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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Smithsonian Report
for 1937, pp549‑563.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

 p549  Historical Notes on the Cotton Gin

by F. L. Lewton
Curator, Division of Textiles, United States National Museum

[With 4 plates]

I. Introduction

The story of the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by the young Yale University graduate, Eli Whitney, has been told many times, and in the main these accounts agree, though differing widely on minor details. As is the case with almost every important invention, claims have been made that others than the real inventor should be given credit for the discovery of the original idea, for the first practical machine, or for really "putting it over" and making the invention a success. The history of the invention of the cotton gin, with all it has meant to the South, is no exception to the usual story of all our successful inventions.

Local traditions concerning the details of an event many years after it happened are often impossible either to verify or to disprove, and some of the stories relating to the invention and introduction of the cotton gin are in the same class with the universally told story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

It is not the purpose to sketch here the life of Eli Whitney or to retell the events leading to and following his invention of the cotton gin bearing his name. Olmsted, Scarborough, Hammond, Bates, Tompkins,​1 and others have told this story; their accounts, while agreeing in the main, exhibit many discrepancies and contradictions and sometimes strongly reflect sectional bias. A recent study, however, of many of Whitney's letters, of numerous early accounts of his activities in the South, and of several models of the gin that are still in existence, has thrown some new light on the answers to a number of questions that have been asked in regard to the origin and operation of the Whitney cotton gin.

Since most of the publications examined are out of print at this date and many of the parts of the periodicals referred to are not even to be found in most of the larger libraries, it has seemed advisable in collecting these historical scraps to quote directly from the publications instead of merely giving references to the literature consulted.

 p550  II. Eli Whitney's Patent

Owing to the complete destruction of the United States Patent Office by fire on December 15, 1836, and the consequent loss of all models and specifications, the question has been raised as to what were the original specifications of Whitney's patent and what kind of a model did he file with his application for the patent.

Whitney filed his application with the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, on June 20, 1793. He had left Georgia immediately after signing his partner­ship agreement with Phineas Miller, on May 27, 1793, for the purpose of constructing a model for the Patent Office, as the law required. He states that he went to New Haven, Conn., for that purpose, as he could not obtain the necessary materials in Georgia. He writes from New Haven to his father in Westboro, Mass., on September 11, 1793:

I returned to the Northward for the purpose of having a machine made on a large scale and obtaining a patent for the invention. I went to Philadelphia soon after I arrived, made myself acquainted with the steps necessary to obtain a Patent, took several of the steps, and the Secretary of State, Mr. Jefferson, agreed to send the Patent to me as soon as it could be made out. So I apprehended no difficulty in obtaining the Patent * * *. As soon as I have got a Patent in America I shall go with the machine I am now making, to Georgia, where I shall stay a few weeks to see it work * * *.​2

The prevalence of yellow fever in Philadelphia delayed finishing his business in regard to the patent, but on October 19, 1793, he sent a drawing of his cotton gin to Mr. Jefferson. As a matter of safety, to prevent being anticipated by anyone else in the matter of the patent, he took the precaution to appear before Elizur Goodrich, alderman and notary public of the city of New Haven, who certifies as follows:

That in said city on the twenty-eighth day of October, one thousand, seven hundred and ninety-three, Eli Whitney, of the County of Worcester, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, now residing in this city, personally appeared before me, the said Alderman and Notary, and made a solemn oath. That he does verily believe that he, the said Whitney, is the true inventor and discoverer of the machine for ginning cotton, a description whereof is hereto annexed by me, the said Alderman and Notary, by my seal Notorial, and that he, the said Whitney, verily believes that a machine of similar construction hath never before been known or used.​3

A long, carefully detailed description, including alternative methods of constructing certain parts, was given "under five divisions corresponding force its five principal parts, viz.: 1, Frame; 2, The Cylinder; 3, The Breastwork; 4, The Clearer; 5, The Hopper."

Whitney closes his description with the following statement:

The foregoing is a description of the match for cleansing cotton alluded to in a petition of the subscriber, dated Philadelphia, June 20th, 1793, and lodged in the office of the Secretary of State, all alleging that he, the subscriber, is the inventor  p551 of the said machine, and signifying his desire of obtaining an exclusive property in the same.​4

According to law a model was required for deposition in the Patent Office, and on November 16, 1793, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Whitney at New Haven, as follows:

Germantown, Nov. 16, 1793.


