Until the light bulb, no invention in American history was as momentous as that of the cotton gin, an innovative machine that separated out the sticky green seeds from cotton bales grown on Southern plantations, allowing cotton growers to actually turn a profit in the enterprise.
The machine was invented by Eli Whitney, a Yale  graduate working as a tutor in Georgia at the time. The Eli Whitney Museum (915 Whitney Ave., Hamden, 203/777-1833, www.eliwhitney.org , noon–4 p.m. daily summer; noon–5 p.m. Wed.–Fri., 10 a.m.–3 p.m. Sat., noon–5 p.m. Sun. winter; rates vary by exhibit, call for specifics), which fills the house where he lived in later years, details the invention of the machine as well as how it changed the course of American history. Because of Whitney’s invention, cotton profits doubled each decade after 1800, fueling the industrialization of New England through its textile mills and, as an unfortunate side effect, the slave trade.
As for Whitney, he didn’t do as well as his invention. Forced into costly lawsuits to protect his patent, he eventually left the South virtually penniless and headed back to New Haven . Even in later life, however, his mind was forever curious—in New Haven he invented a manufacturing technique for rifles that was a precursor to the modern assembly line, eventually revolutionizing factories even though he didn’t live to see it.
The Eli Whitney Museum carries on his spirit with interactive activities for kids to assemble simple machines designed by museum staff.