King Cotton wound up owing Eli Whitney a lot.
Born in 1765 in Massachusetts, the unemployed Yale graduate came South for a teaching job. When that didn’t pan out, he came to Georgia in 1792. His friend Catharine Greene, General Nathanael Greene’s widow, invited him to her plantation outside Savannah. English Mills had created a huge market for cotton, but southern planters had a problem: long-staple Sea Island cotton could be cleaned for market easily, but it only grew on the coast. Short-staple cotton would grow inland, but required enormous labor to separate the seed from the fiber by hand.
Whitney had always been an inventive mechanic. At Mulberry Grove, Greene’s plantation, he perfected an engine, or gin, that effectively separated the seed from short-staple cotton. His invention revolutionized the southern economy, making short staple cotton production profitable. That spread the crop – as well as a renewed commitment to slavery—across the South.
Whitney went on to develop the concept of interchangeable parts, and mass production was born.
The teacher who came to Georgia and transformed the South was born in Massachusetts on December 8, 1765, Today in Georgia History.
Today in Georgia History is a joint collaboration of the Georgia Historical Society & Georgia Public Broadcasting.