Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, December 14, 2017


I don’t know if kids learn about Eli Whitney’s terrible, slave-producing, child-laboring, family-breaking, war-causing invention anymore. I learned about the cotton gin [short for engine] in grade school, but that was right after WWII. We studied that sort of agricultural thing in school then, because the US still thought of itself as an agricultural nation. That had changed drastically during the war, when so many people were needed in city factories to make bombs and airplanes. We were no longer a nation of farmers, but our identity had not yet caught up with reality.

We didn’t learn about how nasty Whitney’s invention was, of course. Indeed, it was the exact opposite. It was a wonderful invention, we were told, this cotton gin, because it made cotton processing so much easier for laborers, and was a major motivator of “the industrial revolution.”

It was in 1794 that Whitney patented his gin. Not that it did him much good. He died impoverished, having spent what little he made off the gin, plus all the rest of his money, trying to get folks to honor his patent.

It was an easy patent to bypass, because it was so simple for anyone to make one of the gins. It was essentially just nails in a rotating drum. Run the raw cotton through and it takes out the seeds. It was easy for anyone, including folks who owned other factories, to say, “Well, it’s so simple I certainly would have come up with it on my own. It’s not like inventing the light bulb.” [It’s unlikely they would have said that, since Edison did not patent the light bulb until 1879, but they probably said something like it.]

Whitney’s invention was one of the major causes of the Civil War. Because of it, cotton fabric became much more plentiful and less expensive. Thus there was need for more cotton production. That was possible only in southern states, because of the weather. That required more slaves for the production. The African slave trade was winding down. The easiest place for cotton plantations to get more slaves was northern states. Previously, it was reasonable for a slave owner to buy whole families. You could use women and children in the house and men in the field. But now they needed only field workers, so that’s how long-established slave families got broken up, with only the men sold south to work in cotton. The anguish of broken slave families, as portrayed in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was a major motivator for the abolitionist movement.

When Lincoln met Stowe, he said, “So you are the little woman who started this great war.” [1] No, she was just a final step in the stairs to that great war. Eli Whitney started it.

One of the few things sociologist Garret Hardin has said that I agree with is, “You can’t do one thing.”


Much of the info above comes from Bill Bryson’s book, AT HOME
1] Most historians quote it as: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”

2] Until recently, school text books in South Carolina said that the plantation owners “imported agricultural workers from Africa” to work the fields. Slavery? What slavery?


I tweet occasionally as yooper1721.

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