Eli Whitney, Jr.
Eli Whitney, Jr., the only son of Eli and Henrietta Edwards Whitney was born on November 20, 1820. Although his father died when he was only four years old, the younger Whitney grew up in an atmosphere pervaded with entrepreneurial energy. New Haven was simmering with manufacturing and transportation schemes during his youth. And his uncles, Eli Whitney and Philos Blake, were leaders of the city's manufacturing community. In addition to managing the Armory between 1825 and 1836, they were active inventors themselves. They pioneered the architectural hardware business in New Haven, with their invention of the mortise lock. Later, Eli Whitney Blake's stone-crushing machine, first used in the paving of Whalley Avenue in 1857, greatly reduced the cost of improving the nation's roadways.
Given the atmosphere in which he grew up, it
is hardly surprising that the younger Whitney was willing to carry on the
family tradition of invention and entrepreneur-ship. After a year at Yale,
he enrolled as a student at Princeton, where the eminent scientist Joseph
Henry (later head of the Smithsonian Institution) was the senior professor
of natural philosophy. Graduating in 1841, he returned to New Haven to
assume control of his father's Armory.
The Armory was in need of attention. It had been neglected during its later management by the trustees of the Whitney estate. Arms making was a highly competitive business by the 1840s, and success required both technological efficiency and sure entrepreneurial instincts.
There had been major innovations in arms manufacture since the senior Whitney's adaptations of the French Charleville musket in the early1800s. Weapons themselves were becoming lighter and were capable of being loaded and fired more conveniently and accurately. New materials, particularly steel, were coming into common use. And more efficient methods of production, based both on the elder Whitney's work and on that of his successors in the organization of the industrial process, were being adopted. There had been, moreover, major changes in the nature of the arms market. When Eli Whitney, Sr., started out, the only market for arms manufactured in large quantities was the federal government. Later, supplying the state militias became a major part of the business. But with the rapid westward movement of the population into the nation's western empire in the 1830s, a mass market for firearms was developing, a market which could not be adequately supplied by gun-smiths, craftsmen who operated on a small scale. In addition, with the rise of the urban middle classes in the great eastern cities, a major market was developing for sporting arms, guns used for target-shooting and hunting.
Young Whitney was equal to these challenges. On taking over the plant in 1842, he bid successfully on the federal rifle contract of 1841.1 Producing over 20,000 rifles of the new percussion-cap design required not only retooling the Armory, but also employing more efficient power sources (the turbine) and the use of new metals, most notably steel. To meet the growing public demand for weaponry, he began producing "good and serviceable arms," long-arms which, though they worked well, did not meet the exacting specifications of the military.2 Many of these were assembled from parts he purchased from failed companies (like Robbins and Lawrence of Windsor, Vermont), from European manufacturers, and from the reject bins at the federal armory at Springfield, Massachusetts. Having miscalculated the tooling-up costs for manufacturing the 1841 contract rifles, he compensated for his losses with these arms, which were remarkably inexpensive to assemble, but which commanded a good price on the open market. He produced over 11,000 of these guns between 1857 and 1864.3
Eli Whitney, Jr.'s most notable action as an arms maker involved his role in the production of the Whitneyville Colt revolver. Samuel Colt had originally conceived the gun in 1830, while serving as a merchant seaman.4 His early prototypes were failures, but by 1836, he had come up with a workable model. Backed by his cousin and several New York investors, he set up the Patent Arms Company in Paterson, New Jersey to manufacture his invention. He managed to fabricate some 3,000 revolvers before his creditors closed it down in 1842. Though he had lost his factory, he still controlled his patents. Perennially optimistic, he continued working to obtain production contracts for the gun. Finally, in 1846, he succeeded in persuading Captain Samuel H. Walker of the Texas Rangers of the effectiveness of the weapon and obtained a contract for 1,000 of them. The only problem was that Walker wanted the revolvers delivered within six months. Having no factory of his own, Colt turned to Eli Whitney, Jr. On July 7, 1843, he concluded a contract with the Whitney Arms Company for the production of the Whitneyville Colt.5
The manufacture of handguns was a new venture for the Armory, and was yet another demonstration of the younger Whitney's entrepreneurial savvy. While Colt ultimately set up his own plant in Hartford, the contract permitted Whitney to diversify the product of the company, once again making it effectively competitive. By 1850, the Armory was producing revolvers of its own design. In 1851, it received a major contract from the Navy for the production of 33,000 revolvers. Whatever mistakes Whitney may have made in the 18405, he more than compensated for in the 50s and 6os. In 1867 alone, the company manufactured 11,000 guns of various types at a cost of $76,764.94 - and with a return on investment of $ 17,785.76. This activity rendered a healthy profit of nearly 25%.
