(Note: The following is part of a series of articles looking at the history and evolution of agriculture in Georgia and Bulloch County.)
The two varieties of cotton being grown in Georgia required different kinds of processors, or gins.
Upland cotton was cleaned with a saw gin. This machine had a saw whose teeth pulled the seeds apart from the cotton.
Sea Island cotton, however, was cleaned with a roller gin. This machine had two rollers which would pull the cotton through, leaving the seeds behind. The roller gin processed five times the amount of Sea Island cotton that could be cleaned by hand in a day.
Whereas in 1790 only 20,000 pounds of cotton was sold at Savannah’s cotton market, in 1796 the amount of cotton being brought to market in Savannah had jumped to 1.7 million pounds.
The story of how the first working American cotton gin came to be made is an interesting tale indeed, according to D.A. Tompkins, whose book, “The Cotton Gin and Its Invention,” was published in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1901.
According to Tompkins, in 1792, a young man named Eli Whitney traveled from Massachusetts to the port of Savannah intending to get a job with a wealthy family as a private tutor.
While onboard the vessel, he met and befriended Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, the widow of the Revolutionary War hero. She was very impressed with this young man.
He, therefore, accepted Mrs. Greene’s offer of her house in Mulberry Grove, upriver from Savannah, as a place from which he could undertake to study law. His search for a job as a tutor was abandoned.
Mrs. Greene’s friends came by regularly to visit with both Mrs. Greene and Mr. Whitney. Whitney offered to design a machine to separate the cotton for Majors Brewer, Forsythe and Pendleton, who lived in the Augusta area.
He was given a room in Mrs. Greene’s basement in which he could build his invention. He filed a petition for a patent for his new machine in Philadelphia with none other than Thomas Jefferson on June 20, 1793.
Whitney’s patent was issued on March 14, 1794, and was actually signed by President George Washington along with then Secretary of State Edmund Ramsey, and United States Attorney General William Bradford.
Some questioned the validity of his patent in the United States District Court in Savannah in 1804, but it was certified in court documents by none other than then-Secretary of State James Madison.
For his invention, Whitney received royalties for the use of his machine from South Carolina, North Carolina and Tennessee of some $90,000. In Georgia, however, Whitney attempted to create a monopoly on all cotton processed on his gin.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. Email Roger at email@example.com.