What's a Cotton "Gin?"

by Jonah Begone

I learned an interesting thing the other day. Every since I've been reading about the American Civil War, which means since I was seventeen, I've read about the importance of Eli Whitney and his cotton gin. But one thing that was never explained in any of the books I read was what a "gin" was. Like most Americans, the only "gin" I've ever heard of is the alcoholic drink.

I learned the word is short for "engine." In other words, a crankable device to separate the cotton fibers from the seedpods.

The wikipedia article commendably clears this up: "The term 'gin' is an abbreviation for engine, and means 'device,' and is not related to the alcoholic beverage gin."

That's all. Just thought you'd like to know, if you were in the dark as I was...

More about Eli Whitney

From "Legends, Lies and Cherished Myths of American History" by Richard Shenkman

Next to the explorers, inventors are a dull lot and have inspired fewer myths. But for fun there's always Eli Whitney, the man who didn't father the system of interchangeable parts.

Misleading accounts of Whitney's contribution to the principle of interchangeable parts, made on the highest authority, have circulated for years. In his day Thomas Jefferson celebrated Whitney as a gunmaker, for inventing "moulds and machines for making all the pieces of his [gun] locks so exactly equal, that. . . the hundred locks may be put together as well by taking the first pieces which come to hand." More recently historian Allan Nevins has credited Whitney with changing the social and economic growth of the United States for his "sustained work in the manufacture of muskets." (In 1798 Whitney was given a lucrative federal contract to supply arms manufactured through the use of interchangeable parts.) The usually reliable Dictionary of American Biography assures readers that Whitney's system of interchangeable parts succeeded so well that the government was able to save twenty-five thousand dollars annually on arms.

To begin with, Whitney did not devise the principle of inter-changeable parts as many people believe. He was not even the first person to try to use it in the manufacture of weapons. More than a decade before he won his contract to make arms for the government, a Frenchman, Honore Blanc, made firing mechanisms for muskets out of interchangeable parts. Blanc demonstrated his technique at a show attended by Jefferson, who wrote: "He presented me with the parts of fifty locks taken to pieces, and arranged in compartments. I put several together myself, taking pieces at hazzard as they came to hand, and they fitted in a most perfect manner."

To be fair, Whitney himself never claimed to have proposed the principle of interchangeable parts. On the other hand, he did claim to have manufactured firearms for the federal government out of interchangeable parts when in fact, he did not. Peter Baida has reported in the pages of American Heritage that "modem researchers have tested the Whitney firearms that survive, with results that astonished those who had grown up believing the Whitney legend. The tests showed that in some respects the parts of Whitney's firearms were not even approximately interchangeable. Moreover, many parts of Whitney's muskets are engraved with special marks-marks that would only be necessary if the manufacturer had failed to achieve interchangeability."

In 1801 Whitney staged a demonstration to prove the interchangeability of his firearms. Historian Merritt Roe Smith says it must have been fixed. "It appears," says Smith, "that Whitney purposely duped government authorities. . . [and] encouraged the notion that he had successfully developed a system for producing uniform parts."

At least there remains the legend that Whitney invented the cotton gin. But if it remains, it does so in the face of the facts.

Daniel Thomas, in an article in 1965 in the Journal of Southern History, documents that the cotton gin was invented in Asia and perfected in Santo Domingo in the 1740's - half a century before Whitney produced his gin. The Santo Domingo gin was crude but effective. A single slave using the machine could produce up to sixty pounds of fiber a day; a slave working by hand could produce just a pound.

The Santo Domingo gin, however, didn't work on the slippery seeds of American cotton. That was where Whitney came in. His gin was effective on American cotton, but even here his contribution is in question. Whitney's machine was equipped with a wire brush that needed constant cleaning and wasn't very efficient. It was left to one Hodgen Holmes to invent a gin equipped with sawteeth, which allowed for the continuous operation of the device without cleaning. It was Holmes's invention, developed a few years later, which apparently enabled the South to crown cotton as king.

The cotton gin itself is no less wrapped in myth than is Eli Whitney. One often hears, for instance, the belief that the cotton gin triggered the full-scale development of slavery in the South. In fact, while it may have "dug slavery in deeper in the Deep South," as Bernard Weisberger suggests, it may not have had much effect on the rest of the region. Slavery in heavy-tobacco states like Virginia, for example, was at least as strong in the pre-cotton gin period as after. Statistics show that proportionately more Virginia families owned slaves in 1790 (44.9 percent) - before the gin's use - than in 1850, a decade before the Civil War (32.9 percent). Other statistics indicate slavery may have even played a more important role in Virginia in 1790 than later. In 1790 there were sixty-six slaves to every one hundred whites in the state; in the 1850's the figure dropped to fifty-three slaves to every hundred whites.