Sidebar 14: Eli Whitney's Gun Factory - David Starbuck

Between 1972 and 1975, I directed a series of excavations for Yale University at the site of Eli Whitney's Gun Factory in Hamden, Connecticut, just north of New Haven. Beginning in 1798, this early, outstanding example of an industrial complex had contained a workers' village and even a company farm, and the factory produced thousands of firearms for the United States government and for state militias. The armory continued to operate until 1888, after which nearly all of the buildings were removed along with any evidence for Whitney's manufacturing processes.

Perhaps more than any other site in the history of American industry, Whitney's gun factory gave archaeologists a chance to examine one of the “big” questions of American technology: Had interchangeable parts been invented there on the side of the Mill River? Before his death in 1825, Whitney claimed that his water-powered machinery was so well designed that even unskilled laborers could turn out parts that were highly “uniform,” rendering obsolete the older practice of fabricating muskets entirely by hand. Under my direction, a team of Yale students excavated the massive 1804 forge building, along with part of the 1860 Main Armory building, and the 1798 Filing and Machine Shop.

As we excavated the foundations and dumps of the factory complex, we found many files and grinding stones but no pre-1825 evidence for the milling machines that would have ground down gun parts to really close tolerances, or for molds suggesting that some parts had been cast. In this way we helped debunk the myth of two centuries--first propagated by Whitney but perpetuated by many others--that the American System of Manufactures had begun at this very site. Edwin Battison’s analysis of filing marks on curated artifacts from the site provided the first evidence challenging Whitney’s claims. Whitney knew that self-promotion was good for business, but the use of archaeology at his factory site helped us all to realize that Whitney's manufacturing processes were no more innovative than those of the other manufacturers of his day.