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Eli Whitney Museum

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We are a Workshop: we build things. We are a Museum: we collect things. We collect essential experiments. We also collect the materials that experiments require. We collect tools and clever ways of building. We collect curious and gifted apprentices who can help experimenters get started.

Experiments are a way of learning things. They require self-guided trial and error, active exploration, and testing by all the senses. Experiments begin with important questions, questions that make you think or that inspire you to create. So perhaps it’s questions that we collect.

Essential Experiments are lessons you are much more likely to find in a workshop or a studio than in a classroom. Experiments can be messy, noisy, and time-consuming. The color and sound and feel of their learning is essential. In our Workshop, we educate your senses to be prepared to understand... to really understand... the ideas you encounter in a classroom and in the world.

We could offer a list of 1000 Experiments to Try Before You Grow Up. It’s easier to start with 10 ideas that have guided our mission to discover essential experiments. By our rules, you will have to discover which experiments are important for you.

1. Figure it out.

Start with what you know best: head, shoulders, knees and toes. Our first project is a BlockHead which becomes a simple scarecrow in the hands of a four year old, an elegant prince in the hands of a fourteen year old. And a dozen characters between. Shift scale to fit problems: half inch scale figures perform in circuses. Quarter inch scale figures work out the complex maneuvers of classic battles, or construct Great Walls. Build characters to tell stories. Build characters to test designs and ideas. 22,000 clothespins found identity and purpose at the Museum last year.

The Projects: BlockHeads, 1”, 1/2”, 1/4” scales, Understanding Conflict, Crash Test Dummies

The Product: Eva Rosenthal, Alexis Neider, Alice Roche

2. Build your world.

Every child has castles in his or her mind. Some young architects build walls for protection; some build glorious towers. Some see no walls at all and a world at peace. Some castles house traditional families; some house princesses and wizards. Some builders surrender to the straight lines the bricks know best; some adventure into curves. Some builders carefuly interlock tight corners and drip no glue; some pile bricks with abandon and lather glue. Six year olds build the castle that only they see. Nine year olds can admire the castles of others and recognize how different all castles are. Those differences can teach new ways of seeing and building. Those differences can help each child establish a personal style. Solar houses, houseboats, simple cabins and skyscrapers follow the same evolution in design. The Museum cuts 800,000 castle blocks per year.

The Projects: Castle, Solar House, Skyscraper

The Product: Jon Garland, Lauren Fister, Molly Hay, JD Messick, Alex Esdaile

3. Enter the worlds of others.

To understand your world, look at the worlds of others around you. Build a house for birds who care about the size of its opening and the height of that opening above the nest inside. Explore the legends of fairies who build with bark, leaves and feathers. Paint the bright geometric patterns of the Ndebele people of Southern Africa. Glue up the intricate latticework of houseboats in India. Discover the richness in the simplicity of a timber and paper house in Japan. Feel the forces of climate, and custom, and culture that invent so many different solutions to our common needs for living.

The Projects: Birdhouses, Fairy House, Ndebele Houses, Chinese Gate, Houseboat of Kashmir, Japanese House

The Product: Kristen Nelson, Kyoko, Eva Rosenthal, Lori Crowder

4. Float everything.

On Water

Asked where did you develop your visionary design ideas? the philosopher-inventor and Harvard dropout Buckminster Fuller responded: I grew up on an island off Maine building toy boats. Water is nature’s most lucid teacher. Plunge into the physics and engineering of water. Four year olds send simple barges through our Water Lab’s locks. Fourteen year olds assemble elegant skiffs. The Museum launches some 8,000 boats per year.

The Projects: Tug Boat, Leonardo Boat, Battle Ship, Trade Ship, Beagle, Canoe

The Product: Dave Cox, Daniel Finestein, Jon Winter, Justin Stroop

On Air

Air is invisible until you loft a tissue and balsa craft on it. An 8 year old can trace the learning of the Wright Brothers with a rubberband glider: first 13 seconds of flight, then, after many tries, the 59 seconds that began the age of powered flight. Master sophisticated construction and learn the discipline of reading air currents. Our Wilbur and Orville Society has produced more leading compteitors than any other workshop in the nation.

