Top Ten Patent Wars – Cotton Gin (#8)
Why is Whitney So Important?
Next on our list of Top Ten Patent Wars is not the one that most patent historians think of, the so-called “Sewing Machine” Wars of the 1850s-1860s, which is intriguing because it led to numerous cross-licenses in the industry and therefore one of the first patent pools. Instead, a more relevant patent war actually took place about 50 years earlier, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. At least, through one lens it is more important because Whitney’s seminal patent for the cotton gin paved the way for the wars of today, as Whitney had a difficult time receiving proper royalties for his invention after struggling to pursue infringers until his patent ran out, despite today being a well-known inventor.
Whitney’s Cotton Gin Invention
Whitney was born in Massachusetts and educated at Yale, and traveled south intending to be a private tutor. Instead, he reportedly found the salary insufficient and accepted an offer to live on a plantation and study law. Instead of becoming an attorney, he became fascinated by how how it was to remove the seeds from cotton plants at the plantation at which he landed near Savannah, Georgia. While it is in dispute (isn’t it always) if Whitney came up with the idea himself or whether it was the plantation owner (a widow named Catherine Greene), history has remembered that Whitney invented an “engine” (gin) where the cotton was run through a sieve-like mesh where the cotton fibers escaped but not the cotton seeds.
Whitney received patent 72X for his cotton gin invention after sending a drawing of the new invention to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Whitney eventually demonstrated a model to Jefferson in March, 1794. The X Patents were issued from 1790-1836 when the the records were burned in a fire, leaving only the inventors’ copies to reconstruct the collection.
Whitney’s Patent Enforcement Fails
Whitney received a patent in 1794, and formed a manufacturing company, but word has gotten around so quickly of his invention that it was quickly copied (and his workshop was broken open and his machine examined, an act today that would be a federal trade secret violation). Today, Whitney might have made millions from an innovation that drastically changed southern farming and the U.S. economy. In his day, he never had the chance to do so, as his device was quickly and easily copied. In addition, there were reports that his partner, Phineas Miller, demanded that one pound out of every three pounds of cotton generated should be paid to their company, and farmers were unwilling to comply (and Whitney and Miller were unable to enforce) before the machines became widespread. So he suffered both from being so innovative that greed was inevitable, and he was so innovative that the industry would not pay his demand, making litigation the only option.
But justice then, as it is sometimes today, was slow. When Whitney and Miller tried to enforce the recently-received patent in southern courts, the states drew out the matters, and they only received less than $100,000, most of which went to the attorneys’ fees, anyways. The lesson could be that while IP is essentially to an innovative business, it is just as important to know the marketplace and succeed without relying on the courts.
While that experience left Whitney penniless, his fame preceded him and he was able to secure a lucrative government contract to produce muskets. Whitney proceeded to introduce innovations to both musket design and to factory innovations that would outlive him, and he rebuilt his stature and lived until age 59. While Whitney did not reap the fortune through patent enforcement, all schoolchildren know the name of Eli Whitney and his cotton gin changing American society.