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A wave of new technologies brought about sweeping changes in the nation's economy. From agricultural devices like the cotton gin and the mechanical reaper to communication improvements like steamboats and the telegraph, these innovations changed the way Americans worked, traveled, and communicated. New tools even altered the way Americans lived and died; the efficient Sharps rifle was invented just two years after the first successful use of anesthesia in a Boston surgical theater.||

Short-staple cotton was originally grown only on a small scale because extracting seeds from the cotton bolls was a task that could only be done by hand. In 1793, Eli Whitney solved the problem when he invented a device that pushed the cotton lint through a kind of sieve. The fibers could be pulled through the sieve, but the seeds could not. The cotton gin paved the way for massive plantings of short-staple cotton across the South and made cotton king. But the growth of the cotton industry would come at the expense of African American slaves.

|Yale University Library;||

At the beginning of the 19th century the steam engine became a new source of power. Robert Fulton tested his first American vessel in 1807, traveling from New York to Albany in 32 hours -- a trip which used to take four days. Steam-powered locomotives and other machines would revolutionize land-based transportation as well as farming and factory work, helping power the Industrial Revolution.


Invented in 1831, Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper helped transform the Midwest into America's breadbasket. Before the machine, wheat was harvested by hand. McCormick's horse-drawn reaper could cut more wheat in a day than half a dozen men.

|State Historical Society of Wisconsin;||

On May 24, 1844, the first telegraph, "What hath God wrought?," was sent by the system's inventor, Samuel Morse, who had already perfected the system of dots and dashes that became known as Morse Code. The telegraph completely revolutionized American communications. Messages could be sent instantly, and newspapers, businesspeople, and even ordinary citizens embraced it. The telegraph played a key role in the Civil War as well -- for the first time, distantly located officers and even President Lincoln could receive timely reports from the battlefield and use them to plot strategy.


On October 16, 1846, Dr. William Thomas Morton demonstrated the successful use of anesthesia to a group of physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital. For the first time, patients could find relief from the horrible pain of surgical operations. At first, doctors recommended Ether, but soon Chloroform was the drug of choice. Most men wounded during the Civil War never had access to anesthesia.


The Sharps rifle, invented in 1848, was one of the first breech-loading military weapons. It could be loaded much faster than a muzzle loader, allowing a soldier to insert a linen cartridge containing powder and a ball at the back end of the barrel rather than requiring him to measure gunpowder and use a ramrod. Faster and more reliable than the conventional muzzleloaders, the Sharps rifle proved invaluable in the Civil War and helped influence a permanent shift in military tactics.


It took Elias Howe five years to perfect his sewing machine, and by 1860, some 110,000 machines were selling annually. Sewing machines made by Howe and rivals such as Isaac Merrit Singer churned out both practical clothing as well as the latest fashions in factories and sweatshops across the Northeast. When wartime came, the machines were put to another task: making uniforms for soldiers.


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