A cotton gin (short for cotton engine) is a machine that quickly and easily separates cotton fibers from their seeds, a job that otherwise must be performed painstakingly by hand. The fibers are processed into cotton goods, and the seeds may be used to grow more cotton or to produce cottonseed oil; if they are badly damaged, they are disposed of.
The first modern mechanical cotton gin was created by American inventor Eli Whitney in 1793 and patented in 1794. It used a combination of a wire screen and small wire hooks to pull the cotton through, while brushes continuously removed the loose cotton lint to prevent jams. Larger, more complex, automated cotton gins remain a crucial part of the cotton industry today.
The modern mechanical cotton gin was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney (1765–1825). Whitney applied for a patent on October 28, 1793; the patent was granted on March 14, 1794, but was not validated until 1807. There is slight controversy over whether the idea of the modern cotton gin and its constituent elements are correctly attributed to Eli Whitney. The popular image of Whitney inventing the cotton gin is attributed to an article on the subject written in the early 1870s and later reprinted in 1910 in The Library of Southern Literature. In this article, the author claimed that Catherine Littlefield Greene suggested to Whitney the use of a brush-like component instrumental in separating out the seeds and cotton. To date, there has been no independent verification of Greene's role in the invention of the gin.
Many contemporary inventors attempted to develop a design that would process short staple cotton, and Hodgen Holmes, Robert Watkins, William Longstreet, and John Murray had all been issued patents for improvements to the cotton gin by 1796. However, the evidence indicates that Whitney did invent the saw gin, for which he is famous. Although he spent many years in court attempting to enforce his patent against planters who made unauthorized copies, a change in patent law ultimately made his claim legally enforceable – too late for him to make much money off of the device in the single year remaining before the patent expired