Why did Eli Whitney's cotton gin revolutionize cotton growing?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This question illustrates what happens when something which has been done by hand is now capable of having a machine do the work.  The cotton industry had been very labor intensive, requiring many hands to harvest a crop, clean it, bale it, deliver it to the mill etc.  The cotton industry was one of the biggest users of  slave labor because so many people were required.  When the cotton gin was invented, the requirements for labor dropped to almost nothing, and cotton became a profitable crop again. Where profit is possible, people follow, so the cotton industry came alive again with many more people planting cotton.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Eli Whitney's invention energized the cotton industry because it allowed cotton to be processed much more quickly than it ever had been before.  Before it can be used, cotton must have its fibers picked off of its seeds.  Before Whitney's invention, the the sort of short-staple cotton grown in the South could only be removed by hand in a process that took one slave a whole day to clean 1 pound of fiber from 3 pounds of seeds.  This made the cotton more expensive to use.

Whitney's machine was able to do this work 50 times faster than it could be done by hand.  This meant that short-staple cotton (which could be grown in more places than the long-staple cotton) was now more economically viable.  With that increase in productivity, the cotton industry in the South was energized.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Why did Eli Whitney's cotton gin energize cotton growing and revitalize slavery?

Simply put, the revolutionary invention by Eli Whitney Jr. (1765-1825) allowed cotton seeds to be removed from the cotton fibers quickly and efficiently, turning the once laborious process of picking cotton into a financial powerhouse. The invention did not help to alleviate the need for slaves to pick the cotton, however, and once it was recognized that the cotton gin could help to produce much greater amounts of cotton, plantation owners also saw the need for more slaves to keep up with the worldwide demand. Interestingly, slavery was on the decline before Whitney's invention, which was supposed to be a "labor-saving device." Although the gin (short for "engine") made it far easier to remove the cotton seeds than doing so by hand, the magnitude of greater cotton production was soon evident, requiring more slaves to handle the increased crops. Cotton exports multiplied by 200 times in less than two decades, earning it the name "King Cotton." 

Cotton exports from the U.S. boomed after the cotton gin's appearance--from less than 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 93 million pounds by 1810... It became the U.S.'s chief export, representing over half the value of U.S. exports from 1820 to 1860.

Production further grew from 750,000 cotton bales in 1830 to nearly 3 million bales by 1850. The growth of slavery followed suit, increasing from 700,000 slaves in the 1790s to 3.2 million in 1850. Southern cotton eventually totalled two-thirds of the world's market.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on