Inventing Change

Eli Whitney Museum

Show Menu
Thumbnail of Inventing Change project

On September 17th 1798, Eli Whitney purchased the land around the museum. He sought its water rights. East Rock and Mill Rock form the first practical site north of New Haven to harness waterpower. There had been grain mills here for the first 150 years since New Haven’s founding. Whitney came here to build a factory.

Though just 33 years old Whitney had won fame –though no fortune– as the inventor of the cotton gin. The gin had had ignited a revolution in cotton production that swept past its inexperienced benefactor.
Whitney would begin again. On June 14th,1798, Whitney signed a bold contract with a government headed by still familiar names: Adams was President, Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. Whitney promised to produce 10,000 muskets in just two years. It was the largest contract with a private armory that our young nation had ever written.

It was a bold contract because no Armory on this continent had ever produced even 1500 muskets in a year. It was a bold contract because Whitney had no factory and no gunsmiths. It was a bold contract because Whitney had never before produced a musket.

Out of necessity, Whitney had a bold plan. New ways of producing things had taken root in Europe. Whitney would install new ways of producing things on this site. These mark the beginnings of the American Industrial Revolution. Whitney’s daring, his willingness to test new ideas, his confidence in his ingenuity and his drive to succeed in the face of setbacks would become the hallmarks of the Inventive Yankee. Whitney invented himself. He established our vision that we can invent change.

This exhibition explores Whitney’s life and the dynamics of change.

Eli Whitney graduated from Yale in September of 1792. He was penniless and uncertain of his prospects. He contemplated studying law, but accepted a position as a tutor to the children of a Major Dupont in South Carolina to reduce his debts. As he journeyed south, he fell ill and he heard that his employer would meet only half of the promised wage. He was not feeling lucky.

His traveling companions Catherine Green, widow of the late Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Green and Phineas Miller, a Yale acquaintance and Mrs. Green’s estate manager, invited the 23 year old Whitney to stay at Mulberry Grove, her plantation in Georgia.

Whitney made himself useful on the plantation improvising clever devices. He had been a precocious builder as a youth managing his own nail forge when he was 14. At Yale, a local craftsman whose tools Whitney sometime borrowed had lamented that it was sad to loose such a fine mechanic to the dull world of scholars. So it is no accident that he listened attentively to a need voiced by planters who visited Mulberry Grove.

Cotton agriculture was snarled in its infancy. Demand for the fiber was growing both in the North and overseas.. Sea Island Cotton’s long fibers were easily separated from its black seeds. But this strain was delicate and would grow only along the coast. Green seed cotton would grow in the vast undeveloped inland regions, but its short fibers clung to the seed. Picking seeds from a pound of cotton by hand was a day’s work for a quick fingered woman. A new cotton engine was essential to the growth of cotton agriculture.

Mrs Green encouraged Whitney to consider the problem. His mind involuntarily preoccupied with the challenge, he hit upon a solution of elegant simplicity. In just 9 days he would construct a model that mechanically combed out seeds in a fashion that has changed little in 200 years.

This was not invention of grueling labor. It was a flash of brilliance and serendipity: Whitney was the right person in the right place at the right time. Whitney changed the world almost by accident.

Whitney took Phineaus Miller as a partner to develop his cotton engine. Thomas Jefferson awarded Whitney his patent in 1794 and so admired the device that he inquired when he might purchase one. But there were snags. Whitney and Miller had promised to produce too many gins, too soon, and at too stiff a price. The planters had opened new fields. A fire devoured Whitney’s Wooster Square factory on March 11, 1795. The fields readied for harvest. The planters realized they could produce their own gins. The brilliant simplicity of Whitney’s gin cost him a fortune. Home-built gins whirred all over the South. Mills opened in the north. Years pursuing lawsuits recovered little financial reward.

Whitney would begin again. The problem may have been posed by Thomas Jefferson: could the young Nation develop a capacity for precision manufacturing that would free it from dependence on importing? In the realm of arms for defense this was particularly critical. Jefferson had seen the work of the brilliant Honore` Blanc who had developed a system of interchangeable parts in France. Could Whitney be America’s Blanc, could he plan and lead the first skirmish of the American Industrial Revolution?

The government took a deliberate risk in accepting Whitney’s proposal to produce 10,000 muskets. Whitney’s offer was unprecedented and, in retrospect, unrealistic. The government was underwriting change.

