c. 1794, American History Museum
A tabletop device changed the calculus of slavery
Eli Whitney’s hand-cranked machine could separate white cotton fiber from its sticky green seeds, processing 50 pounds of cotton a day, ten times as much as doing it by hand. Excited planters quickly seeded entire fields with the crop. As demand for raw cotton grew, more labor was needed for picking it, and slavery, which had been waning, made a cruel comeback; by 1810 the number of slaves had doubled. While Whitney’s design was a success, it was easily pirated. He spent all his profits from the cotton gin on lawsuits defending his patent.