Sunday, January 13, 2008

Rest Easy, Mr. Whitney

The common conception is that Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 came as a bolt from the blue that changed history. It ignited, so the story goes, an explosion of cotton production in the United States, allowing short-staple cotton cultivation to spread inland and across the South. In the darker version of the tale, Whitney’s invention was responsible for the reinvigoration of the otherwise dying institution of slavery, condemning millions to untold misery for additional decades, and even indirectly caused the Civil War.

The only problem with the story is that it isn’t true. In Slavery and American Economic Development, economic historian Gavin Wright terms the claim that Whitney was responsible for the cotton explosion “a storybook formula hardy enough to have survived fresh debunking in every generation.”

The tremendous growth in cotton production around the turn of the 19th Century, according to Wright, “was largely driven by demand.” Beginning in about 1785, British demand for raw cotton began escalating due to technological breakthroughs. Assisted by the elimination of St. Domingue, the largest supplier, as a source in 1792, the price of cotton rose dramatically, and the profits of mainland cotton planters soared.

This, in turn, generated intensive interest in the ginning problem and related issues, such as the development of hardier, disease resistant varieties of cotton. Whitney was only one of many working on the ginning problem:
Whitney was far from the first to build a machine for separating cotton seeds from the fiber. Roller gins invented in the Bahamas were used on all types of mainland cotton as early as 1791, and improved roller gins coexisted with Whitney’s and even extended their market for another thirty years before ultimately losing out.

True, Whitney’s version was “a genuine innovation” that enhanced speed, “though at some cost in fiber quality.” Even so,
it was only after improvements provided by subsequent machinists that the variant known as the “saw gin” achieved general acceptance from planters. The transition stretched into the 1820s and entailed mutual adaptations among growers, gin makers, and the textile industry – much more an illustration of interactive diffusion than an example of a great invention that reshaped history.

I guess Eli Whitney didn't start the Civil War after all.

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