In 1794, U.S.-born inventor Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the production of cotton by greatly speeding up the process of removing seeds from cotton fiber. By the mid-19th century, cotton had become America's leading export. Despite its success, the gin made little money for Whitney due to patent issues. Also, his invention offered Southern planters a justification to maintain and expand slavery even as a growing number of Americans supported its abolition. Based in part on his reputation for creating the cotton gin, Whitney later secured a major contract to build muskets for the U.S. government. Through this project, he promoted the idea of interchangeable parts--standardized, identical parts that made for faster assembly and easier repair of various devices. For his work, he is credited as a pioneer of American manufacturing. This machine revolutionized the process of separating cotton from its seed, making it dramatically faster and less expensive to turn picked cotton into usable cotton for textiles. Eli Whitney invented the gin in 1794, and by 1850 the tool had changed the face of Southern agriculture. Before Whitney’s gin entered into widespread use, the United States produced roughly 750,000 bales of hay, in 1830. By 1850 that amount had exploded to 2.85 million bales. This production was concentrated almost exclusively in the South, because of the weather conditions needed for the plant to grow. Faster processing of cotton with the gen meant it was profitable for landowners to establish previously-unthinkably large cotton plantations across the south. But harvesting cotton remained a very labor-intensive undertaking. Thus, bigger cotton farms meant the need for more slaves. The slave population in the United States increased nearly five-fold in the first half of the 19th Century, and by 1860, the South provided about two-thirds of the world’s cotton supply. Southern wealth had become...
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