Your favor of Oct. 19 enclosing a drawing of your cotton gin was received on the 6th inst. The only requisite of the law now uncomplied with is the forwarding of a model, which being received, your patent may be made out and delivered to you immediately. As the State of Virginia, of which I am, carries on household manufacture of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of greatest embarrassments is the cleaning the cotton of the seeds, I feel a considerable interest in the success of your invention for family use. Permit me, therefore to ask information from you on these points: Has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton, or is it yet but a machine of theory? What quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, and worked by hand, and by how many hands? What will be the cost of one of them to be worked by hand? Favorable answers to these questions would induce me to engage one of them to be forwarded to Richmond for me.

Wishing to hear from you on the subject, I am, Sir,

Your most obed't servant

Th. Jefferson.​5

The personal interest shown by Jefferson prompted Whitney to answer his questions on November 24, 1793, in the following words:

It is about a year since I first turned my attention to constructing this machine, at which time I was in the State of Georgia. Within about ten days after my first conception of the plan, I made a small, though imperfect model. Experiments with this encouraged me to make one on a larger scale; but the extreme difficulty of procuring workmen and proper material in Georgia prevented my completing the larger one until sometime in April last. This, though much larger than my first attempt, is not above one‑third as large as the machines may be made with convenience. The cylinder is only 2 feet 2 inches in lenghº and six inches in diameter. It is turned by hand, and requires the strength of one man to keep it in constant motion. It is the stated task of one negro to clean 50 weight (I mean 50 pounds after it is separated from the seed), of the green seed cotton per day.​6

It is evident that Whitney was delayed in preparing the model for the Patent Office, as the patent was not issued until March 14, 1794. All of this time Whitney was in New Haven.

It is a matter of importance and of more than mere historical interest to know what this model was like, and exactly what mechanical devices were shown on it. As already stated, the United States Patent Office was destroyed by fire on December 15, 1836, including all models, drawings, and specifications of the patents which had been issued up to that time.

 p552  But for two fortunate circumstances we might never have known the exact specifications and claims of Whitney's patent, or the mechanical features shown in his original model, deposited in the Patent Office early in 1794. During the 10 years between 1795 and 1805, 24 suits for infringement of his patent rights were instituted in the United States District Court at Savannah, Ga. In the suit against Arthur Fort and John Powell entered in 1804, a copy of the schedule of specifications and a sheet of drawings were filed with the court. This copy was certified to by James Madison, Secretary of State, April 27, 1804, and is still a part of the court records at Savannah. The papers and the drawings were republished by D. A. Tompkins in 1901,​7 and again by Chas. Bennett in 1933.8

The other record describing and illustrating Whitney's invention was printed 19 years later, but still 9 years before the fire which destroyed the original model and patent papers. John S. Skinner, the editor of the American Farmer, in 1823 published the following statement:

When we received the following account of improvements made on cotton gins, by Dr. Rush Nutt, near Petit-Gulph, Mississippi, we applied to Wm. Thornton, Esq.​9 of Washington City for a description of Whitney's cotton‑gin from the Patent Office, that we might place before our readers a complete view of so important a machine and enable all of them to understand the nature of the reported improvements.​10 [See pl. 1.]

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Editor Skinner then gives a short description of Whitney's gin, much less detailed than the very full description in the schedule filed in 1804 in Georgia, and a wood cut of the model in the Patent Office. This illustration does not indicate that the model was equipped with circular saws. The "cylinder" is described in the following words:

Cylinder is of wood, its form is perfectly described by its name, and its dimensions may be from six to nine inches in diameter, and from two to five feet in length * * *. The surface of the cylinder is filled with teeth, set in annular rows, which are at such a distance from each other, as to admit a cotton seed to play freely in the space between them. The space between each tooth in the same row, is so small as not to admit a seed, nor half a seed to enter it. These teeth are made of stiff iron, driven into the wood of the cylinder, the teeth are inclined in the same way, and in such a manner, that the angle included between the tooth, and a tangent drawn from the point, into which the tooth is driven, will be about 55 or 60 degrees * * *.​11

According to an act of Congress passed March 3, 1837, the Patent Office was authorized to expend $100,000 in restoring the specifications, drawings, and models of the burned patents, by obtaining duplicates of them from the persons possessing the originals.

 p553  The models destroyed were about 7,000 and the records covered about 100,000 inventions. The work of restoration continued for 12 years, and something over $88,000 was expended out of the amount allowed. On page 125 of volume 1 of the Restored Patents, there is a record of the Whitney patent of March 14, 1794, entered in the book on May 2, 1841. It opens with a certificate by James Madison, Secretary of State, dated November 26, 1803, and reading in part as follows:

I certify, that the annexed drawings are true copies of a Patent granted to Eli Whitney on the 14th day of March, in the year one thousand seven hundred and ninety-four, and of the Specifications annexed thereto, compared with the Record thereof, and with the original Specification, remaining on file in the office.

