Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Eli Whitney, 15 October 1793

From Eli Whitney

New Haven Oct. 15th 1793

Respected Sir

It was my intention to have lodged in the Office of State a description of my machine for ginning Cotton, immediately after presenting my petition for an exclusive property in the same; but ill health unfortunately prevented me from completing the description untill about the time of the breaking out of the malignant fever in Philadelphia. This so interrupted communication and deranged business of every kind, that I thought it best not to send my description till the disorder had in some measure subsided. But as the sickness, which I hoped would be of short continuance, still prevails, and as I am unwilling to delay any longer, I herewith enclose and forward it, together with a short description designed to form the schedule annexed to the patent.

It has been my endeavour to give a precise idea of every part of the machine, and if I have failed in elegance, I hope I have not been deficient in point of accuracy.

If I should be entitled to an exclusive privilege, may I ask the favour of you, Sir, to inform me when I may come forward with my model and, receive my patent. I am, Sir, with the highest respect your most obedient and very humble Servant,

Eli Whitney

FC (CtY: Whitney Papers); entirely in Whitney’s hand; addressed: “The Honble. Thomas Jefferson Esq. Secretary of State for the United States of America”; endorsed by Whitney.

Whitney, whose petition to TJ for a patent on his cotton gin was dated 20 June 1793, dispatched this letter no earlier than 28 Oct. 1793, the date he had the enclosures notarized. The patent Whitney received—dated 14 Mch. 1794 and based on the three enclosures submitted with this letter as well as the model he later sent to Philadelphia—granted him exclusive rights to the invention for fourteen years beginning 6 Nov. 1793, the date TJ received the documents.

The three documents printed below, which secured for Whitney’s cotton gin a place in American technological, social, and economic history that can scarcely be overestimated, had their origins in the Patent Act of 1793. For a brief period after it took effect, inventors were required to supply a long description and a drawing, to be retained by the office of the Secretary of State, as well as a short description to form part of the patent itself. As TJ had hoped, this requirement placed the responsibility of describing inventions on patent recipients rather than the government. The requirement of two descriptions was soon dispensed with, though not before Whitney’s application, and inventors were allowed to submit a single specification and drawing, copies of which were annexed to the patent issued to them (P. J. Federico, “Records of Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin Patent,” Technology and Culture, i [1960], 168–76; TJ to Edmund Randolph, 17 Mch. 1793, and enclosure).

The destruction of Whitney’s patent by a fire at his New Haven workshop in 1795, and the loss of the government’s file copy of the patent and its supporting documents, as well as the requisite model, by a Patent Office fire in 1836, led to confusion in the literature on this invention. One historian, encountering the short description in a copy of the patent he received from the Patent Office and the long description in federal court records, confused the latter with the former and alleged that Whitney’s patent had been improperly abridged in order to give him credit for a subsequent improvement to his machine (Daniel A. Tompkins, Cotton and Cotton Oil [Charlotte, N.C., 1901], 12–16, 444–62).

The most reliable manuscript source for these documents consists of certified copies made from the originals in possession of the government for a court case in 1804 (DNA: RG 21). Another set, twice removed from the originals, was made in 1841, as part of efforts to reconstruct early patent records after the 1836 fire, from a different set of certified copies transcribed in 1803 (DNA: RG 241). Drafts and file copies retained by Whitney (CtY: Whitney Papers) form a third nucleus of texts. Although an untitled publication of the three documents by the Patent Office in 1959 drew on the first two sources, it did not indicate specifically where they differed. The long and short descriptions printed below are the first texts to be based on a collation of all three manuscript sources.

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