10 Science: Cotton Gin

We’re going to start out this week discussing the problem that Southern cotton farmers faced.  Picking seeds and outer shells from the cotton bolls was a laborious and  tedious process.

  • Students will be given a boll of cotton and a comb.
  • Students will pick the seeds out of their boll.  They may use their combs or fingers.
  • Place the seeds in a separate bowl.
  • Discuss how long this would take if there was an entire room filled with cotton so high that you could not even get into it.  Discuss what it would feel like to sit and do this for months and months 7 days a week for 15 hours each day.

EHA Activity Book

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  • For their EHA book, ask your students to draw a picture of how they think an automatic cotton picker would work.
  • Talk about the materials that were available at the time.  There was no electricity, nor plastic.
  • Ask students to list items that were available.  Metal, wood, glass, cloth…
  • Chatting about their ideas as they draw is GREAT!  Quiet down the ancillary chatter but if students are collaborating about their inventions, that is great.


This is the part of science that students can feel that the project was successful and “worked”.  Tell your students what a great job they did.  When making the cotton gins, the students’ projects may not “work”.  That is OK.  Science almost never works on the first try.  If it did we wouldn’t have scientists. I wanted to take the directions off of this page and let the students create.  I did not in case teachers need to visualize it more, but try to not give directions to the students.  Explain that they need to use the supplies given to create a model (doesn’t have to work) of a cotton gin and explain why they used each piece.

Science is about exploration and deeply thinking about problems.  Encourage your students to really think about their gins and how they would work if they had a milling machine or other equipment.  Visions are great!  Encourage them to talk about their projects.

I think we need to at least explain who was picking the cotton because the Whitney’s Gin made it necessary to enslave more Africans.  Southern cotton farmers paid others to capture people in Africa and bring them in boats to the US.  Then, they bought these people and forced them to work for the rest of their lives for free.  What the farmers and others did was horrible, shameful… there are just not words to describe it.

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How to Build a Model of a Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. The machine could clean the seeds from 50 pounds of raw cotton a day, making cotton profitable. Cotton bolls were put in the top of the machine. Users turned a crank, which turned a wheel and sent the cotton through wire teeth, which removed the seeds. Build a model of Whitney’s famous invention using items found at home. This model is for display purposes only and will not clean cotton.

Things You’ll Need

  •  Box
  • Thread spool
  • 2 black plastic combs
  • paper clips
  • rubber bands
  • box
  • Find a rectangular box, like those used for kitchen matches. Cut about 1/2 inch off the top of each the two long sides so the short sides of the box are taller than the long sides. This is the base of the cotton gin.
  • Set aside cut pieces from the sides of the base.
  • Cut a piece of cardboard to fit as a lid on your cotton gin model. Cut it longer than needed and fold a 1/2-inch flap on one end. Glue this flap to one of the short sides of your cotton gin model, allowing the cover to open like a hinge at the fold.
  • Measure the diameter of a thread spool.
  • Using a ruler to measure the long side of the cotton gin base, mark a spot about the same distance from the end as the diameter of the spool. Do the same on the other long side.
  • Make a notch at the marks using scissors.
  • Straighten a paperclip and thread through the hole in the middle of the spool.


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