Then, after writing in a copy of the grant of the patent, signed by George Washington, and the certification by the Attorney General, William Bradford, there appears this paragraph:

The schedule referred to in these Letters Patent & making part of the same, containing a description in the words of the said Eli Whitney himself of an improvement in the mode of Ginning Cotton.

"A Short Description of the machine invented by the Subscriber" occupies part of page 126 and page 127. This is in the same wording as the "Short Description" furnished to the American Farmer, by Wm. Thornton in 1823.12

D. A. Tompkins, when publishing the detailed description taken from the records of the Georgia Circuit Court, already referred to,​13 printed in adjoining columns for comparison, the "Short Description" which he copied from volume 1 of the Restored Patents in the Patent Office. He called the "Short Description" the "Substituted Patent" and questioned its validity because of the following paragraph, which on page 128 closes the "Short Description":

There are several modes of making the various parts of this machine, which together with their particular shape and formation are pointed out and explained in a Description with Drawings, attested as the act directs and lodged in the office of the Secretary of State.

This paragraph also accompanies Commissioner Thornton's description, furnished in 1823.

On May 2, 1841, there was also copied into volume 1 of the Restored Patents, on pages 85 to 93, the already mentioned long description, in detail, of the Whitney invention, closing with the certificate of Elizur Goodrich, dated October 28, 1793. It is introduced with a certificate by James Madison in practically the same wording as that already quoted as introducing the wording of the patent granted by Washington and the "Short Description," but in this case the date is given as November 25, 1803, instead of November 26. This detailed  p554 description, copied in longhand into the volume in 1841, is identical with that published by Tompkins from the Georgia Circuit Court records and certified by James Madison on April 27, 1804.​14 The Patent Office record on pages 85 to 93, however, is plainly labeled: "Not patented," and this description, evidently for this reason, seems never to have been referred to before. In the opinion of the writer, both documents, as restored, are necessary to complete the restoration of the Whitney patent of March 14, 1794. When these two documents are taken together, the long descriptions and drawings declared before Notary Goodrich, and supplementing the condensed description filed with the patent grant itself, it will be seen that the "several modes of making the various parts of this machine * * * pointed out and explained in a description with drawings," which so puzzled Tompkins, are undoubtedly the alternatives given in the long description and applied only to the formation of the breastwork and brush cylinder.

William Scarborough, of Georgia, in his sketch of the life of the late Eli Whitney, published in 1832, gives a clear description of the cylinder, the principal part of Whitney's machine. He begins his account of Whitney's activities with the following paragraph:

The details which follow are wholly derived from memory unassisted by note or memorandum of any kind; but they will be found substantially correct. That which took place anterior to May 1799, when the first of Mr. Whitney's gins was put in operation was derived from a much esteemed and lamented friend,​15 who was the family physician and intimate friend of Mr. Phineas Miller, and that of subsequent date occurred under the eye, or to the knowledge of the writer of this sketch.​16

In telling of Whitney's very first trial model, Mr. Scarborough says:

It consisted of a wooden cylinder, similar to the barrel of an organ, with bent teeth inserted in straight rows, between which thin slats of iron were placed forming narrow grooves through which the teeth on the cylinder could revolve thereby tearing off the cotton from the seed, which dropped below.

Scarborough continues with the story of Whitney's experiments on the Greene plantation, and again mentions the details of the cylinder.

Mr. Whitney proceeded to the North to have more perfect models prepared, and to secure the patent right in the names of Miller and Whitney, which was accordingly done. The experiment was there renewed with different cylinders, the one with the bent teeth before described, and the other with the annular saws as Mr. Whitney so termed them. His friends, among the number of whom was Mr. Hillhouse (United States Senator from Connecticut), seemed to be of the opinion that the cotton ginned by the former (the bent teeth) had a better appearance than that ginned by the latter. The first large gin set into operation by horsepower was accordingly made with the bent teeth; and if the writer of this sketch  p555 is not misinformed, it is still in existence at Mulberry Grove. But Mr. Whitney, himself, from greater mechanical knowledge, or some other unknown cause, deposited in the Patent Office the model with the annular saws.​17

His last statement concerning the saws contradicts Dr. Thornton's description and drawing of the Patent Office model.

