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In Print: On News Stands Now

A PORTABLE COTTON GIN

by Tumbleweed Smith

Joe D. Rogers of Hereford collects old carpenter tools. Some of them date back to the days of the American Revolution in 1776. He has traveled throughout the New England states looking for the ancient items. "My wife says I can spot a rusty chisel a hundred yards away while traveling at 70 miles an hour," says Joe, a teacher who holds a few history degrees. He fell in love with tools while working in his dad's shop.

Joe uses the old tools to makes things that were invented more than 200 years ago. He made a cotton gin that he caries around in his car to show students how cotton is ginned. He did a lot of research on the internet to find out about the components and how a gin works. I asked him why it was called a cotton gin. "The word gin is a shortened version of the word engine," he said. "It was first called a cotton engine. Later on, words like spinning ginny came into use. It's just another word for engine."

The cotton gin he made is about the size of an apple box, approximately the same size as the original cotton gin built by Eli Whitney in 1792. "The idea for the cotton gin came to him while he was watching a cat chase a bird. When the bird flew through a chicken wire fence, the bird was on one side, but his feathers were on the other side. His brain kicked in and he thought about a series of combs and brushes to remove seeds from a cotton boll. The comb and brush idea came from watching a slave curry a horse. As the horsehair collected on the comb, he would knock it off with a brush. So Eli went to his blacksmith and built it in about a week."

Joe says Eli hoped to make money from his invention, but while he was waiting for a patent, several people stole his idea. "It was so simple everybody could copy it and they did, so Whitney never made any money off it. Not that he really needed it. He had invented a nail making machine and was the sole manufacturer of hatpins. He wanted to corner the market with the cotton gin, like an operating system for computers. He had ideas of controlling all the gins and all the cotton would come through him."

The cotton gin brought about the Industrial revolution. Some say the invention encouraged slavery and ultimately led to the Civil War. "Before the cotton gin was invented, farmers could produce three pounds of cotton a day, then after the gin came along they could do 150 pounds a day. So they needed more cotton. To get it farmers had to clear more land, do the planting and harvest, which required more slaves. Then you had to have all those other machines: the spinning ginnys, the mills, factories and all the rest."

When Joe demonstrates his homemade cotton gin to students, he starts with raw cotton. "I gather up cotton left in the fields after harvest and put it through the machine. I turn it with a hand crank that came from an old sausage grinder. It makes a great tool to teach about the social changes that came about during the time when our nation was young. When the students can touch something, it tends to make them focus on whatever you're trying to teach. I love teaching with artifacts."

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