Cotton Gin Petition
Written by Eli Whitney on June 20, 1793
Reprinted in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 26: 11 May to 31 August 1793, 1995
Eli Whitney (1765–1825) was one of the great inventors of the early Industrial Revolution in the United States. Whitney perfected the cotton gin, a machine that separates the seeds from the fibers of cotton. Although his cotton gin transformed the Southern economy and changed history, Whitney experienced little financial gain due to problems in the patent system of the new nation. A patent is a legal document issued by a government granting exclusive authority to an inventor for making, using, and selling an invention.
Whitney showed a strong interest in mechanical work from his early boyhood in Westboro, Massachusetts. Although he worked on his father's farm, he preferred his father's shop, where by the age of fifteen he labored part-time making nails for sale. As much as he enjoyed working as a mechanic, he decided to obtain an academic education. He attended Yale College, graduating in 1792. Whitney then traveled to Georgia to study for a law degree. He stayed with Catharine Littlefield Greene, the widow of American Revolutionary War (1775–83; the American colonists' fight
While living on the plantation, Whitney became fascinated with the time-consuming process used by slaves to remove seeds from picked cotton. Cotton gins of various designs were then in use in different parts of the world, but none had ever worked well. Cleaning continued to be done by hand and it took a slave a full day to clean one pound of cotton. At Mrs. Greene's urging, Whitney focused his mechanical abilities on the problem, and within ten days he produced a design for a gin. By April 1793 he had made a working model that cleaned fifty pounds of cotton a day. The machine worked by turning a crank (lever) that caused a cylinder (tube-shaped chamber or tank) covered with wire teeth to revolve. The teeth pulled the cotton fiber, carrying it through slots in the cylinder as it revolved. Since the slots were too small for the seeds to pass through, they were left behind. A roller with brushes then removed the fibers from the wire teeth.
The cotton gin was a very simple machine that would have a tremendous impact on the American textile industry and the Southern economy. There was a dramatic increase in the production of processed cotton. One large gin could process fifty times the cotton that a laborer could process in a day. Soon plantations and farms were supplying huge amounts of cotton to textile mills in England and in the northeastern United States. In 1792 the United States exported 138,328 pounds of cotton. In 1794 that figure rose to 1.6 million pounds. The following year, nearly 6.3 million pounds were exported, and by 1800 the production of cotton in the United States had risen to 35 million pounds, of which almost 18 million were exported. Whitney had hoped that by making the task of cleaning cotton so inexpensive he might help eliminate slavery. Instead the resulting boom in the cotton business in the South gave new life to the institution, and southern planters became even more dependent on slavery.
Whitney did not profit financially from the cotton gin mainly because the new U.S. patent system failed him. Congress passed the first patent act in 1790. Patents were viewed as a way to financially reward inventors for their work. They were also a means to convince an inventor to provide the public with an in-depth description of how his invention worked and how it was made so that the invention would last beyond the life of its inventor. In exchange for making the workings of his or her invention known, the inventor received the exclusive right to make the invention and profit from it for a set amount of time. When that period was over, anyone could produce the invention. Whitney applied for a patent for the cotton gin in 1793, sending a petition and a drawing of his invention to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). He received his patent in March 1794.
After receiving his patent, Whitney entered into a business partnership with Phineas Miller. They planned to build cotton gins and install them on farms throughout the South. The partners intended to do the cotton ginning themselves and charge the plantation owners a high fee for it. With their monopoly (the exclusive possession or right to produce a particular good or service) on the cotton gin, it was likely they would become extremely wealthy. The cotton farmers were not happy with this arrangement, which cut deeply into their profits. Since they could plainly see how the gin worked, many simply built their own. Furthermore, Whitney and Miller could not produce enough machines to gin the rapidly increasing cotton crops of the South. Infringing machines—machines that violated Whitney's patent—were built in large numbers to do the work. Whitney sued the people who infringed on his patent in 1797, but he lost the case because the judges in the South were prone to upholding the interests of the plantation owners. It was to be ten years before the court decided in favor of his patent. In the meantime, Miller had died in 1803, poor and bitter after the long struggle. In 1812 Whitney made an application to Congress for the renewal of his expired patent, but his request was refused.
Things to remember while reading the Cotton Gin Petition:
- There were no patent laws in place when the United States won its independence from England. If an invention was made and other people saw it, they were free to copy the invention. But the U.S. Constitution did contain a provision, or clause, in Article I, Section 8 about patents, giving Congress the power "to promote the progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for limited Time to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
- After Congress passed the Patent Act of 1790 Thomas Jefferson, as secretary of state, served as the first administrator of the patent system. In the system's early years, the number of patent applications was small and Jefferson, who was a scientist, was able to examine each of them carefully.