III. Models of the Whitney Gin

Several small models of the "Cotton Cleaning Machine" were made by Whitney himself, or under his direction, before 1800. Some of these models are still in existence, and it is the desire of the writer to record some bits of information about them before their pedigree is lost.

The most important model is now exhibited in the Textile Division of the United States National Museum (pl. 2). It was deposited by Eli Whitney, Jr., in December 1884 in response to a request from the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer F. Baird. In transmitting the model, Mr. Whitney wrote:

We have a model, one of 5 made by my father * * *. There have been 2 models burnt up in the Patent Office at Washington. One in 1836 and 1 in 1870 odd * * *. We have sent to your address the Model Cotton Gin invented and made by my father. It would have been sent before, but had to be repaired and I have been confined to the house by illness for a few weeks. Please have it put in a prominent position. Enclosed please find a little history of the invention which you can have printed or written on a card * * *. It should be of interest to every Southerner.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

He thus accounts for three of the five models mentioned in his letter. Dr. Edward Craig Bates, in his Story of the Cotton Gin, publishes a letter written him by Eli Whitney, Jr., in 1890.

The photograph sent you of the Cotton Gin is from a small model, say 18 × 12, made under my father's direction about ninety years ago. There are but two of these models now in existence; one at the Smithsonian and the one in my possession.​18

An excellent account of the method of ginning cotton before the invention of the Whitney gin, and a description of Whitney's invention and several models, are given by Benjamin Leonard Covington Wailes, Geologist of Mississippi, in 1854.

I have had the rare opportunity of examining critically, in all its parts, an early model of the gin on a small scale constructed under Mr. Whitney's direction, and which is now exhibited in the Crystal Palace, in New York.

The model shows the progress of the invention as elaborated in the ingenious mind of its author, and his first idea seems to have been that of carding the lint or fiber from the seed, rather than that suggested by the use of the saw. The cylinder in the model is divided into three parts; one‑third of it at the left end is armed with stout, crooked wires driven in, flattened at the sides, and the ends brought to an edge, as shown in Plate VII, fig. 5. The middle third of the cylinder  p556 is provided with a similar arrangement of wires, not flattened as in the first, but pointed as in fig. 4. And the remainder of the cylinder is mounted with the circular saw rags, similar to those now in use.​19 [See pl. 3.]

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Wailes' description of this model, with its three kinds of teeth, fits perfectly the model now in the National Museum. The model mentioned by Eli Whitney, Jr., in his letter to Mr. Bates as being "retained by me" was publicly exhibited in 1886 during the celebration of the centenary of the town of Hampden, Conn.,​20 and was placed in the Museum of the New Haven Colony Historical Society by Miss Elizabeth Day Whitney, about 1926, after the death of her father, Eli Whitney, 3d, where it is now. The writer examined this model in July 1937 and found it to be almost identical in shape and size with the one in the National Museum, except the 15 annular rows of teeth in the cylinder, which are all of wire, bent and sharp-pointed like those described by Wailes.

To keep the record straight for future investigators of this subject, I wish here to record that, according to a letter from Prof. Joseph Wickham Roe, "a Chinese copy" of this model in New Haven was made in 1936 under his direction for the Museum of Science and Industry in New York City.

Another model of the Whitney gin of the same size and materials as the one first described is also in the collection of the National Museum. This model was among the collection of 155,000 patent models placed in storage by the United States Patent Office in 1908 and dispersed in 1926 in accordance with an Act of Congress. It was retained for the National Museum by this author, along with several thousand models of other patents. The models appears to be of a later date than the two other similar models, constructed on the same scale, already mentioned. It certainly was not constructed by Eli Whitney, Sr., for it shows a mechanical defect that he would never have passed. The crank for operating the model is attached to the end of the brush cylinder, instead of the cylinder carrying the gin teeth, which moves at only one‑sixth the speed of that of the brush cylinder. In the Record Room of the Patent Office are two large sheets of original drawings made in 1840 which exhibit the details of the above-mentioned model, including the crank in the wrong position. It does not seem possible to tell whether the model was made from the drawing, or vice versa.

According to the numbering of the small detail drawings on the two sheets, there should be a third sheet, as figures 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19, are missing. This discrepancy was pointed out by Bennett in 1933.​21 [See pl. 4.]

[image ALT: missingALT.]

 p557  When this author first read the letter of Eli Whitney, Jr., stating that his father had made five models of the gin before 1800, he wondered why so many were made when only one was needed to be filed with his application for a patent. A study of Whitney's letters suggests a solution of the question.

