Eli Whitney Museum

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The 22nd Leonardo Challenge

Imagination in Focus

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The arc of a raindrop on a leaf magnifies its veins and our understanding of seeing.

Egyptian artisans mimicked the curve of eyes in glass to give their statues uncanny spirit. Assyrians in Nimrud may have used a rock crystal to concentrate the sun’s rays into a spot of fire. In the Middle Ages, the polymath Abas ibn Firnas crafted reading stones of glass. Refined lenses awakened the sciences, explorations and arts of the Renaissance.

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The Gilbert Project

Mr. Gilbert's Railroad 2015

The Museum's Annual Exhibition of American Flyer Trains
Driving the Trains

Classic toy trains produced by New Haven's A.C. Gilbert Company still run beautifully after 50 years. See them in action at the Eli Whitney Museum's annual hands-on exhibition of American Flyer Trains. Come run toy trains that your parents and grandparents ran more than 50 years ago and build wooden toy trains to take home.

We are pleased to thank WSHU as the Media Sponsor of this year's train show.

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The 21st Leonardo Challenge

Uncharted Imagination

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Not long ago travelers consulted paper maps distributed by service stations gratuitously, but difficult to refold. Today watches, phones and cars themselves provide directions, sometimes with animated updates and commentary voiced in dulcet but skeptical tones. A decade has transformed the ancient arts of cartography radically. Early maps recorded star patterns that marked changing seasons. Now the celestial robots of GPS guide us to lost car keys. Early maps defined the boundaries of unknown territories. Now we wonder if there is any space unmapped. We need a map to track the changing meanings of all these maps.

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The Gilbert Project

Mr. Gilbert's Railroad

The Museum's Annual Exhibition of American Flyer Trains
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Classic toy trains produced by New Haven's A.C. Gilbert Company still run beautifully after 50 years. See them in action at the Eli Whitney Museum's annual hands on exhibition of American Flyer Trains.

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The 20th Leonardo Challenge

Knot What You Imagine

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The Knot

A knot is a simple or elaborate twist and interlacing of fibers. The knot's structure makes the fibers into something new: a tool, a weapon, an ornament, a calculation, a message. Snare a rabbit. Net a fish. Lash a sail. Cinch a saddle. Gird your loins. Plait your hair. These ordinary bindings are nodes of civilization. Or a knot can be personal. Touch your navel. It remembers the knot that first defined you as an individual.

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2013 Exhibition

The Erector Set at 100

What to Make of It?
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Alfred Carlton Gilbert, a 1909 Yale graduate, had lingered in New Haven to produce and sell magic tricks. In 1911, he watched the steel tower construction to electrify the New Haven Railroad’s access to the new Grand Central Terminal. Steel and electricity were reinventing America. Gilbert invented the Erector Set to capture that spirit.

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The 19th Leonardo Challenge

Brush With Genius

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Consider the Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo's stunning portrait of Cecelia, the mistress of Ludovice Sforza, the Duke of Milan and Leonardo's patron. The painting brims with movement, with immediacy, and with bold brushwork. Leonardo paints in the new medium of oils.

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The 18th Leonardo Challenge

Enumerated Invention

Fibonacci Spiral

In the late middle ages, a new arithmetic followed the spice trade from India to Italy on Arab ships. It brought place value, simplified calculation, and the digits we recognize as our own. These were the type of numbers Gutenberg needed for his press. These are the numbers that Leonardo learned in his apprenticeship with Verrocchio.

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The 17th Leonardo Challenge

Reflected Creativity


The Mirror
Our earliest ancestor recognized a face reflected in a pool of still water: there began the evolution of our idea of self. Ancient cultures captured reflections in stone, iron, coal, copper, silver, and glass. In mirrors, priests and magicians saw prophecies and vessels of the soul. Mirrors educated artists and scientists. As a child, you noticed your mother's furtive glance at her face in a compact's tiny glass. You suspected this attention was not for you.

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The 16th Leonardo Challenge

Cap & Caprice


A little over a hundred years ago, the tiny crown cap opened a revolution. Its tin-plated disc of thin steel, pleated round its edge, compressed a sliver of cork over the lip of a bottle's deliberately slender neck. Coca Cola escaped the confines of the Drug Store fountain. Beer left the tavern. We christened the machine age of drink.

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The 15th Leonardo Challenge

Unruly Invention


Each of us can remember the first ruler that we carried to school: in the beginning useful for drawing lines, hinting at important reckoning yet to come. You may recall improvising applications for that ruler that were neither straight nor measured. A paradox of creativity: sometimes invention requires a broken rule.

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2008 Exhibition

Gilbert and Magnetism

Perhaps it was destiny that made magnetism as essential a force in A.C. Gilbert's empire of experiments. William Gilbert – a distant ancestor of A. C. – published De Magnete, Magneticisque Corperibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet the Earth), in 1600.

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