Testing Ground

Testing Ground

On Sunday afternoons, The Whitney Workshop at the Eli Whitney Museum is like an inventor’s laboratory, echoing with the sound of banging hammers, redolent with the scent of sawdust and filled with visitors working out the intricacies of the museum’s latest mechanical projects. The imaginative creations, often made of simple wooden parts and ordinary items—wire and string, nuts and washers, batteries and small light bulbs, rubber bands and pipe cleaners—are designed to teach the properties of raw materials and physics and circuitry. They’re also downright fun to build.

Four of the workshop’s red T-shirted apprentices sit at a work table on a Sunday afternoon, preparing prototypes to be tested out for use in the summer camp program, still months away. There’s a remote-controlled boat and a circus tableau with a sword swallower whose belly lights up red and a miniature Frankenstein’s laboratory with a monster that twists when he receives a little electrical shock, true to the origin of life described in Mary Shelley’s classic novel.

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As accomplished as founder Bill Brown and the museum’s other designers are at creating these fun and educational toys, none of them come to fruition overnight. Led by Brown and Sally Hill, the museum’s associate director and designer (and Brown’s wife), the Eli Whitney design team dreams up projects with a master plan for summer camp in mind. But it’s the army of 80 to 90 year-round high school apprentices who get their hands dirty trying stuff out, tweaking and problem-solving. Sometimes Brown will hand them an idea and ask them to run with it. “It means that in the summer, when we come to that moment of trying out that particular project,… they’ve got skin in the game,” he says.

Now the workshop is hoping some Sunday visitors will get in on the design process as well, serving as beta testers. “We have a lot of stuff we’re working on, and we always have the illusion it’s going to work perfectly,” Brown says. Often, it doesn’t. At least, not right away.

My teenage daughter Meggie and I have stopped in to give the beta testing concept a try. Vivien, the apprentice at the table when we arrive, says she’s already learned two important lessons that day about constructing our $1 test project, a classic mind-bending toy called Jacob’s Ladder made of five wooden rectangles about the size of matchboxes, three long strands of ribbon and several tacks. First, the ribbon has to be attached a little bit inward from the edges of the wood blocks, or it will slip off. Second, don’t attach it too tightly, or the toy won’t unfold properly.

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It’s an education for both apprentice and builders. The toy has mystified children and adults alike for generations, with its pieces that clatter apart in an endlessly unfurling “ladder,” and even after Meggie has nailed the ribbon to the raw edges of the wood as Vivien showed us (there are no written instructions at Eli Whitney—everything is done using models), our less-than-mechanically-inclined brains have a hard time figuring out how it works. The trick, we discern, has something to do with the way the ribbons are threaded, sometimes holding and sometimes releasing tension.

Meggie’s friend Franziska, who’s also working as an apprentice that day, articulates part of the value of the beta testing process—and, indeed, the entire training experience—for apprentices. “I think teaching stuff to someone makes you learn it even more because you have to understand how it works in order to explain it,” she says. Maybe, I think, if we had to teach it, we’d understand it, too.

Small test projects like this one, intended for kids aged somewhere between 5 and 12, are just a few of those you can try out on a Sunday afternoon. (Adults look on and perhaps, at times, help more than they should.) In addition to several $1 beta projects, there’s a slew of tried and true, slightly more complicated designs on offer during weekend walk-in hours, usually priced between $10 and $12. The parts have all been pre-packaged—Eli Whitney takes seriously even the mechanics of how to efficiently package its materials—and apprentices are standing by to help you figure out how to make that seemingly random collection of items into something resembling the prototype on display.

Eli Whitney promises other opportunities as well. Kids can bring in their own projects and designs and work, with assistance, in the wood shop or on the workshop’s computer numeric cutter (CNC) or 3D printer. “We are here to do things you can’t always do at home,” Brown says. “That can be a special piece of wood, help drilling metal, or guidance with braiding wires.” Those more interested in the history of the place might visit just to see permanent displays on Eli Whitney’s factory model and lever-action guns. Other permanent installations include an outdoor water lab and an interactive marble display.

The museum’s annual Leonardo Challenge, in which adult artists, designers and others undertake a design challenge based on themes inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, has “engaged over 300 artisans and artists and… produced stunning variations on clothespins, buttons, matches, springs, wooden ice cream spoons, pencils, beaded chain and playing cards,” the website says, all while raising funds for scholarships. And while summer camp may be just a glimmer in the hearts of children still layered in winter coats and scarves, the museum hosts a steady stream of school-year field trips and birthday parties.

Brown is a big fan of the kind of collaboration that Eli Whitney’s projects require. He’s been collaborating with Hill on the museum for more than three decades. He’s the big picture person, she says, while her eye is often on the details. “I interpret Bill very well,” she adds with an impish grin.

Brown likens their process to writing and editing. “A lot of the identity is what the editor helps to realize, or imposes,” he explains. “I’m accustomed to being corrected, and I welcome it. Anybody that’s foolish enough to think that they don’t need editing doesn’t understand that you’ve been thinking about this, so of course it makes sense to you. But the rest of the world hasn’t been thinking about .” Sometimes, he adds, he’s in the editorial role himself, helping Hill or another creator to hone their idea.

As if to prove the point, Brown mentions a balancing project that Hill has just modified. He thinks it’s more difficult now. “The stick needs to be shorter,” he tells her in an aside to our conversation.

“The upper one?” she asks.

“Yeah, so that you can get off the end of it.”

She thinks about this for a moment. “You know why? Because that came from the circus, which had a longer base and more stuff going on,” she says. “So, that would make sense.”

And so the design work continues, right before our eyes.

The Whitney Workshop at the Eli Whitney Museum
915 Whitney Ave, Hamden (map)
Sept-May: Sat 10am-3pm, Sun 12pm-5pm
(203) 777-1833

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 3 features Sally Hill and Bill Brown.

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