Saturday, May 6, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

Eli Whitney
By Illa Vij
What is a cotton gin?

ELI Whitney was the man who invented the first cotton gin that worked successfully. Till his invention, cotton was separated from its seeds by a simple machine in a painfully slow manner, and it was not possible to use it with cotton that had short fibre. Whitney made a machine that had fast-whirling brushes on a cylinder that whisked away the fibre and the seeds were collected in a hopper. The machine was turned by a hand-crank. Horse or water — power could also drive it.

Eli Whitney was the oldest child in the family. He was born in 1765. His father was a farmer in Westborough, Massachusetts. Eli was barely 12 years old when he lost his mother. By this age he had also begun showing exceptional skills with tools. There was a little lathe in his father’s workshop where he spent many hours happily making or mending things. He never enjoyed doing farm work but never shirked his duties. He began making violins, he could repair watches and even made nails. He manufactured nails in mass and this was his first experience with mass production.

  Eli was so enterprising that as soon as the demand for nails dropped, he immediately began manufacturing hat-pins and when hat-pins no longer got him business, he switched to making walking sticks.

When Eli was 14 years old, his father married again. The stepmother who entered Eli’s life gave him neither love nor happiness. Rather, she strongly opposed his father’s desire to send him to the university for higher education. Compelled by circumstances, Eli had to teach and earn money to graduate from Yale. After his graduation he was compelled to work as a tutor on a Georgian plantation. It was there that he devised the machine what could separate cotton fibre from the cotton-seed quickly and effectively. Within 10 days, Eli designed the model and in the next few months the machine was ready. He established a company in New Haven, Connecticut, to manufacture cotton gins. Soon the demand became so high that he was unable to meet it. Even the patent that he had obtained in 1794 did not prevent other manufacturers from copying his model. After long years of litigation, Eli won the battle to protect his patent in 1807. But after five years, the government refused to renew his exclusive rights to manufacture the cotton gin.

Next, he worked on muskets. His muskets were the first to be built with standardised and interchangeable parts. He also introduced the division of labour in a factory. All the musket parts were so accurately made that if one part of the musket got damaged, it could be replaced by the same part of another musket. Such a thing was unheard of in those days.

Eli had remained unmarried all this while. At the age of 52, he married 31-year-old Henrietta Edwards, who belonged to an eminent family of New England. Together, they made a happy couple and had four children. A few years later, Eli’s health gave way. He died on January 8, 1825. He never lived to see the incredible transformation which the southern America was undergoing during the last years of his life — wilderness had turned into a great cotton belt, yielding unheard-of wealth — an impact of his cotton gin, the simple invention of a young jobless man.


What is a cotton gin?

THE cotton gin is a device for removing the seeds from cotton fiber. In ancient India a machine called a charka was developed to separate the seeds from the lint when the fiber was pulled through a set of rollers. The charka worked well on long-staple cotton, but variations of this machine used in colonial America could not be adapted for short-staple cotton. For the latter, cottonseed had to be removed by hand, work that was usually performed by slaves.

A machine for cleaning short-staple cotton was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793. His cotton engine consisted of spiked teeth mounted on a boxed revolving cylinder which, when turned by a crank, pulled the cotton fiber through small slotted openings so as to separate the seeds from the lint. Simultaneously a rotating brush, operated via a belt and pulleys, removed the fibrous lint from the projecting spikes. Although patented in 1794, the design was imitated so much by others that Whitney gained only a modest financial reward from his simple but ingenious invention.

The gin, with subsequent innovations, made the raising of short-staple cotton highly profitable and thereby revived the institution of slavery. Through the use of horse-drawn and water-powered gins, the ginning process was speeded up enormously. This permitted increased cotton production and lowered costs. As a result, cotton became the cheapest and most widely used textile fabric in the world.

With the advent of mechanical cotton pickers in the 20th century, it became necessary to refine the gin further. Among many modern improvements are devices for removing trash, drying, moisturizing, fractioning fiber, sorting, cleaning, and baling in 218-kg (480-lb) bundles. Using electric power and air-blast or suction techniques, highly automated gins handle 14 metric tons (15 U.S. tons) of cotton an hour.