Eli Whitney and the Cotton Djinn
by Zach Shephard
Eli Whitney was not always a great inventor. Even the best of his early ideas failed to generate
public interest, because no one needed weaponized cheddar or a sock that covers both feet. He
had all the tools he needed to improve the world -- a Yale education, free lodging with a friend
and an abundance of physical resources -- but without inspiration, he just couldn't come up with
Then came the day when he burned the handkerchief, and everything changed.
Eli, brainstorming alone in a shack on Catherine Greene's plantation, had just wasted his last
piece of paper designing a harvester that couldn't possibly be efficient because yams aren't
twelve feet long. It's for this reason that, when his next idea struck, the only available writing
surface was the pair of handkerchiefs in his pocket.
On the square of red cloth Eli recorded his idea for a new type of banjo, which could churn butter
more effectively than any banjo before it. He labeled his invention the slapwagon, which would
make perfect sense if you could see the illustration.
Grinning at the thrill of discovery, Eli held the drawing out at arm's length. Upon review, he
soon realized the slapwagon's fatal flaw: it was stupid.
"Worthless!" he said, and set the handkerchief on fire. He threw it to the dirt floor of the shack,
where it promptly exploded.
From the cloth rose a pillar of smokeless fire, which shifted through various bestial shapes before
solidifying into the form of a statuesque woman in purple, stomach-baring silks. Her skin was
the color of lava, its texture that of rough tablecloth, and her eyes blazed like flame reflected in
"Who dares?" she asked. "Who summons Mari, Lady of Fire, Wielder of the Eternal --"
The water struck her squarely in the face, soaking into the red cloth of her skin. Mari peeled
open one eye, then the other, looking something less than jolly as her gaze fixed on Eli, who was
still holding the empty bucket.
"Why," she said, "would you ever do that?"
"You said you were on fire."
"Of fire. Of."
"Oh. I'm dreadfully sorry, then. Will you accept my apologies?"