Engines Of Change
The American Industrial Revolution takes center stage in a new permanent installation at the National Museum of American History. A preview.
Squat and powerful, its boiler sheathed in stout wood planking and its nearly six-foot-long iron leading truck thrusting forward wickedly, the ten-ton John Bull is the oldest self-propelled vehicle in the world that can still run. Gazing at the 155-year-old steam locomotive, you begin to sense just how it was that it and other innovative machines became engines of change that knit nineteenth-century America together, industrialized the nation, and helped form the American character.
The John Bull —still intact and gleaming—is the resplendent centerpiece of a new permanent installation about to be unveiled at the Smithsonian Institution. When the exhibition, called “Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860,” opens to the public on November 21, 1986, at Washington’s National Museum of American History, it will inevitably be seen as a definitive national statement on the Industrial Revolution in this country. It will also be seen as fun.
The heart of the enormous exhibition will be its hundreds of ingenious devices. Clocks made of wood. A beautifully balanced ax that could fell trees three times faster than its European counterpart. An early automated pinmaking machine. A functioning machine-tool shop. A Pennsylvania long rifle. And, of course, the classic inventions of the era: steam engine, cotton gin, racing yacht, lightning rod, sawmill, Colt revolver, and a variety of textile-spinning machines.
Four years ago, the preparation of “Engines of Change” was delegated to two Smithsonian scholars, Brooke Hindle and Steven Lubar. Hindle, sixtyeight, historian emeritus at the National Museum of American History, is a scholar of American technologies of the nineteenth century and before. Lubar, thirty-one, is also a staff historian who specializes in early American technology. They agreed early on not to take a narrow historical approach to the technological transformation of America. And they resolved to let artifacts speak for themselves, as far as possible. “Steve Lubar and I agreed from the first,” Hindle says, “that we’d better make a close study of solid, three-dimensional objects—actual physical survivals of the Industrial Revolution. We didn’t want mere words, documents, and received opinion to dictate this exhibition’s form.”
The main considerations in selecting examples of the “Engines of Change” were which artifacts were on hand in the Smithsonians’s vaults; which items were quintessential, by common consent among historians of technology; and which pieces Hindle and Lubar personally felt deserved inclusion.
The team agreed, for instance, that early automated manufacturing devices deserved prominent billing. Lubar especially wanted to include John Howe’s automated machine that turned out ordinary straight household pins of the sort used in sewing. But the Smithsonian’s pin-making machine was in bad disrepair and needed hard-to-get replacement parts. Undaunted, Lubar dug up the inventor’s original patent model and drawings and labored for a year to help put the machine in running order. “In the end,” he says, “we had a fine reconstruction of one of America’s earliest attempts at automation. It’s a complicated affair, about five feet by four feet by four feet high. It’s in the exhibition under ‘Mechanization.’”
Hindle and Lubar see London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition as a landmark event in the coming of age of industrial America, and they treat it as such in “Engines of Change.” They have designed their show so that the visitor will enter through a full-scale replica of part of the palace. The Exhibition was a kind of world’s fair and international trade exposition housed in a vast, glistening iron-and-glass building that covered twenty-one acres in London’s Hyde Park. Some six hundred American entries, from twenty-eight of the thirty-two states, were shown at the Crystal Palace.
At first, English and European exhibitors tended to sniff at America’s Crystal Palace entries because of their plain design and functionality. But the prizejudges gave greater weight to function than to the frills and adornments common to most British and European entries. Among the prizewinners were William Bond and Sons (for an astronomical-observations recorder), and Charles Goodyear (for musical instruments, a lifeboat, and other objects, all made of India rubber). The biggest winner of all was Cyrus McCormick, with his now-legendary reaper.
Still another sensation of the era was the racing yacht America ’s smashing triumph over England’s best sailboats. During the Exhibition the Royal Yacht Squadron put up a purse of one hundred guineas for the winner of a fifty-three-mile race around the Isle of Wight. The 100-foot-long, 170-ton America , which had crossed the Atlantic under its own sails, ran away with the race. England, proud of its status as the ultimate maritime power, was stunned. America’s reputation soared —and United States sailors kept possession of the cup so won until 1983. A finely detailed model of the yacht will be part of the exhibit.
It was America’s mass-produced products that created the biggest stir at the Crystal Palace. The Colt revolver and the Robbins and Lawrence military rifle had been produced under what was now being called the “American system” of manufactures, involving interchangeable parts, the division of labor, and special-purpose machine tools. Colt’s exhibit was “hands-on”— visitors were actually encouraged to fire the revolver. American textile machinery and sewing machines also drew admiring notice, and American firms received a flood of orders. The Crystal Palace showed that, as Lubar and Hindle put it, “the United States had begun to surpass her mentor.”
After viewing the exhibit of American prizewinners from the Crystal Palace, the visitor will find great halls displaying objects of all kinds from the decades that preceded and led up to the Crystal Palace triumph, assembled according to categories.
Hindle and Lubar are reluctant to make pronouncements about the meaning of the “Engines of Change” exhibition; they would rather wait for it to speak for itself. But visitors who get caught up in the spirit of the show are sure to find themselves being moved in unexpected ways. Looking at these solid survivals from our past, you get a new sense of just how tough, resilient, and resourceful our forebears were. As Hindle and Lubar put it in the book they have written to accompany the show: “The variety of pursuits that might be demanded of a single American continued [in the early years of the republic] to amaze European visitors. … a farmer-tavern keeper in New Jersey [told one visitor] ‘I am a mover, a shoemaker, furrier, wheelwright, farmer, gardener.… I make my bread, brew my beer, kill my pigs; I grind my axes and knives … I am barber, leech and doctor.’” The “Engines of Change” exhibition is a tribute both to that wealth of immense personal energy and to the easier life such industry made possible for most of us born in a later age.
In leaving “Engines of Change,” you may take one last look back at the John Bull and wonder aloud, “Can it really still run, after all these years?” In fact, it can, and several years ago it did. “In 1981,” Brooke Hindle recalls, “we took it out for a run along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. I’d somehow expected it to give us a real rough ride, thumping and chugging away. But to my surprise, we enjoyed a smooth, relatively quiet ride. They built well in those days.”