Skip to content

Faux Outrage

Literally the most important blog in the universe since 2010.

Eli Whitney is about sixty thousand times more famous than he should be.

Does anyone know who invented the microprocessor? (Ted Hoff)

Does anyone know who invented the steam engine? (Thomas Savery)

Does anyone know who invented anesthesia? (William Thomas Green Morton)

Does anyone know who invented radio communication? (Guglielmo Marconi)

Does anyone know who invented insulin? (Sir Frederick Grant Banting)

Does anyone know who invented penicillin? (Alexander Fleming)

Then why oh why oh why oh why must everyone know who invented the cotton gin?

One of the only reasons I can think of is that American schools focus a great deal of time on American slavery (in the North, anyway) and Eli’s gin o’ cotton fits well enough into that discussion and takes a day of instruction away from that parade of horribles.  Now, before this gets out of hand, I want to make clear that I do not believe that Eli Whitney was a no-talent hack or that the cotton gin wasn’t an important invention — it was!  It’s just funny to me that the same people who don’t know who their senators are can tell you who invented the cotton gin.

Eli Whitney was on a stamp, has a museum, and a big-ass gravestone.

“But Zach!” you cry (weirdly), “The cotton gin led to the environment that started the Civil War!”

Did it?

The cotton gin was so influential in starting the Civil War that the states took up arms against each other 68 years after it was invented (1793), 36 years after Eli Whitney died (1825).  That would be like saying the invention of the jet engine (Frank Whittle and Dr. Hans von Ohain!) in the 1930’s was one of the causes of 9/11.

And before you squeal that “68 years wasn’t a long time in those days,” let me put this whole ordeal into perspective: Eli Whitney was born before the Revolutionary War.  He was 10 years old when Paul Revere went galloping through Boston.  That’s a long, long time before the American people ask what’s civil about war, anyway? To say that it was “it wasn’t a long time in those days” to explain away the 68 years it took for this cotton ginned “cause” of the Civil War to actually cause the Civil War is the kind of weird attachment to Eli Whitney that I just do not understand.

I recognize that the cotton gin was crucial in creating an economically powerful American South and created an environment where slavery was expanded greatly (since demand for slaves was tied to the economic prowess of cotton), but the causal relationship between the cotton gin and the Civil War is completely overstated. The C-Gin certainly led to a demand for more slaves which undoubtedly was the very real cause of the Civil War, but I’m pretty sure that a time machine and cyanide pill with Eli Whitney’s name on it would not have put a preemptive end to the War of Northern Aggression.  (Side note: if you ever find yourself going back in time to secretly murder a historical figure, I do not recommend labeling your evidence with the target’s name.  That’s just bad form.)

The cotton gin is a notable invention in American History, but I think it’s pretty clear that Eli Whitney is way too famous.

%d bloggers like this: