Thomas Jefferson Papers

Petition from Eli Whitney, 20 June 1793

Petition from Eli Whitney

To the Honourable Thomas Jefferson Esquire
Secretary of State for the United States of America:

The Petition of Eli Whitney of the County of Worcester and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, humbly sheweth: That having invented a Machine for the Purpose of ginning Cotton, he is desirous of obtaining an exclusive Property in the same.

Concerning which invention, your Petitioner alledges as follows (viz) first.

That it is entirely new and constructed in a different manner and upon different principles from any other Cotton Ginn or Machine heretofore known or used for that purpose.

2d. That with this Ginn, if turned with horses or by water, two persons will clean as much cotton in one Day, as a Hundred persons could cleane in the same time with the ginns now in common use.

3d. That the Cotton which is cleansed in his Ginn contains fewer broken seeds and impurities, and is said to be more valuable than Cotton, which is cleaned in the usual way.

Your Petitioner, therefore, Prays your Honour to Grant him the said Whitney a Patent for the said Invention or Improvement: and that your Honour cause Letters Patent to be made out, in the Name of the United States, granting to him your said petitioner, his hiers Administrators and Assigns, for the term of fourteen Years, the full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing using and vending to others to be used, the said Invention or improvement.

20th June 1793

Eli Whitney

FC (CtY: Eli Whitney Papers); in Whitney’s hand; at foot of text: “Copy.”

Eli Whitney (1765–1825), a 1792 Yale graduate, invented the cotton gin and was a pioneer in the use of interchangable parts in the manufacture of firearms. Owing to delays in preparing the model of the machine, the patent was not issued to Whitney until 14 Mch. 1794, though it had an effective date of 6 Nov. 1793, the day TJ received the supporting descriptions and drawing. Under the terms of Whitney’s copartnership agreement with Phineas Miller, signed on 21 June 1794, the firm of Miller & Whitney struggled precariously for years to overcome competition from infringing machines, difficulties enforcing their claims in court and obtaining credit, and initial hesitation by British spinners to purchase ginned cotton. However, late in the fourteen-year life of the patent Miller & Whitney succeeded in effecting sales of licensing agreements to the states of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee and in obtaining legal awards for damages in Georgia which enabled the firm to benefit from the patent and turn a modest profit overall (Whitney to TJ, 15 Oct. 1793; TJ to Whitney, 16 Nov. 1793; D. A. Tompkins, Cotton and Cotton Oil [Charlotte, N.C., 1901], 461–2; Mirsky and Nevins, Eli Whitney description begins Jeannette Mirsky and Allan Nevins, The World of Eli Whitney, New York, 1952 description ends , 72–9, 92–127, 147–76, 286–8, 307–9; DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ).

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