Eli Whitney Museum

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By David E. E. Sloane

The A. C. Gilbert Symposium comprising the first section of Essays in Arts in Sciences, Volume 25, is a joint project of the Eli Whitney Museum and the University of New Haven.

When I grew up in New Haven, not far from the A. C. Gilbert factory in Fair Haven, my parents frequently drove past it, giving me a chance to see its porthole display windows featuring chemistry sets and American Flyer trains, and its tall Erector set broadcast tower. These were landmarks for many New Haveners of my generation. My brother Tom and I poured over the A. C. Gilbert catalogs at Christmas time. We had Erector sets, which my brother mastered better than I did. We each had chemistry sets, which taught him to make stink bombs and to graduate to black powder experiments. Mine always made a brown goo that foamed out of the test-tube and smelled bad, but did nothing else. Finally, he had the Atomic set with cloud chamber--a major Christmas expense. Found in the attic, with his old chemistry set, when I cleared out my parents' house in 1993, it is now at the Eli Whitney Museum as part of their permanent collection of A. C. Gilbert materials. My brother graduated from Gilbert sets to New Haven College (now UNH), earning two degrees in electrical engineering in the early 1960s. He worked at Gilbert and heard the old stories: how on the first day of production of the electric mixer 700 disappeared from the inventory; everyone on the production line took one home--Gilbert was a pioneer in the hand-held appliance industry. He also described how inept "cost allocation" by auditors made a money-winning product look too expensive per unit--it was killed before production even though the machinery was already in place to produce it. Tom now holds sixteen patents. I went on to develop the Eli Whitney 1816 Barn as a cultural center and become a president of the Board of Directors of the Eli Whitney Museum from 1984 to 1986, after returning to New Haven to teach at the University of New Haven in the English Department, one of the Departments in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNH. Our lives were intertwined, as were the lives of many New Haveners, with all of these institutions.

The Eli Whitney Museum is dedicated to the history of Eli Whitney and to engineering and scientific innovation as tools for educating the young. On the site where Eli Whitney pioneered mass production through interchangeable parts, beginning with his first Federal contract in 1798, it carries on extensive educational programs involving kids in hands-on learning about construction and invention. Under the leadership of its present director, Bill Brown, who introduces the A. C. Gilbert legacy, it is an unparalleled example of the power of interactive learning in advancing self-esteem and creativity through a positive environment. Although it usually looks more like a factory than a museum, it is an ideal of involvement. It is, of course, also the fitting home for a collection dedicated to the creative toy genius A. C. Gilbert, following as he does many of the ideals Eli Whitney represents, and also for the serious inquiry into this history as American cultural history, as represented in the materials offered here.

David E. E. Sloane
Essays in Arts and Sciences
September 14, 1996

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