New book challenges myth of Eli Whitney and cotton gin

Most farmers have an interest in and an abiding respect for history. Go in most any farm office and you're likely to see a print or two on the wall depicting life on the farm during a different era. It could have something to do with the land, which in many cases is passed down from generation to generation, leaving a rich legacy to whoever is next in line.

But the thing about history is that it's constantly being revised, as historians and researchers continually uncover truths and untruths relating to our past. And we learn that just because something has been told over and over throughout the years, it doesn't necessarily make it an historical fact.

Take for instance the story of Eli Whitney and the cotton gin.

If we look up Eli Whitney in most any history textbook, we're likely to discover that he is considered the inventor of the cotton gin, and that he was a pioneer in the mass production of cotton.

One such textbook states, “By April 1793, Whitney had designed and constructed the cotton gin, a machine that automated the separation of cottonseed from the short-staple cotton fiber.”

Whitney's machine, states the text, could produce up to 50 pounds of cleaned cotton daily, “making Southern cotton a profitable crop for the first time.” But, say the history books, Whitney failed to profit from his invention, imitations of his machine appeared, and his 1794 patent was not upheld until 1802.”

Whitney and his business partner eventually opted to produce as many cotton gins as possible, install them throughout Georgia and the South, and charge farmers a fee for doing the ginning for them. Their charge was two-fifths of the profit, paid to them in cotton.

And this is where the trouble began, as farmers throughout Georgia resented having to go to Eli Whitney's cotton gins, where they had to pay what they regarded as an exorbitant tax. Instead, growers began making their own versions of Whitney's gin and claiming they were “new inventions.”

Struggling to make a profit and mired in legal battles, Whitney and his partner finally agreed to license gins at a reasonable price.

This is all very interesting, but not so fast, says an Auburn University historian who has written an award-winning book on the invention of the cotton gin.

Angela Lakwete of the Department of History in Auburn University's College of Liberal Arts recently won an award from the Society for the History of Technology for her book, “Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America,” published in 2003 by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

In her book, Lakwete traces the history of the cotton gin from its Asian and African origins and addresses the “myths” that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and that his invention was responsible for the development of society and the economy in the South during the Antebellum Era.

In fact, says the assistant professor, the machine that Whitney patented in 1794 was one of several types of cotton gins used in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lakwete says most county seats and port towns in the South had industrial sectors. She notes that manufacturing thrived in the region before the Civil War, and Southern industries attracted a skilled labor force of whites, free blacks and slaves.

The book challenges the idea that the South was handicapped economically until Eli Whitney, a Northerner, gave them the cotton gin. “That belief unjustly denigrates the South, which had fully operational steam-powered cotton gins long before Whitney came along. It detracts from the accomplishments of both blacks and whites in a Southern manufacturing environment that was really quite strong in Antebellum America,” she says.

Another myth shattered.

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