Enlightened by Eli

Enlightened by Eli

B ill Brown is joining time, space, bits of woods and New Haven history before a room of field-tripping fourth graders. 

“Welcome to the Eli Whitney Museum,” he begins. “Why are you here?”

“I don’t know,” one child quickly responds.

“Well, let someone who has a more careful answer speak,” Brown says. “There’s a lot of stuff you can learn here.”

Brown tells the kids how Lionel-brand toy trains were manufactured in New Haven in the early 20th century; the Eli Whitney has a large model-train layout on display every winter.

Brown expounds on the Erector Set enterprises of A.C. Gilbert, whose factory was in Fair Haven not far from these kids’ school. Gilbert was into model trains too, and also manufactured magic kits.

Brown talks about Eli Whitney (1765-1825), the great inventor after whom the museum is named, and how he was “cleverer with his hands than he was with books.” The creator of the cotton gin was a “not-so-good-with-words person,” Brown says, emphasizing

The Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop
915 Whitney Ave, Hamden, CT (map)
Sat 10am-3pm, Sun 12-5pm

that it was imagination and mechanical skill which got Whitney into Yale University.

Bill Brown is as much of a scientific inspiration as the New Haven inventors whose world-changing industrial innovations he extols. The mild-mannered, industrious educator is also the director of the nonprofit organization which runs the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop. Over the past two decades he has built it into not just a prime destination for school field trips but a year-round place of wonderment and discovery.

The museum does have some permanent exhibits on display, including some antique firearms and a large model factory demonstrating how Eli Whitney ran his own armory. But the workshop programs are the institution’s main draw. There are regular classes. Special workshops are held on

sponsored by

school holidays; a recent Election Day project was entitled “Spin and Illusion.” There are opportunities for inventive adults as well: every year the museum hosts “The Leonardo Challenge,” a fundraising event where local grown-up artists, designers, architects and engineers are given raw art materials from clothespins to playing cards and asked to solve a design puzzle inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci.

Every weekend between Labor Day and Memorial Day there are short “walk-in” programs similar to the one Bill Brown’s giving this day to that swarm of schoolchildren. When he passes out bags of wooden balls, blocks and sticks to the children, the packages noticeably don’t come with written instructions. Hands-on is key. Learning by doing. Asking the right questions of the instructor.

But it’s not enough for one kid. “This is boring,” she says.

“This is boring? Well, it’s useful. It’s bold of you to tell me to my face it’s boring,” Brown gently chides. “You’re saying this is too simple for you. I’m with you. This is not hard to build.” He then resumes his explanation of how each of the children will be constructing their own wooden model of several planets revolving around the sun. He shows how the model illustrates the lunar calendar.

“You’re going to have to build this by yourself, so that will be a bit of challenge.” A short, intense workshop session later, that bored kid isn’t bored anymore. But Bill Brown has a new distraction to contend with—a roomful of kids playing with the sun, moon and stars they’ve constructed themselves, while Bill Brown continues to help them explore the galaxies of their minds.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites www.scribblers.us and New Haven Theater Jerk (www.scribblers.us/nhtj).

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