Eli Whitney (1765-1825) You can imagine what happened with the advent of the first American cotton mill - the demand for cotton skyrocketed. But the problem with cotton was the seeds. If you were to walk into a cotton field at harvest time and pick a ripe cotton boll, it is nothing like the pure, white cotton balls you buy at the drug store. The reason a cotton plant exists is to make and spread its seeds, and the seeds are embedded in the cotton fibers. The cotton fibers are stuck to the seeds. Removing these seeds was something people did by hand at a rate of about one pound of cotton fibers per day. It was a common task for children and slaves, and it made cotton expensive. That changed with the patented invention of the cotton gin in 1794 by Eli Whitney. The cotton gin is a perfect example of how one machine can make a huge difference to an entire industry. With the cotton gin, the raw cotton sits in a bin. A set of toothed wheels spins through the raw cotton, catching and tugging at the cotton fibers to separate them from the seeds. Then a set of spinning brushes pulls the seedless fibers off the teeth. The original cotton gin was a sinall, hand-cranked box that made seed removal trivially easy and fast. Engineers scaled up the process, refined it, and mechanized it further to create a factory process that could feed clean cotton fiber to the proliferating cotton mills. The cotton gin removed a major roadblock and expense in the cotton manufacturing process, and cotton use exploded. It is a great example of a major productivity breakthrough fostered by engineering. Once invented, the cotton gin rapidly evolved into an industrial-scale machine that removed human labor almost entirely from the ginning process. The same reduction in labor would happen in carding, spinning, and weaving, and also in planting, cultivating, and harvesting the plants. Today, through decades of engineering refinement, a handful of people can do what once took a crowd. >Eli Wihitery's patent for the cotton gin, March 14, 1794