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Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Cotton Gin

In 1792 Eli Whitney invented a decent version of mechanical cotton picker. He named it the cotton gin. The term "gin" is an abbreviation for engine, and means "machine." It was not named in reference to the alcoholic beverage. Whitney thought the name would sound more colloquially appealing to the southern cotton growers.

The cotton gin dramatically changed the South's economy, but didn't make Whitney rich. His machine was very efficient, but also amazingly simple. So simple that any country handyman could copy it—and they did. By 1797, his company was out of business.

But some historians claim that the first cotton gin was invented in Asia and perfected in Santo Domingo in the 1740s—fifty years before Whitney produced his gin. The Santo Domingo gin, however didn't work on the slippery seeds of American cotton. Whitney's machine did. But it was equipped with a wire brush that needed constant cleaning. A few years later a man named Hodgen Holmes invented a gin with sawteeth, which didn't need so much cleaning. Much more efficient and useful was Holmes's gin, and that gin is what apparently enabled the South to crown cotton as king.

Eli Whitney is famous due to his cotton gin invention, but he's also famous for a more important contribution: the system of mass production based on interchangeable parts. This was first applied to the gun-manufacturing industry, and led to the greatest change ever seen in economic history—mass production and the assembly line.

Hold on . . . this is in question as well. Historians claim that Whitney didn't devise the principle of interchangeable parts. He was not even the first person to try to use it in the manufacture of weapons. More than a decade before Whitney won a contract to make arms for the government, a Frenchman, Honoré Blanc, made firing mechanisms for muskets out of interchangeable parts.

Much of this information was originally published in:

Myth Information by J. Allen Varasdi, Ballantine Books, 1989

Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History By Richard Shenkman, 1988