Of Machines and Men

What effect can a machine have on the affairs of a nation? Take the example of the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, and the subsequent invention of the mechanical cotton picker, which was first demonstrated in Clarksdale, Mississippi, this week (Oct. 2) in 1944.

Before Whitney invented the “gin,” only long-fiber cotton, the kind that easily separates from its black seeds, was commercially viable, and that was found only in the coastal areas of the Deep South.  After the cotton gin, which made it easy to separate short- and medium-fiber cotton, cotton plantations spread throughout the South, and soon the South’s entire economy was based on “King Cotton.”

Of course, lots of cotton plantations necessitated lots of cotton pickers, and the American slave trade, which had been declining, suddenly grew dramatically from 1793 on.  Slavery became a political and economic fact of life in the South, and protecting it from northern attempts to end it, or prevent its spread, became a casus belli of the Civil War — the most tragic war in our history.

So it can be argued that a machine — the cotton gin — influenced American history from the turn of the 18th Century to the post-Civil War era.

Yet the former slaves that arose from this post-war era found themselves in a new socio-economic order not much different from the old one.  Because cotton plantations still needed cheap labor, and because blacks still needed to feed their families, slavery was replaced by sharecropping, a system that still exploited them, still segregated them, and still tied them to southern cotton fields.

But another machine, the mechanical cotton picker, would change that, and in fact almost reverse it.  Because each mechanical picker could do the work of 50 field hands, at one-seventh the cost, the need for black sharecroppers disappeared virtually overnight.  Suddenly, the underpinning of the entire southern economy — cheap black labor — was gone, leaving former sharecroppers with no reason to remain in the South and plenty of reasons to leave it.

The result has been called the greatest internal migration of a people in history, as some 6 million southern blacks moved to large cities in the North and Midwest — Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and others — looking for work. This would forever change America’s urban landscape, with all the attendant effects on northern economics, politics and culture.

But most of all this great migration forever changed the issue of race in America.  What had been a southern tragedy became a national tragedy, and solving the issue of race relations became a national priority — which it remains today.

What effect can a machine have on the affairs of a nation?  A profound one.