Birthday Post: Cotton Gin

Cotton GinOn 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!

2 thoughts on “Birthday Post: Cotton Gin

  1. OK, here’s an interesting bit I just learned from a 1993 book, “No Pity,” by Joe Shapiro, about rights for people with disabilities.

    I knew Alexander Graham Bell was huge in the anti-sign-language movement, because he wanted deafness genetically eradicated and thought sign language allowed deaf people to meet and form relationships and have kids. I also knew Bell’s wife was deaf. The anti-sign language educational fad took over for many decades, causing immense pain to deaf people, only fading away in the 1970s.

    What I didn’t know was the Bell marriage story. Bell was a speech expert (it’s thought Shaw’s Henry Higgins was based on Bell’s dad) teaching at a school that “rehabilitated” deaf people using forced speech and lip-reading. The school was funded by a super-rich guy, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who started the school after his daughter lost her hearing due to scarlet fever. Bell ended up teaching Hubbard’s daughter.

    Wait for it! How did Hubbard get super-rich? He was a patent lawyer! And it just so happened that Bell was one of a zillion guys filing patents for telephones at the time. Bell married Hubbard’s daughter, Hubbard made sure Bell got a monopoly patent on the telephone, and the rest is history.

    So the next time your cell-phone provider pisses you off (Verizon used to be a Baby Bell), you can trace it all back to Henry Higgins’s son marrying a super-rich patent lawyer’s deaf daughter. Whether the marriage was love or good old-fashioned business sense, who knows. I’m rooting for love!

    • That’s quite a story. Pratchett could have used it as the basis for a novel. I’ve come to think that IP generally as a pox on society. Even when working the way it is supposed to, it is problematic. But mostly, it is just another tool for the rich to manipulate.

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