How often do you drive down Whitney Avenue or through the Whitneyville section of Hamden, pass by the Eli Whitney Technical High School, or admire gorgeous Lake Whitney, and think about the names and their history?
Like many of our routines, too often we take those signposts and landmarks for granted, unfamiliar with – or having forgotten – the contributions to our society they were intended to honor.
Of course, we have American inventor Eli Whitney (1765-1825) to thank for those dedications. His invention of the cotton gin (a machine that quickly and easily separates the cotton plant’s seeds from the fibers used to create fabric) was incredibly important in world economic history, notes Douglas W. Rae, a professor of political science and management at Yale.
It was in New Haven where Whitney actually invented the cotton gin, one of the key inventions of the Industrial Revolution. But his legacy to the city extends beyond that role in history.
After graduating from Yale in 1792, Whitney “began a tradition of manufacturing and toolmaking that defined New Haven’s economy through the 19th and first half of the 20th century,” says Bill Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, located at 915 Whitney Avenue in Hamden.
A major benefit to New Haven and, indeed, the entire nation, is what came to be known as the American system of manufacturing. That system, based on interchangeable parts and standardization, is often attributed to the armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. Yet it was Whitney who had the original idea and tried to implement it in his New Haven factory, making muskets for the federal government soon after ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the late 1700s.
“Let’s say that a musket or any other thing has 50 parts,” explains Rae. “I should be able to take part 23 from one copy of the musket and exchange it with part 23 of another copy without modifying the part. The basic industrial system that was 19th-century New Haven was all about that,” he says.
While Whitney didn’t quite perfect that process, he inspired others to follow in his footsteps. Traces of that industrial system can be seen throughout New Haven – in the Whitney Avenue historic district that includes the former Winchester Repeating Arms Company plant, in the city’s former tire and rubber manufacturing plants, and in the manufacturing operation that was Sargent & Company, and would become one of the largest suppliers and distributors of hardware in the nation.
Whitney’s innovation wasn’t limited to the factory floor. In what is now the Whitneyville section of Hamden, stone houses for his employees were built; they’re believed to be the first example of employer-provided housing in American history.
A famous portrait of Whitneyville, done in 1827 by William Giles Munson, hangs at the Yale University Art Gallery. That painting is often reproduced in textbooks as an example of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a time when factories were still built at a human scale, before cities were darkened by smoke stacks.
The ethnic mosaic that New Haven is today can be traced to Whitney, as well. Immigrants found jobs in his small factory and in other factories that followed, even if the city’s absorption of immigrants was less than utopian.
The Next Generation
Whitney didn’t live into the era of large immigration from places other than the United Kingdom, Germany and parts of northwestern Europe, but his son, Eli Whitney Jr., (1820-1895) did. The younger Whitney also organized the New Haven Water Company, which began operating in 1862, addressing the city’s growing demand for water while at the same time increasing the amount of power available for manufacturing. The origins of that water venture can be found in his peach-colored water tank, at the top of East Rock off Deepwood Drive in Hamden.
Whitney Jr. personified the great industrialists of the post-Civil War years, according to Peter Dobkin Hall, who taught at Yale, Wesleyan and Harvard. Men like Whitney Jr., Oliver Winchester – the New Haven manufacturer who created the Winchester repeating rifle – and other contemporaries including Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and John D. Rockefeller, made their mark by their sheer will and the trust lenders put in them.
“Investors in the Gilded Age bet on personalities, not on managerial methods; on friendship and kinship, not on balance sheets and projections of anticipated earnings,” Hall writes in an article titled, “Images of Innovation: The New Haven Water Company, 1894-1906.”
“Entrusting the construction of the New Haven Waterworks, as it was originally called, to Eli Whitney, Jr.,” writes Hall, “was no more than a statement of trust in Whitney as a person. He had neither knowledge of nor experience in public water supply systems. … His motives for being involved in the water project at all had more to do with his desire to consolidate his manufacturing operations than to supply the public with water.”
Lake Whitney came about when, in 1860, Whitney Jr. enlarged the dam he had built at his mill, creating a reservoir that eventually became a major water source for the metro New Haven area until it was discontinued in the 1900s.
The water company, which grandson Eli Whitney III (1847-1924) eventually led as company president in 1894, remained a private enterprise until 1977, when the Connecticut legislature created the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, serving the area’s recreational, environmental and water needs.
Eli Whitney Sr. was born in Westborough, Massachusetts in 1765. Though his father was a farmer, the son was a talented mechanic, designing a nail forge and a violin as a youth.
After graduating from Yale, he moved to the South, where he planned to work as a private tutor. He was living on a plantation known as Mulberry Grove near Savannah, Georgia, and while there, learned about cotton production and the challenges farmers faced making a living. As they say, the rest is history.
Like other Connecticut cities, New Haven no longer is the industrial engine it once was, but the signs of Whitney’s influence are everywhere if you stop to look.
“There are about 25,000 buildings in New Haven, counting everything,” says Rae. “Of those, a majority were constructed between the Civil War and World War I, and they represent New Haven’s industrial era.”