Gumming and Filing Machine Solved Cotton Gin Problem

John R. Smith’s Tri-Plex combined cotton gin saw gumming and filing machine improved the efficiency of early cotton gins.

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courtesy Dierre Smith
The gumming and filing machine.

The Industrial Revolution caused extensive social change during the period from the latter half of the 18th century through the first half of the 19th century. There was a shift from a rural economy to an urban one, small family-run shops gave way to large corporate entities, hand labor was mechanized, and the overall production of goods increased dramatically.

These societal changes began in Great Britain with the textile industry, primarily with the spinning and weaving of cotton fibers into cloth for use locally and abroad.

Great Britain could not grow enough cotton to support this burgeoning industry and raw cotton was imported from a number of countries, with the U.S. being one of the major sources. Seeds had to be separated from the soft fibers before the cotton could be carded and spun into a usable product.

This was relatively easy with the long-staple cotton grown along the coast in the U.S. However, a much more difficult and tedious process was required to remove the sticky seeds from the short-staple cotton grown upland. This work was usually performed by slaves. As the demand for cotton increased, it had the consequential result of promoting slavery.

Evolution of the cotton gin

Eli Whitney (1765-1825) is usually credited with inventing the cotton gin (“gin” being abbreviated from “engine”). When cotton was run through Whitney’s machine, hooks mounted on a wooden drum pulled the fibers through a mesh that was too fine to admit the seeds. A rotating “doffing” brush removed loose fibers from the hooks.

Whitney’s design was inferior to an earlier invention by Hodgen Holmes (alternately referred to as Henry Ogden Holmes) that used saw blades rotating between iron bars to snag the cotton and separate the fibers from the seeds. Whitney eventually recognized the advantage of Holmes’ system and incorporated it in his later machines.

Small cotton gins could be cranked by individuals; large gins were powered by horse power, water wheels or steam engines. Carding drums and spinning mechanisms were later added to the gins to further automate the process. It was then possible to feed loose cotton fibers into one side of a machine and end up with finished yarn wound on bobbins on the other side of the machine.

Machine designed to improve gin efficiency

Cotton gins require regular maintenance. The sap from cotton plants builds up in the trough between each saw tooth and the next (the gullet) and reduces the effectiveness of the saw blade. Also, the teeth become dull. The teeth could be cleaned and sharpened by hand – one tooth at a time – but that is a slow and time-consuming process, especially since a number of saw blades are mounted in a cylinder and a gin of any size will have multiple cylinders. Inevitably, machines were developed to automate the procedure and reduce machine downtime.

Gumming and filing machines use disc and reciprocating files to sharpen the teeth. A disc file removes built-up plant residue and restores the correct angle of the leading edge of each tooth and the depth of each gullet. Reciprocating files sharpen the teeth and restore the correct angles of the sides. In some filing machines, a separate pair of disc files removes burrs resulting from the filing process. Finally, a reciprocating pawl advances the saw blade one tooth at a time.

A Smith for a Smith

Dierre Smith, Fredericksburg, Texas, is a long-time collector of antique engines. While attending the 2018 Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine & Tractor Show in Fort Meade, Florida, with his wife, Becky, he and a friend were checking out vendors’ booths when they spotted a peculiar machine half-hidden among other “treasures.”

After cleaning the brass tag, they discovered that it was a Smith’s Tri-Plex combined gin, saw, gumming and filing machine. “This has your name on it,” Dierre’s friend told him. “If you don’t buy it, I will!” Dierre bought the piece, took it home, cleaned and restored it to working order. The machine’s serial number is 1842P; it was patented on June 15, 1915.

Dierre didn’t know how his gummer and filer was applied to a cotton gin, but later in the year he displayed it at the Texas Early Day Tractor & Engine Show in Temple, Texas. There, others were able to show Dierre how his machine was used. The hand crank is broken on the gummer and filer, but the machine has a pulley, so it can be operated with an electric motor. With the exception of the broken crank, the machine is in good operating condition and Dierre demonstrates it at shows.

John R. Smith (1875-1955) was an inventor living in McDonough, Georgia, during the early 20th century. He was joint owner and general manager of Smith-Newman Mfg. Co., which manufactured gin saw gummer and filing machines. Smith was responsible for design and development of Smith’s Tri-Plex combined gin saw gumming and filing machine. Smith applied for a patent on his invention in 1913; the patent was granted in 1915. In 1935, he was granted a patent on improvements to the gummer and filing machine. FC

Glenn Thompson, professor emeritus from the Wisconsin University System, was born and raised on a farm in South Dakota. In addition to other pursuits at his home in Texas, Glenn rides herd over “an eclectic collection of dead and dying riding mowers and compact tractors.” Email him at 

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