A cotton gin is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton
fibers from their seeds, enabling much greater productivity than
manual cotton separation. The fibers are then processed into
various cotton goods such as linens, while any undamaged cotton is
used largely for textiles like clothing. Seeds may be used to grow
more cotton or to produce cottonseed oil.
Handheld roller gins had been used in the
Indian subcontinent since at
earliest AD 500 and then in other regions. The Indian worm-gear
roller gin, invented some time around the sixteenth century, has,
according to Lakwete, remained virtually unchanged up to the present
time. A modern mechanical cotton gin was created by American inventor
Eli Whitney in 1793 and patented in 1794. Whitney's gin used a
combination of a wire screen and small wire hooks to pull the cotton
through, while brushes continuously removed the loose cotton lint to
prevent jams. It revolutionized the cotton industry in the United
States, but also led to the growth of slavery in the American South as
the demand for cotton workers rapidly increased. The invention has
thus been identified as an inadvertent contributing factor to the
outbreak of the American Civil War. Modern automated cotton gins
use multiple powered cleaning cylinders and saws, and offer far higher
productivity than their hand-powered precursors.
Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin in 1793. He began to work on this
project after moving to Georgia in search of work. Given that farmers
were desperately searching for a way to make cotton farming
profitable, a woman named Catharine Greene provided Whitney with
funding to create the first cotton gin. Whitney created two cotton
gins: a small one that could be hand-cranked and a large one that
could be driven by a horse or water power. Thanks to the cotton gin,
the amount of raw cotton yielded had doubled each decade after 1800.
1.2 Early cotton gins
1.3 Mughal India
1.4 United States
1.5 Eli Whitney's patent
1.6 McCarthy's gin
1.7 Effects in the United States
2 Modern cotton gins
5 External links
Cotton Gin", an engraving from Harper's Magazine, 1869.
This carving depicts a roller gin, which preceded Eli Whitney's
The Ajanta caves of
India yield evidence of a single-roller cotton gin
in use by the 5th century. This cotton gin was used in
innovations were made in the form of foot powered gins. The cotton gin
was invented in
India as a mechanical device known as a charkhi, more
technically the "wooden-worm-worked roller".
Cotton fibers are produced in the seed pods ("bolls") of the cotton
plant where the fibers ("lint") in the bolls are tightly interwoven
with seeds. To make the fibers usable, the seeds and fibers must first
be separated, a task which had been previously performed manually,
with production of cotton requiring hours of labor for the separation.
Many simple seed-removing devices had been invented, but until the
innovation of the cotton gin, most required significant operator
attention and worked only on a small scale.
Early cotton gins
The earliest versions of the cotton gin, which were the size of a
small printer, consisted of a single roller made of iron or wood and a
flat piece of stone or wood. Evidence for this type of gin has been
found in Africa, Asia, and North America. The first documentation of
the cotton gin by contemporary scholars is found in the fifth century
AD, in the form of
Buddhist paintings depicting a single-roller gin in
Ajanta Caves in western India. These early gins were difficult
to use and required a great deal of skill. A narrow single roller was
necessary to expel the seeds from the cotton without crushing the
seeds. The design was similar to that of a mealing stone, which was
used to grind grain. The early history of the cotton gin is ambiguous,
because archeologists likely mistook the cotton gin's parts for other
Between the 12th and 14th centuries, dual-roller gins appeared in
India and China. The Indian version of the dual-roller gin was
prevalent throughout the Mediterranean cotton trade by the 16th
century. This mechanical device was, in some areas, driven by water
Main article: Mughal Empire
The worm gear roller gin, which was invented in the Indian
subcontinent during the early
Delhi Sultanate era of the 13th to 14th
centuries, came into use in the
Mughal Empire some time around the
16th century, and is still used in the
Indian subcontinent through
to the present day. Another innovation, the incorporation of the
crank handle in the cotton gin, first appeared some time during the
Delhi Sultanate or the early Mughal Empire. The incorporation
of the worm gear and crank handle into the roller cotton gin led to
greatly expanded Indian cotton textile production during the Mughal
It was reported that, with an Indian cotton gin, which is half machine
and half tool, one man and one woman could clean 28 pounds of cotton
per day. With a modified Forbes version, one man and a boy could
produce 250 pounds per day. If oxen were used to power 16 of these
machines, and a few people's labour was used to feed them, they could
produce as much work as 750 people did formerly.
