January 8: Eli Whitney’s Best Idea Comes Home


Eli Whitney, who died today in 1825, is best known for his invention of the cotton gin. But Whitney also left a lasting legacy on American manufacturing and society through his creation of the first “manufacturing community” in America, the factory village in southeast Hamden still known as Whitneyville. Whitney’s manufactory was designed not to make cotton gins, but weapons for the federal government. In the process of creating a model workers’ community, Whitney also revolutionized American manufacturing with his idea of the “Uniformity Method.”

With tensions rising in the late 1700s in the wake of the XYZ Affair (a diplomatic scandal involving the U.S. and France), the federal government sought private contractors to help arm the nation.

Eli Whitney in 1821, portrait by Charles King Bird. (National Gallery of Art)

At the time, producing firearms was the province of skilled gunsmiths. These craftsmen’s production methods could be personal and idiosyncratic, making gun production a fiddly and time-consuming business. Whitney believed that by using water-powered machinery and standardizing manufacture to involve only simple tasks and uniform parts, he could train a small group of unskilled workers to produce weapons that were cheaper, more reliable, and easier to repair. On the strength of that belief and a “shake-the-club-tie” connection to fellow Yale graduate and Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Whitney secured a contract on June 14, 1798 to provide 10,000 muskets to the U.S. government using the novel approach he called the “Uniformity Method.”

Whitney’s first arms contract with the U S Government, 1794

For Whitney, the arms contract came just in time. He had been worn down by the costs of patent litigation over the cotton gin, which never proved a financial success, and a 1795 fire had destroyed his New Haven cotton gin factory. When he signed his federal contract, he had neither factory nor workforce. But armed with the government’s order, Whitney purchased a site in Hamden by the Mill River in September of 1798 and began construction later that fall. He built a 72’ x 30’ two-story factory next to his rebuilt milldam, while recruiting 50 skilled workers from Massachusetts. For them, he laid out a model workers’ community, with five handsome stone houses for the workers with families, a stone store to serve the workers’ needs, and a boarding house for the single men. Whitney himself lived in a farmhouse across from the mill, with three nephews, a dozen apprentices and servants. An acquaintance of Whitney’s described the community as “beautifully constructed, and arranged upon one plan…together with the other buildings, the mountain and river scenery, and the bridge, they give this picturesque valley no small degree of beauty.” (Today the boarding house, which serves as the headquarters for Preservation Connecticut, is the only remaining residential structure from the “Whitneyville” complex.)

Gradually the factory came together and began to produce muskets, though not nearly on the timeline Whitney had originally hoped. The first 500 guns were shipped in the fall of 1801, and it was a full 10 years before the last of the agreed 10,000 were delivered. Nonetheless, Whitney proved the value of his Uniformity Method, and Whitneyville grew into the nation’s largest private musket factory. (President Monroe visited the armory in 1817.)

Though remembered as an inventor, Eli Whitney most notably innovated by enhancing and transforming existing technologies and production methods, and perhaps had the biggest impact on the modern world in terms of how he managed cost and labor. His use of water-powered machinery, automation and easily replicable process were fundamental to American manufacturing on the early edge of the industrial age, and Whitneyviille became the model for 141 similar early-to-mid-19th-century factory villages in Connecticut alone. Whenever you encounter a “ville” in Connecticut – whether Collinsville, Rockville, Bozrahville, Yalesville, or any of a100-plus more, it is the descendant of the model factory town ginned up by Eli Whitney in 1798.

Further Reading

An Historic Site: Whitneyville,” Eli Whitney Museum

The Whitney Armory Helps Progress in Hamden,”connecticuthistory.org

Eli Whitney,” connecticuthistory.org