- The Patent Act defined as patentable "any useful art, manufacture, engine, machine, or device, or any improvement therein not before known or used." The inventor was to supply government officials with detailed descriptions and drawings or a model of his or her invention. Part of the requirement was that the invention was original in some way, and that even if the basic idea for it had already existed, the invention had never before been made in exactly the way the applicant was making it.
- The Patent Act limited patents to fourteen-year periods with no possibility of extension. Inventors complained about this limitation since it often took several years to get their inventions on the market.
- As more and more inventors filed patent applications, the process of examining them became too big a burden for the secretary of state. In 1836 the Patent Office of the United States was created, providing a panel of experts to examine patent claims.
- The spelling and punctuation in the document are Whitney's and reflect earlier standards of the English language.
To the Honourable Thomas Jefferson Esquire Secretary, of State for the United States of America: The Petition of Eli Whitney, of the County of Worcester and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, humbly sheweth: That having invented a Machine for the Purpose of ginning Cotton, he is desirous of obtaining an exclusive Property in the same.
Concerning which invention, your Petitioner alledges as follows (viz) first.
That it is entirely new and constructed in a different manner and upon different principles from any, other Cotton Gin or Machine heretofore known or used for that purpose.
2d. That with this Ginn, if turned with horses or by water, two persons will clean as much cotton in one Day, as a Hundred persons could cleane in the same time with the ginns now in common use.
3d. That the Cotton which is cleansed in his Ginn contains fewer broken seeds and impurities, and is said to be more valuable than Cotton, which is cleaned in the usual way.
Your Petitioner, therefore, Prays your Honour to Grant him the said Whitney, a Patent for the said Invention or Improvement: and that your Honour cause Letters Patent to be made out, in the Name of the United States, granting to him, our said petitioner, his heirs Administrators and Assigns, for the term of fourteen Years, the full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing using and vending to others to be used, the said Invention or improvement.
20th June 1793
What happened next …
The cotton gin was not Whitney's only contribution to the Industrial Revolution. While struggling in court over his patent, Eli Whitney turned to the manufacture of guns for the military. When he began this effort, he had no workers, no capital (accumulated wealth or goods devoted to the production of other goods), and knew nothing about making muskets, which were large firearms carried on the shoulder and loaded through their muzzles. Still, he was able to earn a contract from the United States government in 1798 hiring him to deliver four thousand muskets in just over a year and another six thousand firearms in 1800. In the late eighteenth century, a contract for ten thousand muskets in two years had never existed before. The reason this had never happened was that neither the technology nor the processes of mass production were in place. Mass production is the manufacture of goods in quantity by using machines and standardized designs and parts. It took Whitney three years to deliver just five hundred firearms and the rest were delivered almost nine years behind schedule. One of the first things Whitney undertook was the creation of the machines that would make his gun parts. Whitney set out to make interchangeable parts (standardized units of a machine that could be used in any machine of that model) for his guns, greatly reducing assembly time. At one point Whitney reportedly took all the parts for ten muskets to government officials, dumped the parts in front of them, and challenged them to assemble the firearms. The officials successfully built the guns, and a new system of production was born. While his muskets were neither timely nor particularly successful, Whitney's manufacturing methods were revolutionary. He had pioneered the use of interchangeable parts assembled on a production line, leading to mass production techniques still used by industries in the early twenty-first century.
Did you know …
- Some of the founding fathers (members of the convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution in 1787) were not sure that federal protection of inventions was a good idea. American statesman and philosopher Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), for one, believed that the inventor should freely give his ideas to society. True to his word, he never patented his famous Franklin stove. Thomas Jefferson was another inventor who never sought a patent; as a politician he was reluctant to see the government grant monopolies. On the other hand, President James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17) and statesman Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) were in favor of supporting the work of inventors by protecting their property rights.
- Eli Whitney was not the only inventor who found that the early patent system did not provide enough protection for an invention. Steamboat innovators John Fitch (1743–1798) and James Rumsey (1743–1792) both received patents on their steamboats in the same year (1791),
Consider the following …
- In what ways do you think the U.S. patent system affected the Industrial Revolution in the United States? If inventors and innovators had not been able to patent their inventions, do you think they would have accomplished the same results? Explain the motivations and rewards for inventors with and without a patent system.
- Eli Whitney is considered one of the most significant inventors in American history, yet his cotton gin was a very simple tool and his manufacturing method was not very effective. What are some of the reasons he is viewed as an important figure in U.S. industrialization?
For More Information
Catanzariti, John, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 26: 11 May to 31 August 1793. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790–1860. Washington, DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986.
McCormick, Anita Louise. The Industrial Revolution in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.
Vaughan, Floyd Lamar. The United States Patent System: Legal and Economic Conflicts in American Patent History. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1973.
Eli Whitney Museum. (accessed on July 6, 2005).
Patent Act of 1790, Ch. 7, 1 Stat. 109-112 (April 10, 1790). http://ipmall.info/hosted_resources/lipa/lipa_patent_index.... (accessed on July 6, 2005).