Arms manufacturing had changed little in the 18th century. In a long apprenticeship, gunsmiths learned to forge, carve and shape each intricate piece of a musket. European nations were reluctant to let these craftsmen emigrate.

Facing a shortage of skilled, affordable craftsmen,Whitney built a plan: one of my primary objects is to form the tools so the tools themselves shall fashion the work. Create tools to ease the skill required of workers. Drive tools by water. Organize work so that a man need master the fashioning of but a few parts. Whitney’s factory will produce a strategy of working that will shape 19th century America. It is a change in organization and process that will lead to vast material changes.

It would take Whitney ten years to fill the contract he had promised to complete in two. He had reached middle age and had sacrificed his personal life. He lived for his work.

He constructed a community. The factory village was a new social structure. He provided housing and food (for which workers were charged) and some training for children. He needed to attract and hold talented workers. He worried that others might seduce his workers - and trade secret - away. He thought occasionally about recruiting the workers of others. Whitneyville matured into a stable community, it’s workers loyal to its founder.

A loneliness emerges in his letters to Catherine Green. After his partner Miller marries her, Whitney refers to himself as a solitary Old Bachelor. Whitney brings to New Haven, his Young nephews, Philos and Eli Whitney Blake, and provides for their training and education. And in 1817, at age 51, he marries the 31-year-old Henrietta Edwards, a granddaughter of the famed preacher Jonathan Edwards. After their marriage, he moves from his bachelor quarters to a proper house near New Haven’s Green.

Whitney had come to New Haven in 1788 a shy farm boy. Thirty years later he emerged as a leader and architect of its future. His horizons broadened. He collaborated with James Hillhouse, Daggett and Farnum to promote banking and development. He supported the nascent Farmington Canal and the Law School in Litchfield. He encouraged the gifted architect Ithiel Towne to market a new design for bridge construction. He participated in founding the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences...the nation’s oldest continuously active learned society. He offered guidance to projects for growth and change.

Plagued by the pain of an enlarged prostate, he studied anatomy with his doctor and devised a catheter to provide partial relief. He died January 8th 1825. Among his last papers are sketches of improved tools for making lock parts, his mind focusing not on his pain, but a prospect for change.

A Natural Mechanic
Whitney was born on December 8th 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts. His father was a successful farmer. His mother died when he was 12. A step mother and later stepsisters thought him not terribly bright in the bookish sense. All who knew him would concede: he was an artful mechanic. He could take apart and reassemble his father’s watch. He built a violin of his own design. At 14 he built his own forge to produce nails driven into short supply by the embargos of the American Revolution. At Yale as well, he won respect for his repairs to President Styles newly imported scientific instruments. He is the classic natural mechanic: more articulate with a jack knife and hammer than a pen.

A Northerner
Does geography shape thinking? Some attribute to Yankee traditions a quicker turn to laborsaving tools and to the south a more traditional dependence on cheap labor both slave and free. Southerners remain impatient with this and reply that only some one of Whitney’s inexperience with cotton would have undertaken such a simple minded solution - with fortunate results. This begrudgingly affirms the power of his fresh perspective.

A Yale Man
Others can and do claim to have invented devices like Whitney’s. Whitney won the first patent. The patent law was little more than a year in place. Yale men were prominent in making and administering the law. The advantage of his Yale friendships returns after his lifetime.

When Eli Whitney established his armory in 1798, we’re certain there were people with names like Bacon, Mador, Methot, Roche, Zoni, Skalinder, Pope, Cox, Prestegard, Leventhal, Bryant, Brusik, Maisano, Harding, Johnston, Amento, Ebinger, Hollander, Tupko, Klevorick, Hickey, McGann, Carpenter, Walker, Larichiuta, Paley, Chapman, Olson, Waterman, Rosenthal, Garland, Johnson, Rainville, Smith, Alcossar, Salguero, Valenzuela, Oster. Murphy, Paupeck, Lisak, McDonough, Caruth, Mayfield, Warner, Deana, Friedman, Carter, Zuwalick, Cleaver, Cooper, Gordon, Press, Patterson, Anderson, Crowder, Holquist, Spatz, Esdaile, Whitney, Eggleston, Tappan, Marley, who did the labor for which he received credit. We thank their descendants who built this exhibition.

Near the end of his first winter on the site, Whitney lamented that he had miscalculated the time his contract would require...the weather, the supplies, the trials and retrials. Inventing Change is a permanent exhibition that will grow over time as did Whitney’s Armory.





Back to Top