Two suits for infringement of the patent were filed by Miller and Whitney in 1795 in the Georgia Circuit Court. In Whitney's letter to his partner, Miller, dated December 25, 1795, Whitney wrote:

I go to New York soon. After my return I shall set about the examplifying models. I wish you would inform me when the suit will come to trial and of the manouvers of my enemies.​22

Scarborough describing a court scene during the trial of one of the many suits for infringement, says:

At the trial which took place at Louisville, Georgia, in the Federal Circuit Court, the writer of this sketch was present. Mr. Whitney entered the Court with a small package, enveloped in a silk handkerchief, which had the appearance of containing books, this he carefully deposited under the court table. The testimony above alluded to being read, it had the semblance of being inconclusive in its effect. When it became necessary to rebut it to the Court, Mr. Whitney claimed the privilege, which was granted, of doing it, as being best calculated to give the necessary mechanical explanations. He took his package from under the table, and opening the handkerchief, presented to view an exquisitely beautiful model of his gin about fourteen or fifteen inches in length, with several handfuls of seed cotton. He handed both up to the judge, and spreading out the silk handkerchief to prevent the escape of the ginned cotton, desired the judge to turn the crank, which he seemed to do with great delight, and in a very few seconds the cotton separated from the seed, was gathered up and pressed together in the hand. Mr. Whitney then inquired of the judge and jury if it was not in that state the cotton was exported for the purpose of manufacture either in England or Ireland? Which being assented to; he handed the ginned cotton to the judge, requesting him to strive and force the cotton again between the slats, which it was found impossible to do without breaking the model all to pieces. Thus by the most conclusive ocular demonstration, he proved to the satisfaction of every one present, that the machine used in Europe could have no sort of affinity, let alone identity, with his invention.​23

It is a matter of record that one of the reasons given by the State of South Carolina for not paying Whitney the sum agreed upon for the use of his patent throughout the State was that he had not deposited two models of his gin as stipulated in the contract. Whitney's partner writes to Paul Hamilton, Comptroller of South Carolina, on January 19, 1803:

I have just received a letter from Mr. Whitney who expressly says that he did not stipulate to deliver the models by the first of September, but on the contrary that he refused to be bound by such a condition, but that he expected to make them as soon as the pressure of his other business would allow * * *. What then could have been fairly expected from an inspection of these two models? Nothing more surely than a more neat and handsome method of  p558 constructing a well known machine on a principle which has been in use for eight years, than could be expected from the mechanics who are in the habit of constructing these machines in the upper country.​24

Whitney later did prepare the models demanded, according to Professor Olmsted:

Two models of a gin were also furnished by Mr. Whitney, executed we are told in a most superior and masterly manner, and far surpassing in excellence, any machinery of the kind ever before seen; they were of metal and so nicely, and substantially made, that it is hardly possible for them to get out of order; and they worked with such ease, that when the hopper of a forty Saw Gin was filled with cotton, the labor of turning it was not greater than that of turning a common grindstone. The models were highly approved and the Legislature did not hesitate to do justice to the ingenious inventor, according to their original agreement * * *.​25

One of these models was described by Wailes in 1854 as being constructed on an iron frame, "with 40 saws, 6¾ inches in diameter, separated by block tin or pewter castings."​26 Efforts have been made to determine whether or not these official gin models are now in existence, but so far without success.

IV. Early Activities of Whitney in Georgia

There have been numerous claims, based on local tradition, that Whitney established and operated his first gin at this or that place, and it has even been claimed that Whitney's original workshop has been found in what was called in his day, the "Upper Country." Prof. M. B. Hammond, who published many of Whitney's letters from correspondence and papers lent to him by Eli Whitney, Jr., says that Whitney did not leave the Greene plantation at Mulberry Grove except to go to Savannah, 12 miles away, to procure materials and cotton.

I have already mentioned Scarborough's statement that "The first large gin set into operation by horsepower * * * is still in existence at Mulberry Grove."​27 Maj. Nathaniel Pendleton stated that he was one of the first persons who saw Whitney's gin when it was first put in motion; that soon after 1793 "a machine house was put up at Mulberry Grove by Mr. Phineas Miller and several of these machines were worked in it by cattle, which I frequently saw."28

The Georgia Gazette for March 6, 1794, printed the following advertisement:

Cotton Ginning

The subscriber will engage to gin in a manner equal to picking by hand, any quantity of the green seed cotton, on the following terms, viz. for every five  p559 pounds delivered to him in the seed he will return one pound of clean cotton fitted for market.

For the encouragement of planters he will also mention that ginning machines to clean the green seed cotton on the above terms will actually be erected in different parts of the country before the harvest of the ensuing crop.

