This week in history: Whitney’s cotton gin patented

Cotton has been cultivated for use in textiles since the fifth century BC. The development of large-scale spinning machines from 1738 onwards made it easier to turn raw fibres into cotton cloth, which led to Manchester becoming an early industrial centre. But the process of clearing the fibres from the seeds was very labour intensive and, while some primitive manual roller-based machines existed, they were clunky and hard to use. The breakthrough came when American inventor Eli Whitney designed the cotton gin, which dramatically sped up the process by pushing the cotton through a mesh.

As a result, making cotton cloth became much easier. The biggest effect would be felt in the US, where cotton exports shot up nearly 200 times between 1793 (the year Whitney invented the machine) and 1810. This was good for the US and the clothing manufacturers of Lancashire. It has also been credited with making slavery profitable, at a time when plantation owners were struggling to make money. Combined with the political power ‘King Cotton’ commanded, that helped keep slavery in place until 1865.

Ironically, Whitney did not make any money from his invention. Weak patent laws, disputes over who actually invented it, and a disastrous attempt to force owners to rent his machines, rather than buy them, resulted in mass piracy and bankruptcy. Whitney would later have a far more successful second career as one of the men responsible for developing the “American system of manufacturing”, ie, increasing economic efficiency through the use of machines.

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