Southern plantation owners were desperate to find a way to make cotton growing profitable. Long-staple cotton, with seeds that were easy to separate from the fibers, could be grown only along the coast. Meanwhile, short-staple cotton, grown inland, had sticky green seeds that were difficult and time-consuming to pick out of the fluffy white cotton fibers. If the planters could find a way to make it easier to remove the seeds, then they could grow and harvest cotton more successfully, and this new crop could replace tobacco, which had exhausted the soil.
Enter Eli Whitney, a young New Englander just out of college, who was working as a family tutor on a Georgia plantation in the late 1700s. Whitney invented a machine that used wooden teeth on two rollers to "comb" the cotton and remove the sticky seeds. A worker would feed the cotton between these rollers, and the wooden teeth were supposed to remove the seeds.
Whitney's first design for the cotton gin ("gin" was short for "engine"), however, did not work well. The cotton clogged the rollers' wooden teeth and kept them from removing the seeds effectively.
Enter Whitney's employer, Catharine Littlefield Greene. Greene was the person who had originally suggested that Whitney try to create a tool to remove seeds. She provided financial support and a workshop on the plantation where Whitney could tinker. And when Whitney's first version of the cotton gin failed to work well, many historians believe that it was Greene who came up with the idea of using wire instead of wooden teeth. One story is that she took a wire brush from the fireplace and ran it over the raw cotton, to show how it could be used. When Whitney replaced the cotton gin's wooden teeth with wire spikes, the successful cotton gin was born.
Many people argue that Greene should be credited with inventing the cotton gin, but women at that time did not put their names on patents. Whitney obtained the patent for the cotton gin in 1794. By that time, however, other people had already built copies of his machine. Whitney could not protect his rights to it and did not sell very many of them. Neither he nor Greene, who did share in the small royalties received for the cotton gin, ever made much money from their invention. The gin, however, made it possible for Southern planters to grow much more cotton. It became the South's most important cash crop and greatly expanded the region's slave labor economy in the decades before the Civil War.
Marcia Amidon Lusted is the author of numerous nonfiction books for children and is a regular contributor to COBBLESTONE.
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