Phineas Miller,

Mulberry Grove, Near Savannah.

March 1, 1794.​29

This was 2 weeks before Whitney, who was then in New Haven, was granted his patent. Miller, his energetic partner, who had furnished the money for launching the invention, proceeded to purchase water-power sites and set up Whitney gins as fast as Whitney could turn them out from his factory in New Haven.

Professor Olmsted states that "by 1796 Miller and Whitney had 30 gins in eight different places in the State of Georgia."​30 Some of these were run by water power and others were turned by horses or oxen.

Phineas Miller, in a letter to Whitney dated September 28, 1797, says:

In taking the titles to the place which I received on the Partnership account from Durkee, I have as yet let them stand in my name, specifying in my books that they were held in trust, on account of making a legal reconveyance should it be required.​31

Miller's reference "to the place which I received on the Partnership account from Durkee" was the site on Upton Creek in Wilkes County, Ga., where he located a gin operated by the water power. After Miller's death in December 1803, the records show his widow transferred the power site to a company of local people who operated a spinning mill there for a few years.

Other historians have mentioned "the Partnership account from Durkee," in the following quotations telling of the water-power gin operated on this spot:

I rode, a few days since, six miles below this place (Washington, Ga.) to see my old friend Thos. Talbot, and his kitchen and farm. Mr. Talbot is 83 years old, in full possession of his faculties, and is living where he settled 62 years ago. Whitney, the inventor of the Cotton Gin, settled a plantation adjoining him, on which he placed one of his gins; the first that was used in Wilkes County; perhaps the first in the State. He and his partner Durkee, erected a gin house, and a large cotton house. The latter to hold the cotton they expected to receive from customers to gin * * *. Durkee, Whitney's partner, being dissipated and inattentive to business, he sold out his place, and the gin and cotton house coming into the possession of Mr. Talbot, he moved them to his place. The former is now his kitchen * * *. The cotton house makes a large and commodious barn.

(Judge Garnet Andrews, 1852.)​32

 p560  In the immediate neighborhood of Old Smyrna Church, on the property which once belonged to the Estate of Governor Matthew Talbot, stands an old structure around which centers a world of historic interest. It was erected by the famous inventor, Eli Whitney, in association with his partner for the time being, a man named Durkee; and it was built to house what was probably the first cotton gin erected in the State of Georgia.

(Lucian Lamar Knight, 1913.)​33

It is an interesting fact, that one of the first if not the very first, cotton gin ever operated in Georgia, or in the world, was the one operated by Eli Whitney, the famous inventor, in Wilkes County, near Smyrna Church. The original building, though removed a short distance from the site upon which it was erected, is still standing on the Burdett place near Smyrna.

(Otis Ashmore, 1917.)​34

A correspondent, signing himself "A Small Planter," writes to John D. Legare, editor of the Southern Agriculturist, on October 22, 1832, as follows:

* * * By the statement of Mr. "S" the first one of Miller & Whitney's was not completed till May 1799, whereas in the year 1797, to my certain knowledge, Mr. Miller had one in full operation on his plantation on Upton's Creek, Wilkes County, Ga.

I visited Georgia the fore part of the same year (1797) and after riding over several counties, I went to see a gentleman in the upper part of Wilkes, to whom I had letters of introduction * * *.

Some months after this I went to see Mr. Miller's gin on Upton's Creek (it also went by water) and found, upon examination, that the picking implements were straight wire-teeth drawn into a wooden cylinder, and afterwards sharpened with a file. They would have answered the purpose tolerably well could they have been permanently fastened to the cylinder, but the impetus of the operation was too great for the substance they were attached to, which giving away,, the teeth would fly out in the midst of the work and occasion considerable trouble and loss of time * * *.​35

If Professor Olmsted's statement is true: "That by 1796 Miller and Whitney had 30 gins in eight different places in the State of Georgia," it would not be surprising for localities other than Washington, in Wiles County, to make claim as the first place of operation of a Whitney gin.

Augusta, in Richmond County, is one of these, as the following quotations will indicate:

During the past winter the writer visited the spot where Whitney made his experiments with his cotton gin. Upon a sluggish stream that is known as Rocky Creek which flows into the Savannah River a few miles below Augusta, Ga., stands a deserted wooden mill building with its crumbling wooden tub wheel in a decayed wheel pit. Near by is a broken dam and a cane brake which borders upon a swamp where the long flowing moss hangs drooping from the trees. The spot is interesting only as a place where Whitney made experiments and operated his first cotton gin.

