On this day in 1794, the cotton gin was born. Well, not born. But that was the day that Eli Whitney got the patent for it. The cotton gin had terrible social consequences for America. It reminds me of a story I once heard about Leonardo da Vinci inventing some labor saving device designed to make life easier on the workers. But all it actually accomplished was to put a bunch of workers out of work. In the long-term, that kind of thing is good for workers — in theory. But in the short-term, it sucked. The direct effect of the cotton gin was to require fewer slaves to separate cotton. But the indirect effect was to greatly increase the need for slaves in other areas of cotton production.
The cotton gin gave American slavery a great boost just when it needed it. Of course, that’s a lot to lay at the feet of one invention. As we know from the book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, the slavery industry used slaves just the way regular industries did: constantly pushing slaves for more and more productivity. So who knows? Maybe the slaves just would have been driven to work faster separating the cotton. The main takeaway here is that technologies have unpredictable consequences — and they are usually bad.
But happy birthday cotton gin!