By Alex Cornacchia, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Ask anyone in Westborough why Eli Whitney is famous, and you’re almost certain to hear: “He invented the cotton gin!”
There’s just one problem strictly speaking, he didn’t.
Most versions of Whitney’s narrative tell a straightforward story. He grew up in Westborough, attended Yale, accepted a tutoring job down south upon his graduation in 1792, but found it didn’t pay as much as he’d hoped. He took up temporary residence with Catharine Greene at her Mulberry Grove Plantation in Savannah, Ga., heard some men complaining about how long it took to remove the seeds from short-staple cotton by hand, and 10 days later dreamed up the idea of a cotton gin.
It’s a nice tale, but if you’re wondering how some guy from the North who had never set foot on a plantation solved a problem southern inventors had been struggling with for years, you’re not the only one with questions.
First, a refresher: all cotton gins (short for “engine”) exist to remove the seeds from cotton. There are various types of gins, but Whitney’s mechanized gin in particular worked by pulling cotton through wire teeth that were spaced precisely to catch the seeds while allowing the cotton fibers to pass through.
But was Whitney truly the “savior from the North?” People like to claim that before Whitney created his cotton gin, slaves were spending hours picking cotton seeds out with their fingers, one at a time. As Angela Lakwete pointed out in her book “Inventing the Cotton Gin,” however, the first known cotton gins date to the fifth century. Whitney created his in 1793.
The first gins were relatively simple: cotton was placed between a single roller and a base, and as someone pressed the roller over the cotton, the seeds were pushed out. Between the fifth century and 1793, though, the cotton gin evolved to include systems of rollers that were cranked by hand, then foot, then even wind and water. To say that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin isn’t just incorrect it erases a rich history of incremental innovations that came long before his time.
Vaughnette Goode-Walker, a historian who runs the Footprints of Savannah walking tours, makes the distinction that Whitney patented, not invented, the cotton gin. That much is undeniably true Whitney got his patent in 1794, forever linking his name with the cotton gin.
But for Goode-Walker, this isn’t just a matter of semantics: she believes Whitney actually stole the idea of using wire teeth from a slave. This story about a slave named Sam who used a wire comb to brush the seeds from cotton appears everywhere from online message boards to a University of California – Davis law professor’s paper about intellectual property, but it’s frustratingly difficult to find supporting evidence for the claims. Others insist Catherine Greene suggested the wire teeth idea to Whitney, with letters to Georgia newspapers and feminist journals vouching for her involvement, but again, the paper trail is thin.
There is one story of a second inventor, with evidence to back it up, that casts Whitney and his business partner Phineas Miller in a pretty suspicious light. Hodgen Holmes was working on a new cotton gin concurrently with Whitney; his had saw teeth, a method that buyers preferred to the wire teeth because it didn’t damage the cotton fibers as much. Holmes was granted a patent in 1796, but as soon as Whitney and Miller found out, they wrote the government claiming that saw teeth were covered under their original patent. This doesn’t make sense if Whitney had invented the saw teeth, why wouldn’t he have sent that model in in the first place? Regardless, a lawsuit followed; Whitney and Miller won; and Holmes was forced to buy a license from the pair to use his own creation.
The process of inventing is complex, a murky territory filled with half-thoughts and building blocks that come from varied sources. Untangling those threads is hard work, but necessary to hear the voices that are so often erased. History is full of catchy narratives; they’re usually wrong. Eli Whitney didn’t invent the cotton gin. Want to find out who did? Keep digging.