The Projects: AMA Cub, P 30, Hand-Launched Glider

The Product: Sara Radziunas

5. Defy gravity.

Watch a toddler decode the mysteries of gravity. Every neuron in the brain is connecting to orchestrate the improbable wonder of balance. Five year olds reprise the effort in teaching their first BlockHead gymnastics. Nine year olds learn to move the center of gravity in a Pinewood Derby Racer. Twelve year olds learn to refine the near disequilibriums of a Whitney Relay. And a few of our gifted apprentices run off to join the circus.

The Projects: Folk Toys, Pinewood Derby Cars, Tops, Balancing Circus, Marble Tree, Calder Circus

The Product: Meg Hislop, Taylor Jones

6. Play with light.

We teach children to trust their own eye, to really see. We add projects that bend, reflect, and divide light...projects that attempt to trick the eye... to develop the rigor of their looking.

The tricks of light prepare the young mind for the invisible mechanics that are the essence of advanced technology. Four year olds sharpen the edges of shadows. Fourteen year olds search for the big picture. We light 9,000 LEDs per year.

The Projects: Shadow Puppets, Phenakistoscope, Kaleidescope, Camera Obscura, 4 Frame Animation, Magic Wand

The Product: Jen Oxley, Alison May, Tom Simon, Anya Samler

7. Feel the (magnetic) Force.

By the year 1000, the Chinese had learned to follow the direction of a magnetic south pointing fish. In Whitney’s era, Faraday generated electricity with magnets, Morse sent messages with magnets, all without understanding the precise physics of their attraction. At the Museum, four year olds couple magnetic trains, eight year olds configure the gyrations of magnetic pendulums, twelve year olds spin reed switch motors, all discovering directly the shape and power of each magnet’s field. This experience will prepare them to some day grasp Einstein’s synthesis of the universe’s basic forces.

The Projects: Refrigerator Magnets, Trains, Magnetic Pendulum, Magnet Circus, Electromagnet, Mag Lev Train, Reed Switch

The Product: Ben Chichy

8. Make good vibrations.

As a boy, Eli Whitney constructed a violin that established his inventive virtuosity. Yale physicist Robert Grober has developed a device that dramatically improves golfers’ strokes by amplifying the swoosh of their swing. His work reminds us that too often we underestimate the wisdom of our ears. At the Museum, five year olds explore the timbre of timber in xylophones. Nine year olds invent cadences with robot drums. Fourteen year olds express the impedance of resisters as pitch with mini theramins.

The Projects: Xylophone, Pill Drum, Violin, 5 Note Piano, Robot Drum, Drawdio

The Product: Nick Adler, Rogers Brothers, Sarah Perkins

9. Control energy you can see.

Eli Whitney lived in the epoch of muscle, water, wind and fire: energy you could touch and hear and smell. With only those forces, the world built cities, fed itself, played music, fought wars and travelled. The ingenious devices our ancestors developed to capture, channel and control that energy still educate the eyes and hands and minds of young mechanics. In one year, Museum students construct as many waterwheels (in quarter inch scale) as all Connecticut’s rivers powered in the 19th Century. Immerse yourself in that energy.

The Projects: Alexander’s Wind up Mouse, Rubberband Car, Pinball, Whitney Relay, MacroChip Controller, Mill, Robot Drum, Nutcracker Music Box, Karakuri

The Product: Sylvia Rosenthal, Clint Mueller, Gerry Della Rocca

10. Control energy you can’t exactly see.

A hundred years ago, a young Yale graduate, A.C. Gilbert welcomed a new epoch of power. He included in the Erector Sets he produced in New Haven electric motors, elctromagnets and light bulbs. He built Connecticut’s first radio station. He even built cloud chambers to allow young experimenters to track atomic particles. The Museum has redesigned classic electrical experiments to preserve their simplicity and excitment in a world whose components are growing invisibly small and incomprehensibly complex. Each year our students connect 10,000 batteries to 8,000 bulbs & Light Emitting Diodes and 5,000 motors. By 13, they are adding microchips.

The Projects: Firefly, Dancing Robot, LED Flowers, Traffic light, Reversing Switch & Buggy, Mini Operation, Drawdio

The Product: Ray Walker, Adam Leventhal, Nick Amento, Ben Kahn, Anya Samler, Emily Oster

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