If it weren’t for the disruptive technology of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, cotton would have never become the fabric of our lives. After looking for a way to cash out on Southern farmer’s woes, a law student became an inventor.

Turning cotton into a cash cow

When Eli Whitney graduated from Yale University, he was up to his ears in debt. Being a recently indebted college graduate in search of a gig, he offered his services to Mrs. Catherine Greene as a tutor. Little did Eli Whitney know, he would enlist his past skills as a tinkerer.

Slate / Yale University Art Gallery

Eli needed money before he could start up his law practice. When Eli realized Southern farmers were hurting for a way to profit from cotton, the idea to devise a device to bring in the ducats came to fruition. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin could process 50 pounds of cotton at a time, compared to a slave processing only one pound.

Patent-worthy profiteering

India had already created its own form of the cotton gin, but it was more appropriate for long cotton. America was all about growing short cotton. Plantation owners were ready to ditch planting cotton, because it was intensive to grow, difficult to clean, and didn’t pay much.

Smithsonian Institute

Eli Whitney realized his invention could create a huge demand for cotton, increase profitability of the crop, and earn him lots of loot. Unfortunately, although Eli Whitney applied for a patent for his cotton gin in 1793, he didn’t get an exclusive patent until 1802. Needless to say, lots of copycats came in and stole Eli’s glory and his opportunity to cash in big.

An original disruptor

Although Eli Whitney didn’t manage to make as much money as he wanted from his invention, he managed to steal history’s limelight for his efforts. Who knew cash-strapped students looking to get out of debt could change the course of history?

Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston

After the patent of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the demand for slaves surged forward. The South was crazy for growing cotton, clearing land, displacing people, and raking in the profits. Unfortunately, the North wasn’t too thrilled about the South’s cash flow and labor practices, and the nation inevitably fell into a civil war.