This Day in the Law
March 14

Eli Whitney Patents Cotton Gin (1793)

On March 14, 1793, Eli Whitney patented one of the most influential inventions of the Industrial Revolution – the cotton gin. In particular, the cotton gin turned cotton into a very profitable crop, helped to reshape the economy of the antebellum South, and played a factor in strengthening the use of slavery and ultimately contributed to the Civil War.

The US Constitution states in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 that Congress shall "promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." This clause is often referred to as the Intellectual Property Clause or Patent Clause. The drafters of the US Constitution realized that they must protect the ideas of inventors to profit from their inventions.

On March 14, 1793, the US Patent Office issued Whitney patent number X72 for his cotton gin. Whitney then attempted to take full advantage of the protections that the patent offered him for his cotton gin. Whitney’s cotton gin became an overnight success, but he ultimately would not profit from his invention.

The cotton gin worked by pulling cotton fibers though a mesh where the cotton seeds could not fit. The cotton seeds then fell out of the "gin" (short for "engine") and left the remaining clean cotton (i.e. cotton without seeds) inside the gin. Prior to the cotton gin, slaves and/or farmers had to hand pick out each cotton seed which was very labor intensive.

The cotton gin became an overnight success. Total cotton production went from 180,000 pounds in 1793 to around 93 million tons by 1810. And by the middle of the 1800s, the US was growing three-quarters of the world's supply of cotton, which it shipped to New England or England to manufacture cloth. The cotton gin also greatly increased the demand for slave labor. In 1790, there were six slave states, and by 1860 there were fifteen.

Whitney also became an overnight celebrity. In fact, Whitney was likely as famous as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell during their heydays. However, despite Whitney’s success and fame, he failed to profit from his invention. Whitney and his business partner, Phineas Miller, decided to produce as many cotton gins as possible and install them throughout the South for farmers in exchange for a fee to use the gins – instead of just licensing his cotton gin to users.

Within just a few short years many competitors were making cotton gins just like Whitney’s gin and Whitney ended up losing all his profits in legal patent infringement battles, closed his business, and almost had to file bankruptcy.

Whitney finally pulled himself out of his financial troubles when he patented his other great invention – a musket that could be manufactured with interchangeable parts. In other words, every part on Whitney’s musket could be changed with simple parts. His invention of interchangeable parts revolutionized the Northern manufacturing industry in nearly the same way that his cotton gin reshaped the South. But Whitney did make a profit from his interchangeable parts invention.

Whitney had created two very useful inventions – the cotton gin for the South and interchangeable parts for the North. And both of these inventions helped to shape America and contribute to the Civil War.