Increasing and diversifying production necessarily meant changes in the physical plant of the Armory itself. He began this process in 1847, when because of the shortage of water power on the original Armory site, he opened a second plant near the center of Whitneyville to produce the Colt and other handguns. His use of more sophisticated metallurgy caused him to erect a foundry on the old factory site. But his most substantial alterations came in 1860-61, in connection with the raising of the dam to create Lake Whitney and, following an explosion which destroyed the old main factory building, a complete reconstruction of the plant. By the time the work was complete, the only standing factory buildings remaining from his father's time were the fuel storage sheds and the old forge building on the east bank of the Mill River.
The younger Whitney was more than a successful and innovative manufacturer. He was a capitalist entrepreneur — an economic adventurer who sought profits wherever they could be made. But contrary to the common image of such men, he did not see his personal profit as being gained at the public's expense. Indeed, as a good Whig-Republican New Englander, he saw the particular virtues of doing well by doing good. We see this theme repeatedly throughout his career, whether in presenting a stand of finely engraved arms to the Polish hero Louis Kossuth during his 1852 visit to New Haven (which both expressed his sympathy for the cause of liberty and made a fine advertisement for his firm), his replanting of the trees along a two-mile stretch of Whitney Avenue (which both beautified the street and enhanced the value of the extensive tracts which he owned on both sides of it), or in his donations in support of the Congregational Church at Whitneyville (which both provided a service for the citizens, many of whom were his employees, and transformed the village from an industrial community into a New Haven suburb, much of which he owned).7 But the clearest expression of his entrepreneurial and civic sensibility was his involvement with the New Haven Water Company.
Although New Haven had grown substantially since the beginning of the nineteenth century, its public services had failed to keep pace either with the population or the changing nature of industrial activity in the city.8 In 1800, New Haven was a small town of 4,484. It had no industries, other than hand-crafts. But by 1850, the city contained 20,345 souls and had become a major transportation nexus and a center for the industrial production of clocks, carriages, and firearms. Instead of a handful of two-story houses clustered around the Green, the town center was dominated by commercial structures — some of them as tall as five stories — while residences, most of them wooden, were spread over dozens of city blocks. In spite of this growth, however, the city possessed neither a system of sanitary sewers, nor systematic garbage collection. Its population continued to draw its water from wells.
The hazards of this situation soon became evident. Epidemics of typhoid, cholera, and gastro-enteritis took a regular toll of the population.9 More seriously, it became apparent that, should New Haven be struck with a major fire — such as that which struck Long Wharf in 1820, destroying 30 stores and warehouses, or the fire at Orange and Chapel Streets, which in 1837 destroyed twenty buildings - the city would be powerless to fight it.10
Although serious-minded citizens had been concerned about the problem since the mid-1830s, it was not until 1849 that a group led by James Brewster, Henry Peck, E.G. Read, and H.H. Hotchkiss, succeeded in obtaining a corporate charter for the purpose of supplying the city with pure water.11 Between 1849 an(1854 progress on the water supply bogged down in political controversy over whether the company should be public or private and how it should be financed. At this point, Whitney first became involved, when, in January of 1854, the Water Company contracted with him for the purchase of his clock factory privilege and water rights to the flow of the Mill River. When, in July of that year, however, the electorate voted to repeal its act authorizing the Company to supply the city with water, Whitney took the dominant role in creating the water system.
