Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America

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Overview

"The cotton gin animates the American imagination in unique ways. It evokes no images of antique machinery or fluffy fiber but rather scenes of victimized slaves and battlefield dead. It provokes the suspicion that had Eli Whitney never invented the gin, United States history would have been somehow different. Yet cotton gins existed for centuries before Whitney invented his gin in 1794. Nineteenth-century scholars overlooked them as well as gins made by southern—and northern—mechanics, in order to create a history meant to chasten some southerners and demean others. Using the gin as evidence, they read failure back from the Civil War into the choices that southerners made from the American Revolution, tracing the steps that led them to Appomattox."

In Inventing the Cotton Gin, Lakwete explores the history of the cotton gin as an aspect of global history and an artifact of southern industrial development. She examines gin invention and innovation in Asia and Africa from the earliest evidence to the seventeenth century, when British colonizers introduced an Asian hand-cranked roller gin to the Americas. Lakwete shows how indentured British, and later enslaved Africans, built and used foot-powered models to process the cotton they grew for export. After Eli Whitney patented his wire-toothed gin, southern mechanics transformed it into the saw gin, offering stiff competition to northern manufacturers. Far from being a record of southern failure, Lakwete concludes, the cotton gin—correctly understood—supplies evidence that the slave labor–based antebellum South innovated, industrialized, and modernized.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
With careful use of vivid illustrations and keen analytic skills, Lakwete captures the relationship between technology and human initiative.

— Lester P. Lee, Jr.

Alabama Review
Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which created the Old South and then destroyed it... Lakwete targets this myth in Inventing the Cotton Gin and largely demolishes it.

— John Bezís-Selfa

EH.Net
This study provides students a clear example of how technological choices are not the storybook cases of perfected innovations replacing hopelessly outclassed traditional methods.

— William H. Phillips

Choice

Lakwete has written the first scholarly study of the cotton gin in antebellum America... Instead of viewing Eli Whitney's work as a historical watershed, she finds continuity.

Business History Review
Few will dispute that this book will change how historians think about the rise of King Cotton and the nature of technological change.

— John Majewski

Enterprise and Society
[Lakwete] captures the nuances that distinguish technological success from failure.

— John S. Nader

Technology and Culture
Another myth relating to the South is relegated, shall we say—with apologies to Marx—to the (cotton) dustbin of history... A major work of scholarship.

— Peter A. Coclanis

Bloomsbury Review
Inventing the Cotton Gin is an education in economic and business history as much as a needed revisionist version of the cotton gin myth.

— Kim Long

South Carolina Historical Magazine
Bold and path-breaking... Most forcefully, Lakwete impugns the notion that a machine bears the responsibility for the Civil War and its aftermath.

— Mark Finlay

Georgia Historical Quarterly
The best and most sophisticated treatment of the gin in the larger context of the antebellum cotton South we are likely to see... The dramatic, great-white man narrative of Eli Whitney yields to a richer, more complex story.

— David L. Carlton

Material Culture
She has done an excellent job of weaving together an amazingly complex series of events in a straightforward and interesting manner.

— Twyla Dell

H-Net Reviews
An important addition to the growing list of works on southern industrialization... As with other good history books, it challenges what we think we knew, and sends us searching for more clues.

— Shepherd W. McKinley

History: Reviews of New Books
For those seeking to understand how the interplay of market factors, cultural norms, and personal choices shape—and are shaped by—technology, Inventing the Cotton Gin is an excellent read.

— Don Butts

Times Literary Supplement - Lester P. Lee
With careful use of vivid illustrations and keen analytic skills, Lakwete captures the relationship between technology and human initiative.
Alabama Review - John Bezís-Selfa
Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, which created the Old South and then destroyed it... Lakwete targets this myth in Inventing the Cotton Gin and largely demolishes it.
EH.Net - William H. Phillips
This study provides students a clear example of how technological choices are not the storybook cases of perfected innovations replacing hopelessly outclassed traditional methods.
History: Reviews of New Books - Don Butts
For those seeking to understand how the interplay of market factors, cultural norms, and personal choices shape—and are shaped by—technology, Inventing the Cotton Gin is an excellent read.
H-South, H-Net Reviews - Barbara Hahn
Lakwete joins the pantheon of technological historians by demolishing a standard, widely accepted myth with the careful and persuasive analysis of a vast array of evidence... The book is a triumph.
Business History Review - John Majewski
Few will dispute that this book will change how historians think about the rise of King Cotton and the nature of technological change.
Enterprise and Society - John S. Nader
[Lakwete] captures the nuances that distinguish technological success from failure.
Technology and Culture - Peter A. Coclanis
Another myth relating to the South is relegated, shall we say—with apologies to Marx—to the (cotton) dustbin of history... A major work of scholarship.
Bloomsbury Review - Kim Long
Inventing the Cotton Gin is an education in economic and business history as much as a needed revisionist version of the cotton gin myth.
South Carolina Historical Magazine - Mark Finlay
Bold and path-breaking... Most forcefully, Lakwete impugns the notion that a machine bears the responsibility for the Civil War and its aftermath.
Georgia Historical Quarterly - David L. Carlton
The best and most sophisticated treatment of the gin in the larger context of the antebellum cotton South we are likely to see... The dramatic, great-white man narrative of Eli Whitney yields to a richer, more complex story.
Material Culture - Twyla Dell
She has done an excellent job of weaving together an amazingly complex series of events in a straightforward and interesting manner.
H-Net Reviews - Shepherd W. McKinley
An important addition to the growing list of works on southern industrialization... As with other good history books, it challenges what we think we knew, and sends us searching for more clues.
Choice
Lakwete has written the first scholarly study of the cotton gin in antebellum America... Instead of viewing Eli Whitney's work as a historical watershed, she finds continuity.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

Meet the Author

Angela Lakwete is an associate professor of history at Auburn University.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Table of Contents

1 Cotton and the gin to 1600 1
2 The roller gin in the Americas, 1607-1790 21
3 The invention of the saw gin, 1790-1810 47
4 The transition from the roller to the saw gin, 1796-1830 72
5 The saw gin industry, 1830-1865 97
6 Saw gin innovation, 1820-1860 122
7 Old and new roller gins, 1820-1870 148
8 Machine and myth 177
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