Mechanized picking of cotton transformed the South
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which at the start of the 19th century made large-scale cotton growing profitable, pumped new life into the fading institution of slavery, ensuring that something much like slavery would last long after the Civil War. It would take another century for American ingenuity to finally rid the world of the need for hand picking cotton.
Many inventors had tried to build a successful cotton-picking machine—and one was patented as early as 1850—but the cotton plant defeated their efforts. The bolls never ripened at the same time, so fields had to be picked repeatedly. A cotton-picking machine that damaged the plants was no good. In addition, a machine that collected too much organic debris in the form of leaves and stems would not work because the discolored cotton was worth much less. Facing these obstacles, 19th-century inventors didn’t get very far.
In the 1920s Clarence Hagen, International Harvester’s chief engineer, experimented with a vacuum cleaner–like picker with four hoses. In September 1924 he set up a competition near Dallas between a mule-pulled model and an experienced hand worker. A man tended each of the four hoses, using them to suck bolls from the plants. After an hour the field worker, who could pick at a rate of 400 pounds a day, was more than 50 yards ahead, and his cotton was considerably cleaner.
International Harvester tried another tack, working with the patents of Angus Campbell, which it had bought earlier. Campbell had taken an alternative “spindle” approach in his failed mechanical-picking attempts. A spindle was a rod or prong that could poke into a cotton boll and rotate to spool up the fibers, easily pulling away the boll. Then a “doffer,” which acted like a large comb, would strip the cotton from the spindle. Finally, a flow of air would suck the cotton off the doffer.
The challenge lay in devising a spindle that could both grip a boll well enough to pull away its cotton and release it easily to the doffer. Barbs or points on the spindle gripped the boll but prevented easy removal. A simple smooth spindle could be doffed with ease but had trouble picking up the boll.
Hagen varied spindle length and diameter; he tapered it toward the tip or put a barbed or serrated edge along its length. None of these worked well. He wrote that “spindles foul up with a mixture of plant sap, dirt and cotton fibers” that “had to be removed by hand, aided with pocket knives and liberal applications of water.” It looked as though even the industrial muscle of International Harvester couldn’t beat the problem.
Then a proverbial backyard tinkerer gave it a try. Texas-born John Rust, the seventh of eight children, had learned about cotton by helping grow and pick his family’s crop. A devoted troubleshooter, he put together a vacuum cleaner–type cotton picker as a child that he hoped would also catch boll weevils, the insect pests that devoured cotton plants. The contraption didn’t work, but that didn’t deter him.
In 1920, after completing a correspondence course in automotive engineering and mechanical drafting, the 28-year-old managed to land a job in Wichita, Kansas, as designer and superintendent of construction for Ira Marriage, who was trying to develop a better wheat-harvesting combine. Now a full-time farm machinery inventor, Rust turned full-time to solving the doffing problem. Lying in bed one night in 1927, he recalled how cotton had clung to his fingers when he picked it in the morning dew as a boy. He also remembered his grandmother wetting the spindle of her spinning wheel to make cotton adhere to it. “I jumped out of bed,” he later wrote, and “found some absorbent cotton and a nail for testing. I licked the nail and twirled it in the cotton and found that it would work.”
He now had the dazzling prospect that a simple unbarbed rotating nail, clearly easy to doff, might also be effective for collecting cotton when moistened. He left his job and returned to Texas, setting up shop in his sister’s garage. In 1928 he filed for a patent on a cotton picker with moistened spindles. Hagen heard about it and began his own experiments at International Harvester, finding that spraying more water on the spindles kept them clean and free of gummy buildup. With success apparently in sight, Hagen started to build 20 experimental machines. Then the stock market crashed.
Hagen shut down the project, but Rust, working with practically nothing, went ahead on his own. His brother Mack, seven years younger but with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas and experience working for General Electric, joined him. Together they built a picker with moistened spindles; they took a wooden plank and turned it into a cotton row by mounting 10 stalks to it, each with 10 tufts of cotton. They set up the row in Rust’s daughter’s backyard, and their machine nicked 97 of the 100 tufts.
The machine did far worse on a row of cotton in the field. After securing more funding, the Rusts tinkered more. In a 1931 field trial in Waco, Texas, their machine became the first to pick an entire bale—500 pounds—in a single day.
They followed up with more tests at the Delta Experiment Station, an agricultural research center in Stoneville, Mississippi. In 1933 an improved version rolled across a field in the presence of journalists, picking cotton at the rate of 2,500 pounds a day, more than a field hand might pick in two weeks. William Ayres, the station’s superintendent, called the apparatus “the missing link in the mechanical production of cotton.”
The mechanization of Southern agriculture ended up taking decades. As it progressed, dramatically increasing productivity, many workers left the land, and the South’s farms were consolidated into fewer but larger holdings. By 1967 the imperatives of economics had brought the mechanization of Southern agriculture nearly to completion. Few hand laborers were left to be displaced, for most of them had already found other means of livelihood. The tyranny of King Cotton was now restrained by child labor laws and by the broad availability of new opportunities. The mechanical cotton picker had played a crucial role in this transformation. A somber legacy of poverty and ignorance belonged increasingly to the past.