How inventions change history (for better and for worse) – Kenneth C. Davis


Translator: tom carter
Reviewer: Bedirhan Cinar This is the story of an invention that changed the world. Imagine a machine that could cut 10 hours of work down to one. A machine so efficient that it would free up people to do other things, kind of like the personal computer. But the machine I’m going to tell you about did none of this. In fact, it accomplished just the opposite. In the late 1700s, just as America was getting on its feet as a republic under the new U.S Constitution, slavery was a tragic American fact of life. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both became President while owning slaves, knowing that this peculiar institution contradicted the ideals and principles for which they fought a revolution. But both men believed that slavery was going to die out as the 19th century dawned, They were, of course, tragically mistaken. The reason was an invention, a machine they probably told you about in elementary school: Mr. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. A Yale graduate, 28-year-old Whitney had come to South Carolina to work as a tutor in 1793. Supposedly he was told by some local planters about the difficulty of cleaning cotton. Separating the seeds from the cotton lint was tedious and time consuming. Working by hand, a slave could clean about a pound of cotton a day. But the Industrial Revolution was underway, and the demand was increasing. Large mills in Great Britain and New England were hungry for cotton to mass produce cloth. As the story was told, Whitney had a “eureka moment” and invented the gin, short for engine. The truth is that the cotton gin already existed for centuries in small but inefficient forms. In 1794, Whitney simply improved upon the existing gins and then patented his “invention”: a small machine that employed a set of cones that could separate seeds from lint mechanically, as a crank was turned. With it, a single worker could eventually clean from 300 to one thousand pounds of cotton a day. In 1790, about 3,000 bales of cotton were produced in America each year. A bale was equal to about 500 pounds. By 1801, with the spread of the cotton gin, cotton production grew to 100 thousand bales a year. After the destructions of the War of 1812, production reached 400 thousand bales a year. As America was expanding through the land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, yearly production exploded to four million bales. Cotton was king. It exceeded the value of all other American products combined, about three fifths of America’s economic output. But instead of reducing the need for labor, the cotton gin propelled it, as more slaves were needed to plant and harvest king cotton. The cotton gin and the demand of Northern and English factories re-charted the course of American slavery. In 1790, America’s first official census counted nearly 700 thousand slaves. By 1810, two years after the slave trade was banned in America, the number had shot up to more than one million. During the next 50 years, that number exploded to nearly four million slaves in 1860, the eve of the Civil War. As for Whitney, he suffered the fate of many an inventor. Despite his patent, other planters easily built copies of his machine, or made improvements of their own. You might say his design was pirated. Whitney made very little money from the device that transformed America. But to the bigger picture, and the larger questions. What should we make of the cotton gin? History has proven that inventions can be double-edged swords. They often carry unintended consequences. The factories of the Industrial Revolution spurred innovation and an economic boom in America. But they also depended on child labor, and led to tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed more than 100 women in 1911. Disposable diapers made life easy for parents, but they killed off diaper delivery services. And do we want landfills overwhelmed by dirty diapers? And of course, Einstein’s extraordinary equation opened a world of possibilities. But what if one of them is Hiroshima?

Comments 100

  • Learn history somewhere else, that is certainly not considered correct open knowledge. They did not reply to our messages warning them to surrender, and they almost continued to fight even after the bombs. The "peace party" in China (I believe that is the title of the group) used the atomic explosions as leverage to convince the rest to surrender.

  • The Japanese offered a full surrender with one condition: keeping their emperor. We bombed them and then accepted the terms.

    That is considered open knowledge, just google it. It's not hidden or anything.

  • I did google it, you are incorrect. Japan offered a full surrender after the bombs were dropped:
    "Later that day, the United States dropped another atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. The combined shock of these events caused Emperor Hirohito to intervene and order the Big Six to accept the terms for ending the war that the Allies had set down in the Potsdam Declaration."

  • Yes, that's true, but the Japanese had ALREADY offered to surrender before that. They hadn't officially sent the surrender, but they had told the Americans that they were ready to talk and stated their conditions. The US refused.

  • So you will sue me if I make an exact copy of your house?

