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Isn't it true that Eli Whitney's slave, and not Whitney, invented the cotton gin?He...

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kidakakash | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted December 7, 2009 at 6:08 AM via web

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Isn't it true that Eli Whitney's slave, and not Whitney, invented the cotton gin?

He said to his slave that he would give him his freedom if he made a machine that made cotton. He made the machine but Whitney did not keep that promise and now they say that his master made it. Is it true?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted December 7, 2009 at 6:40 AM (Answer #1)

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There is no way of knowing if this claim is true, at least not given what we have in the way of evidence.

There are those who claim that a particular female slave had the idea first and that Whitney got it from her (she was not his slave as he did not have any slaves).  There are also those who say that the gin was a technology that was well known at the time and that Whitney was just the one who got the patent.

There's no real way to know because there is no way to prove who "invented" anything or where they got the idea when the time in question is so long in the past.

To make up your mind, you have to think about how things can be proven and about how believable various claims are.  You have to think about what motives people have for making various claims.  Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that people decide what they think is true based on what they WANT TO THINK is true.  This makes it very hard to know whom to believe.

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

Posted December 7, 2009 at 8:31 AM (Answer #2)

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There is certainly no documented proof that a slave invented the cotton gin that Eli Whitney is credited for having patented. It is possible that Whitney got the idea from a slave, or at least from a device that had previously been in use.

Whitney has been charged with borrowing the idea for the cotton gin from a simple comb like device that slaves used to clean the cotton. Whitney is said to have merely enlarged upon the idea of the comb to create the cotton gin, which works very much like an oversized comb culling the seeds and debris from the cotton. So, while historians have accepted the theory that Eli Whitney's cotton gin idea came from an African slave, this claim remains impossible to prove. The Cotton Gin patent # is 72X.

Under American law, slaves were not allowed to patent a device under their own name.

Whitney also received assistance from his partner, Phineas Miller, as well as financial support from his employer, Catherine Green. According to one source, Whitney spent several months in near seclusion working on the project.

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