Two and a half miles northeast of Yale campus, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop lies on property that once belonged to the museum’s namesake, the inventor of the cotton gin. Walking into the New Haven-based museum on a warm Sunday in October, however, I find no immediate mention of Whitney. Instead, I’m met by the wares of the mid-20th-century toymaker A.C. Gilbert Company. Across the room from me, a glass case displays Mysto Magic sets, kits full of props for kid magicians. Next to the kits stand display cases devoted to the company’s most famous product, the Erector Set, a metal toy construction set that gives budding engineers the tools for projects ranging from wagons and bridges to elevators and Ferris wheels. Boxes for both products announce with breathless postwar optimism the wonders in store for the lucky consumer: awe-inspiring illusions, masterpieces of construction.
From the front room I pass through the building’s left third, where Whitney makes his first appearance. A huge model of his factory dominates the room, while opposite hangs a reproduction of a painting of Whitneyville, the town Whitney set up to house his workers.
But his presence in the museum is short-lived. The workshop that makes up the back third of the museum contains not one reference to the museum’s namesake. Standing in the entrance, I see drill presses lined up on the wall next to me; metal stools crowd around long wooden tables in the center of the room. This room plays host to students who have come on school trips and summer programs, and during weekend walk-in hours to build a project of their own. Completed projects line the workshop’s walls around me: a model theater, an airplane, a treehouse, a hockey player, a pinball machine, a pirate ship.
It may seem strange that the namesake of the Eli Whitney Museum appears in only one of its three rooms. But to look for Whitney in the physical objects of the museum is to miss his place, and Gilbert’s, at the heart of its philosophy. The cotton gin, as one of the inventions that spurred the Industrial Revolution, showed the power of innovation to transform society for the better. Gilbert’s Erector Sets, with their emphasis on hands-on exploration, fostered a similar set of values. So it’s no wonder that Bill Brown, the museum director, sees the pair as educational role models. “Whitney and his supervision of apprentices influenced how education took place in the 19th century,” Brown said. “And Gilbert provided expert building tips for children, which had an influence on learning in the 20th century. Both had a great respect for developing artisan skills.”
In the workshop, I see the museum’s effort to bring those ideas to life. Two little girls and their parents sit before me at a table with one of the museum’s apprentices. The girls are working on models of boats, eagerly covering their newly assembled crafts with pink decorations and heavy sprinkles of glitter.
These pink boats are far from cotton gins. Yet the workshop’s activities are heavily informed by Whitney and Gilbert’s methods. Like all the projects on the workshop’s walls, the boats begin with a set of basic parts designed and manufactured by the workshop’s apprentices, along with guidelines for the parts’ assembly. From there, the girls are free to develop their projects as they want, testing their ideas like the boys of the ’50s did with their Erector Sets. They may not spark an industrial revolution, but neither did Whitney when he was five. Even the greatest inventors have to start somewhere.