    And apple copied Microsoft with the tablet, so get your fucking facts straight.

  • Some religions actually did help the world at their founding, Islam for example was extremely forward moving in woman rights for the time period. Still,overall…

  • Innovation is what progresses mankind to achieve better and greater and allows us to live in a world of better understanding. The negative applications of innovation stated are more of a reflection on where humanity stems from. There are plenty of kinks to be worked out, but I'm hopeful that humanity is moving in the right directions and it is primarily due to innovation.

  • It is never a good idea to misspell knolage. I'm not being one of the "haha you misspelled their" guys, it's just, people jump on that.

  • Wow, surprisingly coherent and thoughtful for a drunk memory.

  • "Get your facts straight. It's common knowledge that they did not reply to our messages warning them to surrender", says the person who probably also believes the Vietnamese started the Vietnam war and that we totally had a good reason to invade iraq…

  • just saying, it changed it for better too -_-

    Im not a religious person (at all really) but cmon, we need to stop pretending its all predjudice and wars with it.

    As in, 90% of classical scientific and philosophical texts wouldent exist anymore without religious institutions like mosques and monostaries in the Dark and Middle ages

  • something to ponder, for sure.

    But then agian, its not the invention itself, but what me do with it. history's (sadly) proved we have very little restraint :/

  • The e=mc^2 and Hiroshima example really seemed a bit off to me. An invention is really unbiased. It has no objective or agency. It is the people who use it correctly or exploit it who cause the good or bad. I do agree that inventions can be double edged swords but they don't have to be.

  • Comment full of truth

  • not deffending apple but you could sue for making some one a replica of your house without paying youmaybe an architect wasted months to make the plans for the house and sudenttly another dude steals that idea so yea you could sue for coppieng a house ond the apple side they have copied tons of invensions i mean good guy nokia invented the phone that dosnt flip and he hasnt sued anyone about that.

  • Yeah! Look at the Newton! It is a tablet and Apple took it.

  • Not complaning, just warning. "invention can be a double edge sword"

  • They are a small price to pay for improved technology.

  • I can see his logic, but what is his point? does he want us to stop inventing? Even if there are negative consequences to inventing do they outweigh the benefits? How could an inventor possibly know about consequences that "might" happen decades later, positive or negative?

  • Fucking christ your statement is unfounded. Apple is the richest company in the field of tech & they claimed other people's work to get there. They are the ones stealing good ideas from others and rebranding them, not the other way around. Apple buys patents to sue others, they dont innovate, they ban competitive products that might be innovative. Samsung dont really innovate either, but neither do they go suing people left and right for a vague resemblence of a product they made.

  • I think TED should make a video on how a psychopathic human brain works, fallowed by a fine tuning on how psychopaths use mental and/or physical power to gain alpha male over other humans. Because we have allot of psychopaths in charge which make laws and regulations which we call "leaders". And when we have psychopathic "leaders" who get excited over some new weapon invention and convince other people that war is good, we as a society are not ready for most upcoming technologies.

  • Guns don't kill people. People kill people. Guns are inventions.

  • price my ass, the world doesn't work like a candy store so stop acting like it can be summed up like that. Well i guess your comment is easier to read than the know-it-alls that NEED to preach both history and philosophy at once.

  • Worst TEDed video so far

  • Once upon a time, a wise man said, “Everything humanity has invented or it will invent, eventually it appears that the invention is a weapon”

  • Well done video!

  • Microsoft tablet?????? hahaha was a complete joke

  • They wouldn't, the cost of slaves versus gain of production would result in lost, the farmers would not have had the money to buy the slaves, resulting in a financial chain reaction in everything involving slaves.

  • Get lost apple fanboy.

  • go ahead run away from the truth

  • if im not mistaken they also copied the Pc right?

  • No. First off, microsoft and apple is based on linux which is based on unix. Bill Gates used to work for IBM, he stole the ideas and made his own company. So everyone here is stealing something, both apple and microsoft.

  • These TED videos for children are revisionist and silly. The original talks are fantastic. These are a joke

  • All the touch screen smartphones are copyed off apple. Remember the first iphone? Thats where it all came from, the samsung galixy and the new nokia, even the microsoft phones (windows phone).