Once again, Whitney's interest in supplying New Haven with water was not entirely disinterested. To be sure, as one of the leading citizens of the place, he had a vested interest in the quality of the public utilities. But as the proprietor of a manufac-tury which was in desperate need of up-grading its power supply, he had a more clearly defined and personal interest. For the high dam needed to create the reservoir for supplying the city's needs could also solve his power problem. In the Spring of 1857, the Water Company contracted with Whitney to design and construct a waterworks and a distribution system. By 1860, after several years of planning, construction was begun. And on January 1, 1862, water first began to flow through the company's pipes and into homes and hydrants throughout the city.12
In addition to benefiting the city, the successful construction of the waterworks brought particular profits to Eli Whitney, Jr. He was a major stockholder in the Water Company, having subscribed a quarter of a million dollars worth of its stock in 1860.13 The company's capital had enabled him to vastly increase the power supply for the Armory, which permitted him to close the old pistol factory and consolidate all operations on a single site.14 The water supply, moreover, greatly enhanced the value of the enormous tracts of real estate which he held on both the Hamden and New Haven sides of Whitney Avenue - areas which, with the passage of years after 1860, would see substantial residential development.15 Ultimately, Whitney's business interests became sufficiently diversified to detach him completely from the gun business. He sold the Armory to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company in 1888, but retained his interest in the Water Company, deriving profits as well from the ice company which harvested the frozen bounty of Lake Whitney to supply the city's growing number of ice-boxes.16 He also became politically active, serving as New Haven city alderman and as a Republican elector in 1892. As one of his biographers summarized his character during his last years,
he was an ardent patriot in whatever concerned the rational and wise development of this city, his state, and his country. His public spirit, open-handed generosity, quick and wide sympathies, dignity of bearing, and courtesy, personally endeared him to people of all ages and conditions.17
2 Ibid., and Norm Flayderman, Flayderman's Guide to Antique American Firearms (Northfield, Illinois: DBI Books, 1972),p.236.
3 Ibid., 237-38
4 Ellsworth S. Grant, The Colt Legacy: The Story of the Colt Armory in Hartford, 1855-1880 (Providence: Mowbray Company, 1982),pp. 1-8.
5 Fuller, op. cit.
6 "Sales by WAC for 1867," in Whitney Family Papers, YUA
7 William P Blake, History of the Town of Hamden (New Haven: Price, Lee & Company, 1888), 310 and Rachel M. Hartley, The History of Hamden, Connecticut (Hamden: Shoe String Press, 1959), 280-282.
8 Rollin Osterweis, Three Centuries of New Haven: The Tercentenary History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), pp. 237-261.
9 Ibid., 268.
10 Jan Oschei wit/, "Chronological Development of the New Haven Water Company" (unpublished manuscript in the files of the South Central Regional Water Authority, New Haven), pp. 1-3.
11 Ibid., p. 3.
12 New Haven Water Company, The First Annual Report of the Board of Directors of the New Haven Water Company, to the Stockholders. Neit> Haven, February mth, 1863 (New Haven: Price, Lee £ Company, 1863), p. lo.
13 Oscherwit/., op. cil., pp. 2-3 and Blake, op. cit., p. 31 i.
14 Flayderman, op. cit., pp. 237-38.
15 The extent of Whitney's holdings is shown on S.W. Searl, Map of the City of New Haven (Philadelphia: Eneas Smith, 1859).
16 New Haven Register, 3/14/1937 and 6/23/1942, in Whitney Arms Company file, NCHS.
17 Encyclopedia of Connecticut Iliography (Boston: American Society, 1917), p. 102.
From the book,
Windows on the Works: Industry on the Eli Whitney Site