‘Mak­ing things is hu­man im­pulse’

The News-Times (Sunday) - - News - By Clare Dig­nan mdig­nan@hearst­medi­act.com

Edi­tor’s note: This is the 44th story in the Reg­is­ter’s Top 50 se­ries.

Count­less prod­ucts, ideas and works of art have been pro­duced in New Haven and by its sons and daugh­ters. In­ven­tors in New Haven have con­trib­uted to the growth of in­dus­tries such as man­u­fac­tur­ing, tex­tiles, food, au­to­mo­biles and oth­ers.

The cul­ture of in­no­va­tion is con­nected with one of the area’s most fa­mous and in­flu­en­tial res­i­dents—Eli Whitney. His in­ven­tions, born out of need, shaped history in ways the in­ven­tor could not an­tic­i­pate. He is in­te­grally tied with the history and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of New Haven, with a sec­tion of town, a school and a main thor­ough­fare be­ing named for this man.

“Was New Haven a par­tic­u­larly in­no­va­tive place? I would ar­gue that it was,” said Bill Brown, direc­tor of the Eli Whitney Mu­seum. “It was con­nected to Eli Whitney. ... The way that peo­ple worked here, it had a pow­er­ful con­tri­bu­tion to their lives.”

An in­ven­tor is made

Born in Mas­sachusetts to a farmer, Whitney didn’t want to fol­low in his fa­ther’s foot­steps, so at 23 he at­tended Yale Univer­sity to study law. But af­ter grad­u­a­tion he still hadn’t found his calling and, ea­ger to establish him­self, took a tu­tor­ing po­si­tion in South Carolina that promised good pay, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum. On his trip south, Whitney found out his agreed-upon salary was to be halved and re­fused the job, in­stead tak­ing an job of­fer from a woman he was trav­el­ing with who was a widow of a Revo­lu­tion­ary War gen­eral. She in­vited Whitney to stay at her plan­ta­tion in Ge­or­gia.

“All who knew him would con­cede: he was an art­ful me­chanic,” ac­cord­ing to the Eli Whitney Mu­seum web­site.

It was there in Ge­or­gia that Whitney in­vented the ma­chine for which he is most fa­mous, one that changed the south­ern and north­ern economies dra­mat­i­cally — the cot­ton gin. The de­vice pro­duced more cot­ton in an hour than what could be pro­duced by mul­ti­ple work­ers in a day. Whitney planned to in­stall his ma­chine on plan­ta­tions through­out the South and col­lect­ing a por­tion of the prof­its, the mu­seum’s history re­counts.

“By the time he’d put a patent on it, it was too late,” said Ja­son Bischof­fWurs­tle, direc­tor of photo archives at the New Haven Mu­seum. Whitney’s ma­chine had been copied by farm­ers all over by the time he was awarded a patent in 1794. “He was caught up in lit­i­ga­tion and over­all he didn’t re­ally make a profit from the cot­ton gin. But as we know, it be­came ar­guably the most revo­lu­tion­ary in­ven­tion in Amer­i­can history. It helped establish Amer­ica as it was at that point.”

South­ern planters reaped fi­nan­cial wind­falls from the in­ven­tion while Whitney made al­most no profit, even af­ter he re­ceived mone­tary set­tle­ments from some states. While the cot­ton busi­ness boomed, it made keep­ing peo­ple en­slaved a more vi­able busi­ness model. Whitney didn’t in­tend for his in­ven­tion to pro­pel slav­ery, but it made the cot­ton busi­ness more ef­fi­cient and, in turn, prof­itable, Bischoff-Wurs­tle said. Whitney saw his in­ven­tion as some­thing ben­e­fi­cial for farm­ers and thought it would re­place the need for slaves.

“He imag­ined cot­ton pick­ing was dif­fi­cult by hand and it would even­tu­ally be re­placed by a ma­chine,” Brown said. “Peo­ple were solv­ing prob­lems ev­ery­where, but he didn’t imag­ine slav­ery would go on for 100 years.”

“More than any other one man, he shaped the op­pos­ing faces of both the North and South for a half-cen­tury to come,” ac­cord­ing to the Eli Whitney Mue­sum web­site. But Whitney didn’t live long enough to see the start of the Civil War. He died in 1825.

