The type of cotton grown on the plantation where Eli Whitney was staying was standard medium-staple cotton, this has a staple length from about 1.3 to 3.3 cm and contains sticky green seeds that are very time-consuming to pick out of a very fluffy white boll of cotton. 1 This is in contrast to long-staple cotton that is grown along the coast and has long seeds that are easily separated. Upon seeing this dilemma, Whitney immediately began working on a solution. A few months later Whitney eventually ended up with a machine that would automatically remove the seeds from the cotton and output the final processed fibers. The cotton gin consisted of a wooden cylinder surrounded by rows of slender spikes that pulled the lint through the bars of a comb-link grid. This model was capable of cleaning 50 pounds of cotton
lint per day. The gin could be powered by a hand crank or with a horse or driven by waterpower. A side-view of the mechanics of the cotton gin is shown in Figure 2 below. Figure 2. Drawing of the general process of Whitney’s cotton gin. 1 Eli Whitney showed the plantation owner his invention and immediately realized the magnitude of the profit that was to be made from it. They devised a plan to source the cotton gin’s ability rather than re-produce the gin to both increase profit and to minimize the risk of someone stealing their idea while they waited on securing a patent. Their charge was two fifths of the profit of the cotton, paid to Whitney and the plantation owner in cotton itself. Soon farmers in Georgia learned of this revolutionary machine but resented the fact that they would have to pay to use Whitney’s gin and viewed the fee as an absurd production tax. To avoid the fee many farmers created their own version of the gin and claimed that these versions were new or different from the original gin so as to avoid infringement. The gin was patented in 1794 but farmers still found a loophole in the patent process that allowed them to make their own cotton gins. Eventually Eli Whitney gave up on fighting the legal system over ownership to the gin and lost many of the lawsuits he filed against farmers who copied him. Whitney spent the rest of his days inventing things such as mass production interchangeable rifle parts. 3
Figure 3. A photo of Eli Whitney’s original cotton gin patent dated March 14, 1794. 5 Eli Whitney’s original cotton gin has evolved greatly in the past 223 years since it was invented thanks to other aspects of technology. The modern automated cotton gins use multiple powered cleaning cylinders and saws, and offer a much higher productivity than the original. In facilities
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