(M. F. Foster, 1899).​36

 p561  It is a fact of no small interest in connection with the history of Augusta that Whitney manufactured his gins at a little factory, the power of which was failed by the little Rocky Creek on the plantation of the late Mr. John Phinizy, now almost included in the present boundaries of the city. (From address of Mayor Joseph B. Cumming on occasion of Celebration of Municipal Centennial of the City of Augusta.)​37

After the gin was invented, Whitney established his machines in various places in Georgia for the purpose of buying and ginning cotton. One of these was near Augusta, about two miles south of the city. The dam is still seen which held the water to furnish the power.

(Lucian Lamar Knight, 1914.)​38

An arrangement in chronological order of the published correspondence of Eli Whitney and documented statements of his place of residence, from the fall of 1792 until the middle of 1805 shows plainly that Eli Whitney himself carried on his activities and experiments in New Haven except for a few very brief periods at Mulberry Grove, or when he was engaged with law sutis at Savannah. He could not in person have carried on the activities attributed to him by local tradition in numerous localities. These activities doubtless were carried on by Phineas Miller, acting for the firm of Miller & Whitney, until his death on December 7, 1803.

V. Summary

A recent study of some of Eli Whitney's correspondence with his father, his partner, and others; the rediscovery of numerous early accounts of his activities in the South; and the recent examination of several original models of the gin, have thrown some light on the history of Whitney's famous invention. They indicate several mistakes and misconceptions in documents hitherto believed to be correct.

In view of the destruction of the original patent papers and the original working model which was filed with Whitney's application for his patent, it is believed worth while to redescribe that model, and to point out that accurate copies of the patent and specifications of the machine are still in existence.

A careful examination of these documents does not disclose the use of gin saws, or a cylinder built with teeth cut in plates of metal.

It is pointed out that what is understood to be the "Whitney patent" is a series of steps and documents which need to be taken together and considered as a whole to determine just what was covered by a patent granted to Eli Whitney on March 14, 1794. These steps may be arranged in the following order:

1. First application for a patent made to Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, June 20, 1793.

2. Forwarding of a drawing to Jefferson, October 19, 1793.

 p562  3. Declaration before the New Haven notary public, Elizur Goodrich, October 28, 1793, that he, Eli Whitney, believed himself to be the original inventor of a machine to separate the green seed cotton from its seeds, and the filing with the notary public of a detailed description of the invention.

4. The filing of a working model of the machine as requested in Jefferson's letter of November 16, 1793.

5. The filing by Whitney of a description of his invention written in his own words.

6. The granting of the patent signed by George Washington on March 14, 1794, for an exclusive right to the use and sale of his invention for 14 years from November 6, 1793.

It has been shown that before the fire of December 15, 1836, when the originals of all these documents (except possibly the first and the third) were destroyed, certified copies or descriptions were filed elsewhere. Of the documents above mentioned, copies of the third and sixth were filed in the Circuit Court at Savannah, Ga., in 1804; the fifth document and a drawing of the model were published in a periodical in 1823; the third, fifth, and sixth documents were in 1841 copied at the Patent Office into the first volume of Restored Patents apparently from copies on file in the Office of the Secretary of State, the third document, however, being labeled "Not patented" in the Patent Office copy.

It has been pointed out that several models of Whitney's gin are in existence, that two of these are from a group of five models made by Whitney himself, or under his direction, before 1800. These two models have been described and compared with an illustration of the original model made by Whitney and field with his applied for his patent at the end of 1793. This illustration was published in 1823, 13 years before the original model was destroyed by fire.

Whitney's partner, Phineas Miller, advertised early in 1794, even before Whitney was granted his patent, that he would "engage to gin in a manner equal to picking by hand, any quantity of the green seed cotton," and promised that gins for this purpose would "actually be erected in different parts of the country before the harvest of the ensuing crop."

This energetic partner did carry out his promise, and while Whitney was in New Haven, Conn., building gins as fast as he could, Miller sought out water power sites at points where the green seed cotton was being cultivated. These sites were usually purchased for the partner­ship, but sometimes the titles to the properties were recorded in his own name, as one of his letters to Whitney indicates. Within 2 years he had 30 gins in operation at 8 different places in Georgia. As time went on, rivalry developed among local points, which now claim the distinction of being the place where the Whitney gin was first operated.  p563 In spite of the statements in Whitney's correspondence that his experiments were carried on at the Greene plantation, near Savannah, Ga., and at New Haven, Conn., two localities in particular, Washington, Ga., in Wilkes County, and Augusta, Ga., in Richmond County, have been cited as the spot where Whitney made his experiments with his cotton gin.