“Hav­ing slaves was not ef­fi­cient,” Bischoff-Wurs­tle said. “His out­look was that this would make more sense and it would be bet­ter for peo­ple. You could just make this ma­chine and have less peo­ple and be bet­ter off. It was around the time slav­ery was slow­ing down, but it had an in­verse ef­fect. The cot­ton gin made slav­ery more vi­able.”

“His mo­ti­va­tion was to establish him­self,” Brown said. But never able to do that with the cot­ton gin, he re­turned to New Haven, re­solv­ing to start over.

Whitney’s fac­tory

Un­sure of what to do, Whitney was for­tu­nate enough to have been no­ticed by Thomas Jef­fer­son, who wanted Amer­ica to pro­duce its own arms. In June 1798, Whitney signed a con­tract with the gov­ern­ment to pro­duce 10,000 mus­kets in two years, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum. In do­ing so, he be­came Amer­ica’s first arms dealer. Whitney was not an ex­pe­ri­enced gun­maker but had the idea to make all parts of a mus­ket in­ter­change­able in the field. To ac­com­plish it, though, he would have to cre­ate a sys­tem of man­u­fac­tur­ing each part to the same spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

At the time, mus­kets were built by in­di­vid­ual crafts­men, with each weapon hav­ing a unique de­sign, and Whitney faced a short­age of skilled and af­ford­able crafts­man to ful­fill the con­tract, ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum. Pushed by ne­ces­sity, he cre­ated tools that would to ease the skill re­quired of work­ers.

“If you’re go­ing to have 65 peo­ple col­lab­o­rate, they’re go­ing to have to have tools to guide their work, so that per­son can de­liver it with ac­cu­racy,” Brown said. For each part of the gun, a tem­plate was made, so a worker could fol­low the pat­tern in cut­ting a piece of me­tal. Each worker only needed to mas­ter mak­ing a few parts.

“He did not know at first in which di­rec­tion to go, but he was about to en­ter the less cel­e­brated but most fruit­ful time of his life; and just as he had changed the face of the South, he was now about to mold the face of the North into a form it has kept ever since,” ac­cord­ing to the mu­seum web­site. “He was to lay the foun­da­tion and in­vent the tech­niques for what has be­come known as the ‘Amer­i­can Sys­tem of Man­u­fac­ture.’ ”

He built his fac­tory at the bor­der of Hamden and New Haven where he was able to har­ness wa­ter to power the milling ma­chines used to cre­ate the parts. This area be­came known as Whit­neyville as peo­ple came to live around the fac­tory where they worked. It be­came a quin­tes­sen­tial picture of where peo­ple lived while they were learn­ing trades in the fac­tory, Brown said. Neigh­bor­hoods that sur­round fac­to­ries are repli­cated all around New Haven now.

The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion had be­gun in Eng­land, but Whitney’s fac­tory marked the be­gin­nings of the Amer­i­can In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. Both the cot­ton gin and sys­tem of in­ter­change­able parts were early driv­ers of in­dus­try in Amer­ica.

“We cel­e­brate Henry Ford for cre­at­ing assem­bly and mass pro­duc­tion, but re­ally Eli Whitney came up with that—Ford sped things up 100 years later,” Bischoff-Wurs­tle said. “Whitney added to this no­tion of fast mov­ing, that Amer­i­cans can move at a quicker rate and get things done, mixed with their Protes­tant no­tion that we had to keep work­ing.”

Whitney in­vented out of need. He took the con­tract with the gov­ern­ment be­cause he was look­ing for a way to establish him­self and in­vented a new method of man­u­fac­tur­ing to ful­fill that con­tract. His sys­tem of in­ter­change­able parts wasn’t as im­por­tant to him as the tools he fash­ioned to make those parts, Brown said. This work strat­egy shaped man­u­fac­tur­ing in the 19th cen­tury.

“In do­ing so he cre­ated the new Amer­i­can era of in­dus­try be­tween the gin and the uni­for­mity sys­tem he cre­ated,” Bischoff-Wurs­tle said. “At the be­gin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, he put Amer­ica on the map as this brand new tech vi­sion­ary with what he was do­ing.”

