Scott Harris. “Learning about the Cotton Gin.” Youtube Video.  Youtube, Dec. 9 2009. retrieved Nov 2 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMZg2kLLs-Q
  8. Eli Whitney Early Life: http://www.heritage-history.com/c=read&author=perry&book=inventors&story=whitney
  9. Slavery and The Cotton Gin: http://www.newfoundpress.utk.edu/pubs/hall/chp3.pdf
  10.  The Effect of The Cotton Gin on Slaves: http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24411
  11.  Southern Cotton Economy: http://www.cnr.berkeley.edu/departments/espm/env-hist/studyguide/chap7.htm
  12.  Price of Cotton Gin at the Time: http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/cool-things-cotton-gin/10190
  13. Georgia Plantations: http://etd.fcla.edu/UF/UFE0000714/joyner_s.pdf
  14. Stafford Plantation: http://www.nps.gov/seac/research/misc/arch79.htm
  15. Basic Cotton Information: http://www.cottonsjourney.com/Storyofcotton/print.asp
  16. Cotton Gin and the effect on Large Platations: http://www.civilwar.org/resources/civil-war-history-how-the.html
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