On this day March 14, 1794

Eli Whitney is granted a patent for the cotton gin, a mechanical device which removes the seeds from cotton, a process which, until the time of its invention, had been extremely labor-intensive.

Patent for Cotton Gin

Patent for Cotton Gin

The cotton gin was a wooden drum stuck with hooks, which pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh.

The cotton seeds would not fit through the mesh and fell outside. Whitney occasionally told a story where he was pondering an improved method of seeding the cotton and he was inspired by observing a cat attempting to pull a chicken through a fence, and could only pull through some of the feathers.

A single cotton gin could generate up to fifty-five pounds of cleaned cotton daily. This contributed to the economic development of the Southern states of the United States, a prime cotton growing area; some historians believe that this invention allowed for the African slavery system in the Southern United States to become more sustainable at a critical point in its development.

Whitney received a patent (later numbered as X72) for his cotton gin on March 14, 1794; however, it was not validated until 1807. Whitney and his partner Miller did not intend to sell the gins. Rather, like the proprietors of grist and sawmills, they expected to charge farmers for cleaning their cotton – two-fifths of the profits, paid in cotton.

Resentment at this scheme, the mechanical simplicity of the device, and the primitive state of patent law, made infringement inevitable. As Whitney and Miller were unable to produce enough gins to meet demand, imitation gins began to spread. Ultimately, patent infringement lawsuits consumed the profits and their cotton gin company went out of business in 1797.

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