Robert Butler:

It was a beautiful moment in 1887 when a veterinary surgeon in Northern Ireland invented a new kind of tyre, to smooth out the bumps when his son was on his tricycle. Within ten years John Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre—inflated canvas tubes, bonded with liquid rubber—had become so successful that the American civil-rights leader Susan B. Anthony could claim, “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
The invention didn’t free everyone. The raw material for the pneumatic tubes came from the rubber vines of the Congo, and the demand for rubber only deepened the damage that had been inflicted in that region by the demand for ivory. A century later, the pattern hadn’t entirely changed: the coltan required for mobile phones comes from the same area, where war has claimed millions of lives over the past 12 years.
…And now “Heart of Darkness” is a graphic novel by Catherine Anyango, with the ivory domino pieces—lightly touched on by Conrad in the opening pages—looming in the foreground of the opening drawings. The theme of traceability, where things come from and the journey that they take, is vividly dramatised. It’s a story for today. One day in June last year, Jeff Swartz, CEO of the leisurewear company Timberland, woke up to find the first of 65,000 angry e-mails in his inbox. These were responses to a Greenpeace campaign that said Brazilian cattle farmers were clear-cutting forests for cattle and the leather from the cattle was going into Timberland shoes. Swartz has written up his experience for the Harvard Business Review. His first action, he says, was to admit that he didn’t know where the leather came from. It wasn’t a question he had asked.
As “Heart of Darkness” has moved from one medium to another, it has made a good claim to be the single most influential hundred pages of the 20th century. If you consider its central theme—how one half of the world consumes resources at the expense of the other half—it’s easy to see its relevance becoming even greater. Only the resources will no longer be ivory for piano keys, or rubber for bicycle tyres.
The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.
Before cotton, slavery had been in decline in the United States, but now there was a great need for labor because picking cotton remained extremely labor-intensive. At the time of Whitney’s invention slavery existed in just six states; by the outbreak of the Civil War it was legal in fifteen. Worse, the northern slave states like Virginia and Maryland, where cotton couldn’t be successfully grown, turned to exporting slaves to their southern neighbors, thus breaking up families and intensifying the suffering for tens of thousands. Between 1793 and the outbreak of the Civil War, over eight hundred thousand slaves were shipped south.
At the same time, the booming cotton mills of England needed huge numbers of workers – more than population increase alone could easily provide – so increasingly they turned to child labor. Children were malleable, worked cheap, and were generally quicker at darting among machinery and dealing with snags, breakages and the like. Even the most enlightened mill owners used children freely. They couldn’t afford not to.
So Whitney’s gin not only helped make many people rich on both sides of the Atlantic but also reinvigorated slavery, turned child labor into a necessity, and paved the way for the American Civil War. Perhaps at no time in history has someone with a simple, well-meaning invention generated more general prosperity, personal disappointment, and inadvertent suffering than Eli Whitney with his gin. That is quite a lot of consequence for a simple rotating drum.