  • Wrong again. The handheld keyboardless computing device predates the 1999 microsoft tablet PC. Who made it first? Apple Newton. BOOM
    Who made the first laptop? Apple Portable.
    Who gave us the mouse? Not Apple!
    The GUI? Xerox! Wait, what?
    Anyway, if you build a house it's physical form can be copywritten, but only if it is sufficiently edgy to qualify as "art."

  • People bickering & arguing on youtube, like it really matters what you're stating… This is why people hate Americans.

  • Apple doesn't have PC, PC is a microsoft product!

  • If my house had lasers on it probably, or i'd kill you with the lasers.

  • yes it true my bad

  • not realy it is E^2=(mc^2)^2+(pc^2)

  • PC=personal computer

  • Lol, look at what his profile says.

    "I'm a really rational and peaceful guy, that's not afraid to respectfully disagree

    i'm a smarty pants,

    i'm a comic book fan,

    i'm a tech buff,

    basically i'm like a mini Neil Patrick Harris & Michael Cera hybrid"

  • 1:54 light balbs did not exist yet try a candle?

  • eindstein didnt kill 100 000 civilians in hiroshima. MURICA DID.

  • invention is neutral putting it to use makes it good or bad.
    lets clean earth of bad people so we can invent things which we can put in a good use.

  • i'm with you bro

  • actually the other way around

  • Other way around? Was apple the one that came out with a tablet in 2000? No, it was Bill Fucking Gates, bitch.

  • Child labor conditions were worse before the industrial revolution.

  • You should learn about how the Apple Lisa was the 1st commercial computer with a Graphic.User.Interface, Microsofts DOS was a piece of shit I had the displeasure of using, furthermore then the Macintosh came out and it was glorious except that there were not many Apps so A guy called Bill Gates, worked for and made software for Steve Jobs as he was doing this he was stealing every fabric of the macintoshes user interface and created the Microsoft we know and love, by ripping off Apple.

  • you are a funny guy

  • Give me a break. Tablet style computers have been around since long before Apple introduced the iPad…

  • if anyone was completely and utterly ripped off it was xerox… poor bastards… made the first computer and got shat on by apple

  • Slave labor is not getting paid at all and abused; horribly usually. Get it straight.

  • Actually, it's E²=(mc²)²+(pc)² 😛 You forgot to square the (mc²) part.

  • i'm not sure if you're sure

  • umm… sorry it is actually E2=(mc2)2+pc2

  • E^2=(mc^2^)2+(pc)^2, missed the () on (pc)

  • yea, but with rest mass, the p goes to zero and one can take the positive square root of each side leading to the more famous (albeit with lesser information) equation

  • What, are we gonna just forget about Babbage entirely?
    Sure he never actually built it, but come on!

  • Nothing truer than this

  • I think blaming the slave's fate on the inventor is very wrong. It's like regreting that prehistoric man invented the fire because someone gets burned.

    Many inventions can be used in a bad way. Therefore it's the responsibility of each individual how he behaves.

    This is only taking away the responsibility from each wrong-doing individual. The slave-owner is wrong, not somenone that makes slave/owning profitable.

  • This makes me proud of never inventing anything in my life.

  • "With great power, comes great responsibility.." – Uncle Ben

  • Just like any invention, there are always pros and cons.

  • Man is an inventing animal. He creates new technology all the time. If he did not we would live like cave-men and nothing would ever change.

  • I think a better example would be the invention of chinesse porcelain, the effect it had on Chinesse/Asian society and how it actually led to centuries of decline in innovation in China compared to the west.

    Long story short: The Chinesse was so happy and content with the invention of porcelain that they did not bother to research or adopt the invention of glass for more than 100 years.

    In this case we see how a single invention propels society forward for those who study, adopt and perfects the utility of this invention, while we see the indirect damage it causes to those who ignore it.

  • Meanwhile: in 1816, Krakatoa erupted and everyone had to endure the year without summer. Thousands died of frostbite. I'd wager that the mass produced cotton clothes saved more that a few people that year. Sure, making them was hard work, but the industrial revolution gave hundreds of millions of people a change of clothes.