The Indian roller cotton gin, known as the churka or charkha, was
introduced to the United States in the mid-18th century, when it was
adopted in the southern United States. The device was adopted for
cleaning long-staple cotton, but was not suitable for the short-staple
cotton that was more common in certain states such as Georgia. Several
modifications were made to the Indian roller gin by Mr. Krebs in 1772
and Joseph Eve in 1788, but their uses remained limited to the
long-staple variety, up until Eli Whitney's development of a
short-staple cotton gin in 1793.
Eli Whitney's patent
Eli Whitney's original cotton gin patent, dated March 14, 1794.
Eli Whitney (1765–1825) applied for a patent of his cotton gin on
October 28, 1793; the patent was granted on March 14, 1794, but was
not validated until 1807. Whitney's patent was assigned patent number
72X. There is slight controversy over whether the idea of the
modern cotton gin and its constituent elements are correctly
attributed to Eli Whitney. The popular image of Whitney inventing the
cotton gin is attributed to an article on the subject written in the
early 1870s and later reprinted in 1910 in The Library of Southern
Literature. In this article, the author claimed Catharine Littlefield
Greene suggested to Whitney the use of a brush-like component
instrumental in separating out the seeds and cotton. To date, Greene's
role in the invention of the gin has not been verified
Whitney's cotton gin model was capable of cleaning 50 pounds
(23 kg) of lint per day. The model consisted of a wooden cylinder
surrounded by rows of slender spikes, which pulled the lint through
the bars of a comb-like grid. The grids were closely spaced,
preventing the seeds from passing through. Loose cotton was brushed
off, preventing the mechanism from jamming.
Many contemporary inventors attempted to develop a design that would
process short staple cotton, and Hodgen Holmes, Robert Watkins,
William Longstreet, and John Murray had all been issued patents for
improvements to the cotton gin by 1796. However, the evidence
indicates Whitney did invent the saw gin, for which he is famous.
Although he spent many years in court attempting to enforce his patent
against planters who made unauthorized copies, a change in patent law
ultimately made his claim legally enforceable – too late for him to
make much money from the device in the single year remaining before
the patent expired.
While Whitney's gin facilitated the cleaning of seeds from
short-staple cotton, it damaged the fibers of (extra-long staple)
cotton (Gossypium barbadense). In 1840 Fones McCarthy received a
patent for a "Smooth Cylinder Cotton-gin", a roller gin. McCarthy's
gin was marketed for use with both short-staple and extra-long staple
cotton, but was particularly useful for processing long-staple cotton.
After McCarthy's patent expired in 1861, McCarthy type gins were
manufactured in Britain and sold around the world. McCarthy's gin
was adopted for cleaning the Sea Island variety of extra-long staple
cotton grown in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. It cleaned cotton
several times faster than the older gins, and, when powered by one
horse, produced 150 to 200 pounds of lint a day. The McCarthy gin
used a reciprocating knife to detach seed from the lint. Vibration
caused by the reciprocating motion limited the speed at which the gin
could operate. In the middle of the 20th Century gins using a rotating
blade replaced ones using a reciprocating blade. These descendants of
the McCarthy gin are the only gins now used for extra-long staple
cotton in the United States.
Effects in the United States
cotton gin at Jarrell Plantation
Prior to the introduction of the mechanical cotton gin, cotton had
required considerable labor to clean and separate the fibers from the
seeds. With Eli Whitney’s gin, cotton became a tremendously
profitable business, creating many fortunes in the Antebellum South.
Cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Charleston,
South Carolina; and
Galveston, Texas became major shipping ports,
deriving substantial economic benefit from cotton raised throughout
the South. Additionally, the greatly expanded supply of cotton created
strong demand for textile machinery and improved machine designs that
replaced wooden parts with metal. This led to the invention of many
machine tools in the early 19th century.
The invention of the cotton gin caused massive growth in the
production of cotton in the United States, concentrated mostly in the
Cotton production expanded from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85
million bales in 1850. As a result, the region became even more
dependent on plantations and slavery, with plantation agriculture
becoming the largest sector of its economy. While it took a single
slave about ten hours to separate a single pound of fiber from the
seeds, a team of two or three slaves using a cotton gin could produce
around fifty pounds of cotton in just one day. The number of
slaves rose in concert with the increase in cotton production,
increasing from around 700,000 in 1790 to around 3.2 million in
1850. By 1860, black slave labor from the American South was
providing two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton, and up to 80%
of the crucial British market. The cotton gin thus “transformed
cotton as a crop and the American South into the globe's first
An 1896 advertisement for the Lummus cotton gin.
Because of its inadvertent effect on American slavery, and on its
ensuring that the South's economy developed in the direction of
plantation-based agriculture (while encouraging the growth of the
textile industry elsewhere, such as in the North), the invention of
the cotton gin is frequently cited as one of the indirect causes of
the American Civil War.
Modern cotton gins
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Diagram of a modern cotton gin plant, displaying numerous stages of
Modern cotton gins
In modern cotton production, cotton arrives at industrial cotton gins
either in trailers, in compressed rectangular "modules" weighing up to
10 metric tons each or in polyethylene wrapped round modules similar
to a bale of hay produced during the picking process by the most
recent generation of cotton pickers.
Cotton arriving at the gin is
sucked in via a pipe, approximately 16 inches (41 cm) in
diameter, that is swung over the cotton. This pipe is usually manually
operated, but is increasingly automated in modern cotton plants. The
need for trailers to haul the product to the gin has been drastically
reduced since the introduction of modules. If the cotton is shipped in
modules, the module feeder breaks the modules apart using spiked
rollers and extracts the largest pieces of foreign material from the
cotton. The module feeder's loose cotton is then sucked into the same
starting point as the trailer cotton.
The cotton then enters a dryer, which removes excess moisture.The
cylinder cleaner uses six or seven rotating, spiked cylinders to break
up large clumps of cotton. Finer foreign material, such as soil and
leaves, passes through rods or screens for removal. The stick machine
uses centrifugal force to remove larger foreign matter, such as sticks
and burrs, while the cotton is held by rapidly rotating saw cylinders.
The gin stand uses the teeth of rotating saws to pull the cotton
through a series of "ginning ribs", which pull the fibers from the
seeds which are too large to pass through the ribs. The cleaned seed
is then removed from the gin via an auger conveyor system. The seed is
reused for planting or is sent to an oil mill to be further processed
into cottonseed oil and cottonseed meal. The lint cleaners again use
saws and grid bars, this time to separate immature seeds and any
remaining foreign matter from the fibers. The bale press then
compresses the cotton into bales for storage and shipping. Modern gins
can process up to 15 tonnes (33,000 lb) of cotton per hour.
Modern cotton gins create a substantial amount of cotton gin residue
(CGR) consisting of sticks, leaves, dirt, immature bolls, and
cottonseed. Research is currently under way to investigate the use of
this waste in producing ethanol. Due to fluctuations in the chemical
composition in processing, there is difficulty in creating a
consistent ethanol process, but there is potential to further maximize
the utilization of waste in the cotton production.
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to
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Overview of a
Cotton Gin – USDA site
The Story of
Cotton – National
Cotton Council of America site
Cotton Ginners Association
Cotton Gin Industry – EH.Net Encyclopedia of Economic History
Cotton Gin – eHistory.com
Cotton: the fiber of life – includes a schematic diagram
illustrating the seed removal process
Video of manual cotton gin in operation