A Legacy of Unintended Consequences

Today in History, March 14: 1794 – You never know what your legacy will be. Eli Whitney is granted a patent for his cotton gin (engine), although the patent wouldn’t be free and clear of legal suits until 1807. Whitney was emigrating south to S. Carolina when a fellow passenger, the widow of Revolutionary War hero Gen. Nathanael Greene, convinced him to go to her Georgia plantation instead. It was here that he and his partner, with help from Mrs. Greene, would develop the machine that changed the process of removing seeds from cotton from laborious to simple.  As a result of Whitney’s innovation the South’s cotton exports went from less that 500,000 lbs in 1793 to over 93 million in 1810. It had another effect not intended. Slavery had been of waning use in the late 18th century…but with “King Cotton”, the Antebellum South’s burgeoning economy needed labor, and slavery became an integral part of their livelihood, dashing the hopes of those abolitionists who expected it to die out. In the meantime…all of the legal wrangling over his invention left Eli broke. So to make money he turned to making weapons for the government. While he was not the originator, he was an avowed proponent of using inter-changeable parts…which would eventually influence the industrial revolution. So…both of Whitney’s successes greatly influenced (contributed to?) the Civil War and the nation’s development long after his death in 1825. The Civil War began about state’s rights…but about the right to keep slaves by those states. Expansion westward in the South was mostly about beginning new plantations…hence more slaves. And I’m sure many of Eli’s muskets survived for use in the war. None of which was likely on this little known inventors mind as he worked his trade.

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