Had my father been alive, this month would have seen him celebrate his 100th birthday. Of course 1914 is better remembered for being the year that The Great War commenced.
It was an earlier great war, what Southern States call, ‘The War of Northern Agression’ aka the American Civil War, that saw the birth of my grandfather, in November 1862; exactly one year before President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.
The Napoleonic Wars had not yet commenced when my great grandfather was born 220 years ago, in February 1794. However, they were well under way when, at the age of 16 he went off to fight with Wellington against the Corsican upstart. Much to his chagrin, my ancestor was wounded at the battle of Quatre Bras, which took place two days before Waterloo and thus was unable to take part in that more famous battle.
1794 was also the year that Eli Whitney received a patent for his Cotton Gin. (The word ‘gin’ came from India, derived from ‘engine’.) Whitney’s invention was of huge significance to the history of America and even to the world; much more so than many people realise.
Following the Revolution, the United States found itself in serious financial difficulties. It had little industry of its own, its population, of only 4.5 million, being too small and spread too thin over a vast country; it lacked critical mass. Agricultural production had been severely damaged by the war and without traditional import favours granted by Britain, farmers, Southern plantation owners in particular, were desperate for new crops and sources of income. They found inspiration from the Britain’s burgeoning textile industry and hurried to experiment with cotton. To their dismay, they discovered the only variety that would flourish in the uplands, away from the coast, was, ‘green seed cotton’, one that produced particularly short fibres and seeds that clung ferociously to them. Thus a slave could only gather one pound of cleaned cotton per day. Unlike the variety of cotton grown in India, Brazil and the West Indies which had smooth black seeds, green seed cotton would not pass through the existing gins. As it stood at the time, the American cotton industry was simply not viable.
Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts in 1865. His father was a farmer who possessed a work shop where Eli developed an interest in engineering and manufacturing. It took considerable persuasion for his father to agree to his attending college and he was already 28 when he eventually graduated from Yale having had to pay much of his own way. After an appointment as a school teacher fell through, he was forced to accept a role as tutor to the children of a certain Major Dupont, in a remote part of South Carolina.
Whitney’s journey south was not particularly auspicious. Along the way his ship was wrecked and he was forced on travel to New York where he was met by an old friend who congratulated him on his survival. Unfortunately the friend had Small Pox and Eli became infected, albeit relatively mildly. He was nursed by a new acquaintance, Catherine Greene, the widow Revolutionary hero, Nathaniel Greene. Catherine owned an estate in South Carolina and it was her manager, Phineas Miller, who had organised the tutoring job for young Whitney.
Together they travelled to her home where Eli impressed his hostess with his mechanical dexterity. She decided to introduce him to the various local plantation owners with a view to solving the problems they were facing with regards to ginning cotton.
Whitney took up the challenge with relish and on June 1, 1793, only 10 days after he had embarked on the project, he was able to demonstrate a prototype of the machine that would revolutionise the whole US economy and enabled the unimpeded growth of the British textile industry.
The early gin was manually operated, but could still clean cotton 10 times faster than could be cleaned by hand. When power assisted machines came along, they were able to do so 1,000 times faster and the cotton was cleaner.
The benefits derived from Whitney’s invention are illustrated by the table below.
|British Imports of Cotton||British Imports of US Cotton|
|1793 – 28 million pounds||1793 – almost nil|
|1812 – 63 million pounds||1812 – 30 million pounds|
|1825 – 228 million pounds||1825 – 170 million pounds|
The huge economic significance of Whitney’s invention did not immediately, or indeed form many years, garner for him or his partners (Phineas Miller and Catherine Greene) the wealth and success they deserved. Though he was granted a patent in March 1794, this did not prevent his design being emulated by numerous an unscrupulous competitors.
Rather than sell their machines, Whitney and Miller decided to own them and to provide a ginning service to the growers for a fee, payable in cotton, three-fifths to the grower and two-fifths to the ginner. Rather than be held to ransom by this exclusive service, the growers set about building their own gins. Since the design was relatively straight forward, this was not difficult to do.
The growers went further. They spread rumours that the Whitney machine damaged the cotton by breaking the seeds. Some buyers in England refused to buy cotton ginned by Whitney and Miller’s machines. Their misfortunes were increased by a fire which destroyed their first factory, in 1795.
However, the biggest problem they encountered came as result of the legal battles they fought to protect their patent.
The law stated that for a competitor to be found guilty of breaching a patent, it had to be proved that he had devised, made, constructed, used, employed and vended the patented machine. It was not constructing or selling that was illegal, but the combination. (Lawyers. Don’t you just love ’em?) It was only after the law was changed, that Whitney and Miller were able to recoup some of their lost revenues. Even while the industry thrived, the embattled partners faced bankruptcy. Miller, virtually broke, died in 1803. Aside from fighting his legal battles, Whitney himself, was forced to travel to England to convince his buyers that his gin did not damage the cotton.
The staggering growth of the cotton industry transformed the economy of the nation, especially that of the South which had had the effect of prolonging slavery by several decades. Were it not for cotton, the South would never have gained the prominence it did. Of course following the Civil War and Emancipation, the South’s influence waned dramatically.
It took another industrial innovation, the discovery in 1928 of chlorofluorocarbons and thus the invention of the air conditioner, to bring about an economic renaissance in the Southern states. Manufacturing jobs headed south leaving behind the northern Rustbelt.
As for Whitney, he went on to build rifles for the US government and in doing so pioneered manufacturing processes with his interchangeable manufacture which came to be known as the ‘American System’.
Getting back to my ancestors, I am sometimes struck by the link between those 3 generations. So much of significance happened during their lives. I never knew my grandfather, but my older sister did. Thus there is only one degree of separation between her and the 18th century. She is able to say, “I knew a man whose father was alive when George Washington was President.