A study of Whitney's correspondence and other authentic documents conclusively proves that, with the exception of a few months in the early part of 1793, when he was without funds and dependent upon the hospitality of his hostess, the widow of Gen. Nathaniel Greene, Whitney could not possibly have carried on experiments in ginning cotton and gin building at points distant from Mulberry Grove. Phineas Miller's letters, written to Whitney at New Haven, appealing for more gins to take care of the enormous increase in the production of the green seed cotton, are proof that Whitney did not have the time to carry on experimental work in upper Georgia.

General Works Cited

1. Olmsted, Denison

1832. Memoir of the life of Eli Whitney, Esq. Amer. Journ. Sci. and Arts, vol. 21, No. 2, pp201‑254, January.

2. Scarborough, William

1832. Sketch of the life of the late Eli Whitney with some remarks on the invention of the saw gin. Southern Agriculturist, vol. 5, No. 8, pp393‑403, August.

3. Hammond, Matthew Brown

1897. Correspondence of Eli Whitney relative to the invention of the cotton gin. Amer. Hist. Rev., vol. 3, pp90‑127, October.

4. Bates, Edward Craig

1890. Story of the cotton gin. New England Mag., n. s., vol. 2, pp287‑293, May.

The Author's Notes:

1 See p563 for list of general works cited.

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2 Amer. Hist. Rev., vol. 3, pp99, 1897.

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3 Tompkins, D. A., Cotton and cotton oil, p460, 1901.

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4 Tompkins, D. A., Corn and cotton oil, p459, 1901; Wailes, B. L. C., Report on Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi, p369, 1854.

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5 Papers New Haven Colony Hist. Soc., vol. 5, p109, 1894.

Thayer's Note: A slightly fuller, and possibly more accurate transcription may be read in the Jefferson Papers at the National Archives.
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6 Amer. Journ. Sci. and Arts, vol. 21, p212, January 1832.

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7 Tompkins, D. A., Corn and cotton oil, pp444‑462, 1901.

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8 Bennett, Chas., Cotton and Cotton Oil News, vol. 34, pp4‑10, 44‑47, Apr. 1, 1933.

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9 Dr. Thornton was the first Commissioner of Patents and was appointed by Thomas Jefferson to relieve the Secretary of State of the rapidly increasing responsibilities of the Patent Office.

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10 Amer. Farmer, vol. 4, pp380‑381, Feb. 21, 1823.

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11 Idem.

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12 Idem.

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13 Tompkins, D. A., Corn and cotton oil, pp444‑462, 1901.

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14 Tompkins, D. A., Corn and cotton oil, pp444‑462, 1901.

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15 Dr. Lemuel Kollock.

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16 Southern Agriculturist, vol. 5, p398, August 1832.

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17 Southern Agriculturist, vol. 5, p399, August 1832.

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18 New England Mag., n. s., vol. 2, p293, May 1890.

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19 Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi, pp159‑160, 1854.

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20 Hampden Centenary, 1786‑1886, pp112, 281, 1886.

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21 Bennett, Chas., Cotton and Cotton Oil News, vol. 34, p6, Apr. 1, 1933.

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22 Amer. Hist. Rev., vol. 3, p104, 1897.

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23 Southern Agriculturist, vol. 5, p401, Aug. 1832.

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24 Amer. Hist. Rev., vol. 3, p119, 1897.

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25 Amer. Journ. Sci. and Arts, vol. 21, p226, January 1832.

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26 Report on the Agriculture and Geology of Mississippi, 1854, pp160‑161.

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27 Southern Agriculturist, vol. 5, p399, August 1832.

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28 Amer. Hist. Rev., vol. 3, p126, 1897.

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29 Georgia Hist. Quart., vol. 3, p146, September 1919.

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30 Amer. Journ. Sci. and Arts, vol. 21, p217, January 1832.

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31 Amer. Hist. Rev., vol. 3, p110, 1897.

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32 Southern Cultivator, vol. 10, October 1852.

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33 Georgia's Land-Marks, Memorials and Legends, vol. 1, p1052, 1913.

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34 Georgia Hist. Quart., vol. 1, p64, 1917.

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35 Southern Agriculturist, vol. 5, p626, 1832.

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36 Trans. New England Cotton Manuf. Assoc., No. 67, p152, 1899.

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37 Georgia Hist. Quart., vol. 1, p228, September 1917.

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38 Georgia's Land-Marks, Memorials and Legends, vol. 2, p968, 1914.

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