“That tool­mak­ing busi­ness, Whitney re­al­ized, was the essence of his work here,” Brown said. “Once you learn the power to make things in in­dus­trial fash­ion, a prod­uct of your abil­ity to make tools, you have a new technical lan­guage. You have tools to make any­thing — make guns, clocks, or make hard­ware. You be­gin to de­velop this set of univer­sal skills.”

By 1808 Whitney re­al­ized his fac­tory was also a type of school that pro­duced a new kind of worker, Brown said.

In­spir­ing other mak­ers

Whitney in­spired a cul­ture of prob­lem-solv­ing in New Haven. His ar­mory was rel­a­tively small, par­tic­u­larly in the time he was alive, with only 65 work­ers, but it pro­duced peo­ple that were part of a geo­met­ric growth of in­dus­try in the area. As he em­ployed more peo­ple, he taught them how to build and cre­ate and be­came a fig­ure­head for in­no­va­tion.

“He was seen as this new Amer­i­can leader, em­bod­ied that new Amer­i­can spirit that peo­ple were cel­e­brat­ing,” Bischoff-Wurs­tle said. “His in­ven­tions pushed the bar­ri­ers and con­tin­ued through his fam­ily.”

Re­cently in­cor­po­rated as a city in 1784, New Haven was be­com­ing a place where peo­ple saw and em­u­lated work­ers who were able to mas­ter pro­duc­tion, Brown said. “De­vel­op­ing a ca­pac­ity to make things builds on it­self and is what the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion is about.” The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion came out of solv­ing prob­lems, he said, and af­ter Whitney’s de­vel­op­ment of tools, fac­to­ries could get a worker who could use tools that pro­duced ef­fi­ciency.

His fac­tory, along with the lively clock-mak­ing and brass hard­ware sec­tors, con­trib­uted early on to mak­ing the state a pow­er­ful man­u­fac­tur­ing econ­omy. It be­came known as the “ar­se­nal of Amer­ica” be­cause so many arms man­u­fac­tur­ers took root in New Haven, Brown said. The fac­tory stayed in busi­ness for 80 years, with Whitney’s neph­ews and, later, son, Eli Whitney Jr., run­ning the busi­ness af­ter his fa­ther died. It was in his fac­tory that Samuel Colt — in­ven­tor of the au­to­matic re­volver — man­u­fac­tured his first pis­tol in 1846.

“There was this re­mark­able pro­lif­er­a­tion,” Brown said of the num­ber of fac­to­ries to spring up af­ter Whitney’s did.

Many other ma­chin­ists and firearms de­sign­ers would go on to establish suc­cess­ful firearms man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies in New Haven, in­clud­ing Oliver Winch­ester, who even­tu­ally bought the Whitney Ar­mory and es­tab­lished the Winch­ester Arms Co., which be­came one of New Haven’s largest em­ploy­ers.

“His legacy has such a strength to it,” Bischof­fWurs­tle said. “Lo­cally, his legacy in­ter­twined with the de­vel­op­ment of the com­mu­nity. His fam­ily added to that legacy and cre­ated their own, as well.”

The fac­tory is now the Eli Whitney Mu­seum, which em­pha­sizes hand­son learn­ing for chil­dren. Brown said the mu­seum iden­ti­fies projects for kids who want to learn dif­fer­ently and want to move while they work in­stead of sit­ting down all the time.

“At the mu­seum, we think the les­son to be ob­served in Whitney’s process is the work­place was a pow­er­ful ed­u­cat­ing place,” Brown said. “We ar­gue, as Whitney did, that school­ing with pa­per in front of you is learn­ing but not equal to ed­u­ca­tion.”

More in­no­va­tion

There are dozens of other peo­ple ei­ther born in the New Haven area or who lived here later in their lives who can be cred­ited with many well­known in­no­va­tive cre­ations. Land­mark items such as Amer­ica’s first na­tional cur­rency, the first tele­phone com­pany, and toy con­struc­tion set can all be linked with the city.

