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The talented Mr. Whitney and his worthless cotton gin

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Eli Whitney's cotton gin shifted U.S. history, but it never brought him wealth — only frustration.

Cotton harvest is wrapping up across the South. Gin stands are at full bore, separating seed from lint in a low, rumbling drone. Trailers rumble into gin yards, dropping massive modules into rows — white loaves of profit. Layers of fine dust blanket the scene, almost like a second skin. And just off to the side, always on the periphery, hovers the ghost of Mr. Whitney.

Eli Whitney lit the fuse of agricultural revolution in 1793 with his cotton gin invention. Quite plainly, and without exaggeration — Whitney shifted U.S. history. Repercussions from the cotton explosion slammed into slavery and industrialization. With a New England childhood that sprang directly from the American Revolution, Whitney would never have dreamed that his ‘cotton engine’ would be swept up in a flow that led directly to the Civil War.

Despite the weight of history, the gin never brought Whitney riches. Prior to 1793, a slave might pull a single pound of cotton lint free from its seed in a day; but Whitney’s invention could separate almost 50 pounds of cotton in that same period. Financial reward remained just out of reach and he was reduced to standing behind fortune’s curtain for the next 14 years. It was a surreal affair, as if Whitney had burst a massive cotton piñata — and been left holding the stick as the other boys grabbed the booty and ran.

Whitney was living the ultimate nightmare of invention: his creation was too simple. The U.S. patent office was at a circus-like stage — primitive and underdeveloped — and Whitney served as the proverbial guinea pig. For farmers or entrepreneurs with mechanical know-how, Whitney’s patent was a bother — a trifle to be ignored. With no legal roadblock, gins were hammered out and cotton hauled in: “Thanks for your help, Eli. There’s the door and don’t bump your head on the way out.”

Jumping into legal purgatory, Whitney became wrapped up in lawsuits that drained his finances; a Massachusetts Yankee didn’t garner much pity from Southern judges and juries. Whitney received validation of the gin patent in 1807, but the profit window was closed and the money brought in only countered his losses from 14 years of litigation.

Whitney had to sit back and watch as cotton became commerce, his claims becoming fainter all the time. The despair in Whitney’s writing still packs a punch: “Some inventions are so invaluable as to be worthless to its inventor.”

Next season, the ghost of Mr. Whitney will return to gin yards. And as always, he’ll stand at the fringe, but no closer — muttering regrets about an invention that was simply too good.

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