Historical Events  People
Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was born in 1765 and lived through the worst ravages of the US slave years, He is known for inventing the cotton gin, which transformed the economy of the day. He's also credited with many other inventions which contributed to the industrial revolution.

Many people have an alternate memory of Eli Whitney being black. Searches today show this wasn't the case, and he was even featured on a US postage stamp in 1940. So why are so many people sure they were taught in school he was black?

He invented the cotton gin

This could be connected to the slave trade. Cotton gin actually invigorated the slave trade by making it profitable, not by making the slaves lives easier when they drank it, which common sense says wouldn't have gone down too well with the plantation owners at the time. However, if people just had a vague memory of cotton gin and slaves, without getting the actual details right, it's possible to see a "hero" figure inventing this way of making the slaves lives better, and so in this narrative he'd naturally be one himself.


Whitney is most famous for his invention of the cotton gin, a device which removed the seeds from cotton, saving the hours of labor which was required previously. This was significant because that labor was largely done by slaves. He was born and grew up on a farm, so was aware first hand of the problems involved. There's a story he watched a cat trying to pull a chicken through a fence, but only managed to get it's feathers, which inspired him to deign it as a rotating drum with hooks which had a mesh not large enough for the seeds, so they fell into a hopper. His other invention was actually a practice, and that was to use interchangeable parts in machinery, and not design each complete unit individually. Whilst this might seem obvious today, in the pre-industrial revolution times where each site operated totally independently, it was not.

It's commonly known he was somehow associated with slaves, which probably contributes to this notion he was black himself, since, unfortunately, most of the day were.