    Life before industrialization sucked, and for the average man it required a huge input of work just to stay alive. Sure, there are issues even in an industrialized society, but they are infinitely preferable to the issues you see in pre-industrial societies. 10% of the society being slaves was still better than 80% of society being serfs to their landlords.

    The reason why we don't have slavery or serfdom any more is entirely thanks to the further development of the industrial revolution. The work that used to be done by slaves or serfs is now done by machines. We have gone from a society where almost everyone had to constantly work to make food to one where 2% of society can fully provide the rest with food, working only on a standard eight hour workday with weekends.

    It pains me that people don't understand how magical things like flipping a switch to light up a room or clean water from a tap are, and regularly complain about the things that make their lifestyle possible. We live in a society where the magical has become ordinary, and people don't understand just how well off they are.

  • (something logical and that you cannot argue with because it's accurate)

  • Eli Whitney sounds like Apple.

  • Hiroshima also open one of the possibilities.

  • i hope hes in hell now

  • this video sucked

  • All I'm getting from this is every invention and discovery is in the gray area. Meaning it has consequences both good and bad. I think that's because every decision and action comes at a price. People say "No Good Deed goes Unpunished" and "Eaten Bread is soon Forgotten." But maybe every decision yields a reward as well; it's just that it's difficult for us to see them both. It's like what my mom once told me, "There's more good than bad in the world. It's just the bad gets more attention, whereas the good is more low-key." We don't know what we loose when we choose to be lazy, and some jobs, although important, seem to be thankless.

    So in conclusion, we must always be more considerate of the consequences of our actions; we must ask ourselves what it will yield us, what will it cost us, and weather or not it's worth the price. And more important, we should at least try and show more appreciation for the contributions people make to us. And we should all try and thank people for doing the right thing. Otherwise, the bread we give will soon be forgotten. Thank you.:-)

  • The title of this video is absolutely wrong, it should be "how capitalism change history for worse", all the misfortunes depicted here are the essence of capitalism, that is bad concequences shared by sheer numbers of poor people and the greatest profit shared by a reduced minority. If Truman were sitted at the Nuremberg Trials, he would have been condemned to death by genocide, of course that was not proposed by the very many but cancelled by a few.

  • He only explained the idea in a historical point of view. What about the modern standard inventions.

  • why did u make this video bruh

  • This is why I hate history, everybody is blaming this and that the cause of this and that. If you stop them would you change the world for the better? How about now, could you make a difference? And don't blame Einstein for preWWII Japan stupidity, if it weren't for him you wouldn't not post a video about it now.

  • China

  • 3:28 I thought they were salt and pepper shakers, lol

  • again, shoutout to mr meitzner for making me watch this LOL

  • wass up my G. My class loved it. Your favorite history teacher, mr B

  • Boring

  • Hi there

  • I had to do an assignment on Eli Whitney so I watched this video. It gave me some information but not that much. Plus I wonder why It says it is bad that he invented that

  • how does the revolutionary war have anything to do with slavery like this guy said in the opening?

  • 5:01 how rude Hiroshima is such a nice place

  • Hiroshima needed to happen otherwise many more lives would have been lost if the US invaded with troops, sorry Ted but you are wrong

  • I didn't understand, because it's difficult.

  • I just watched this video today, and my us History teacher is amazing. Eli Whitney is amazing.

  • Well, now we know…

  • Inventions are always good. It's the people who always find ways to abuse them.

  • Einstein didn't invent e=mc^2, he just discovered it. This is like blaiming newton for a plane crash because he discovered gravity. Einstein didn't take part in manhattan project

  • bruh the ending :,(

  • whats herasima

  • I hate ted ed

  • "Land acquired through the purchase of the Louisiana Purchase?" How about land stolen from Indigenous Nations in the South? Remember the Trail of Tears?

  • Einstein made e=mc^2
    USA used that equation to make nuclear bomb for war
    Einstein:Am i the joke to you??

  • Very true inventions can change everything for better or worse.

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