The Cotton Gin Spinner

The cotton gin spinner, a forgotten component of the industrial revolution, tells an important story.

| October 2017

John McBride was one of many early innovators at the turn of the 19th century who possessed the ability to observe multiple related technologies and combine them into a single machine that greatly improved the overall efficiency of the separate processes. The cotton gin spinner is an almost forgotten product of the fertile imagination of a man who himself is almost forgotten to history. This is the story of McBride and his unique device, relating how he came to learn from various developments by his predecessors.

Caveat of invention

On March 14, 1789, Hodgen Holmes, Augusta, Georgia, received a five-year “caveat of invention” for the first reliable cotton gin capable of processing the hairy seeded variety of upland cotton. Because the Patent Office hadn’t yet been established, this caveat of invention was issued by the U.S. Department of War.

Holmes’ design featured saw blades with fine, needle-pointed teeth inclined toward the direction of rotation. The back edges of the saws reached through a row of metal bars, called ribs, to snag cotton fibers and pull them between the ribs. The seeds wouldn’t fit through the rib slots and so were left behind as the fibers were pulled away. A doffing brush on the back side of the ribs cleared the loose fibers from the saw teeth so that they could gather a fresh load when they again entered the ginning chamber. This method is still used today for ginning upland cotton across the entire southern region of the U.S.

Eli Whitney earned the title of inventor of the cotton gin with his patent of March 14, 1794, issued on the same day that Holmes’ caveat expired. His design was much inferior to Holmes’, and even Whitney himself later switched from his poor design to use saws and metal ribs. But he took credit in his patent for the superior saw-and-rib construction, and thus is remembered as the father of the cotton gin. Holmes lost his court battle with Whitney and disappeared from history.

Defying British law

By 1767, reliable mass spinning machines were available in England after James Hargreaves had invented the spinning jenny. Richard Arkwright and Jedidiah Strutt had perfected the use of water wheels to power these spinners and carders. Samuel Slater, who worked as apprentice and chief mechanic for Strutt, became intimately familiar with these machines.

British law prohibited the export of any major technology, whether by model, notes, blueprints or as a tradesman. In 1787, Slater secretly brought to the U.S. the knowledge in his head of the carder, spinner and water-power designs. Soon after his arrival, he joined Almy & Brown in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and began successfully building these machines from memory. Today, one of his spinners is located in a Smithsonian museum.