Ge­orge Coy, who lived in Mil­ford and worked in New Haven, is known as the in­ven­tor of the first com­mer­cial tele­phone ex­change. Coy was in­spired by a talk Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell gave in 1877 when he came to New Haven to demon­strate the tele­phone, which he had in­vented the prior year, so Coy started re­search­ing the com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tion of Bell’s in­ven­tion. He started the first tele­phone com­pany, The Dis­trict Tele­phone Co., in 1878, run out of a small, rented of­fice in the Board­man Build­ing at the corner of Chapel and State streets in New Haven. Coy served as sec­re­tary and su­per­in­ten­dent of the com­pany and the first switch­board was built ac­cord­ing to Coy’s de­sign.

The fa­mous lex­i­cog­ra­pher Noah Web­ster at­tended Yale and lived in New Haven where he pub­lished his first dic­tionary, A Com­pen­dious Dic­tionary of the English Lan­guage, in 1801 and be­gan writ­ing the well-known ex­panded ver­sion, An Amer­i­can Dic­tionary of the English Lan­guage. Web­ster was the first per­son to de­fine the words Amer­i­cans use as a way to unify the coun­try and dis­tin­guish it­self from Eng­land. It took Web­ster 22 years to com­plete this feat.

It was a New Haven son, Charles Goodyear, who, around 1884, in­vented vul­can­ized rub­ber, which in­volves mix­ing nat­u­ral rub­ber with ad­di­tives such as sul­fur and other cu­ra­tives to make rub­ber stronger, more flex­i­ble and more re­sis­tant to heat and other en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. The Goodyear Tire & Rub­ber Co. is named af­ter him. He is buried in the Grove Street Ceme­tery.

Whitney’s own legacy of in­no­va­tion con­tin­ued di­rectly through his fam­ily line. His neph­ews — Eli Whitney Blake and Phi­los Blake — are to thank for the in­ven­tion of the stone crusher and corkscrew, re­spec­tively. At the time, work­ers used hand ham­mers to crush stones used to build roads, but Eli Blake solved this costly and la­bor-in­ten­sive prob­lem by me­chan­i­cal means with his steam-pow­ered stone crusher. They also were awarded the first patent for a fur­ni­ture caster, among oth­ers for locks and latches. The Blake broth­ers had gained in­valu­able civil and me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing skills work­ing in their un­cle’s arms fac­tory, which they con­tin­ued to run for 10 years af­ter Whitney’s death.

“Just in the fam­ily you get this evo­lu­tion into dif­fer­ent realms of tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion,” Brown said. “It con­nects his legacy in a pure way. He in­vested in them and they went off to cre­ate suc­cess in their own right.”

New Haven also claims cer­tain food in­ven­tions, such as the ham­burger and the lol­lipop.

Mod­ern in­ven­tors

Whitney’s and oth­ers’ in­no­va­tive spir­its live on in New Haven and re­main part of the city’s cul­ture that al­lows en­trepreneur­ship to grow in many realms. In the last few decades, there has been a rev­o­lu­tion of prod­ucts, Brown said. He pointed no fur­ther than the com­mu­nity work­shop MakeHaven to find mod­ern in­ven­tors.

“If you visit MakeHaven, there’s this in­stinct to cre­ate things,” Brown said.

“We keep pre­tend­ing that mak­ing and in­vent­ing is in the world of fac­to­ries, it’s com­plete non­sense. Mak­ing things is hu­man im­pulse and it will even­tu­ally in­flu­ence our ways of do­ing things,” Brown said. “The spirit that was here in (Whitney’s) time is res­ur­rected in MakeHaven and adults say­ing that in spite of the bias of be­ing an ar­ti­san, ‘I’m go­ing to do that.’ It’s ab­so­lutely im­por­tant be­cause that’s how peo­ple are made. We too nar­rowly de­fine ed­u­ca­tion and don’t honor peo­ple who make things.”

Peter Hviz­dak / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia file photo

Ama­teur gun his­to­rian and col­lec­tor Tom Hines, of New Haven, left, and Eli Whitney Mu­seum direc­tor Bill Brown, cen­ter, dis­cuss the firearms man­u­fac­tured by Eli Whitney as ASM In­ter­na­tional (for­merly the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Ma­te­ri­als) mem­bers and guests lis­ten to the dis­course be­fore a ci­ta­tion pre­sen­ta­tion at the mu­seum des­ig­nat­ing the Eli Whitney Ar­mory as an ASM His­tor­i­cal Land­mark in 2003.

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