Centennial Celebration 1876

Opening day at Centennial

Opening day at Centennial - taken from Harper's Magazine 1876. Courtesy of Bill Lenox, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania 17022

Bill Lenox

Content Tools

Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania 17022

On May 10, 1876 in Philadelphia, the President of the United States and the Emperor of Brazil mounted the platform of the giant Corliss Engine. Each turned a valve lever, setting in motion the great International Centennial Exhibition as miles of shafting and hundreds of machines began to operate.

As the United States today moves toward its bicentennial celebration it may be of interest to take a look at how the nation's 100th birthday was observed.

Congress, on March 3, 1871 authorized the president to appoint two commissioners from each state to a centennial commission. In 1872, an act incorporated a Centennial Board of Finance and provided for the issuance of $10,000,000 worth of stock. On April 1, 1873, a board of directors was organized.

These preliminaries culminated on May 10, 1876 in the opening of the Centennial Exhibition in Fair-mount Park, Philadelphia. The grounds covered 236 acres, with five buildings being constructed at a cost of $4,500,000. The Main Building, holding scientific, educational, mining and manufacturing exhibits, covered 20 acres. It was 1,880 feet long, 464 feet wide and had 'wings' 416 and 216 feet long. The 70-foot high roof was supported by trusses resting on 672 wrought-iron columns, with an elevated square in the center and towers at the corners.

The Women's Pavilion, with 15 nations represented, was on an acre of ground and was the first display of that nature ever attempted.

The second largest structure was the Machinery Building. This was 1,402 feet long, 360 feet wide and, with an annex, covered nearly 13 acres.

Other buildings were Agriculture Hall, Horticulture Hall and an arts building.

In the middle of Machinery Hall was the Corliss Engine, which supplied the power to keep the mechanical parts of the exhibition in motion. This engine was unique.

Two 750-horsepower beam engines had the flywheel between them. The cranks of both were connected with the same shaft, thus making the two engines actually a double engine. The gear flywheel connected under the floor with the 252-foot long main shaft, which ran crosswise of the building. Shafts 108 feet long ran at right angles with the main shaft to points under the ends of the separate lines of overhead shafting.

These 108-foot shafts were connected to the ends of the main shaft and at two intermediate points. At these two points they were attached by rests of beveled gear six feet in diameter.

At the ends of these connecting shafts were the main pulleys, eight in number. Each pulley was connected by a double belt to the end of an overhead main shaft in the hall. Each could drive a straight line of shafting 635 feet long. Each of these 635-foot sections was the length and one-fourth the width of one wing of the hall. The main shaft was extended beneath the transept and furnished power in that section.

The diameter of the gear flywheel was 30 feet. It was two feet across the face. Its weight of 56 tons made it the heaviest cut wheel produced up to that time. Its 216 teeth were finished so precisely that 36 revolutions per minute ran noiselessly. The height of the engine was 39 feet from the main floor and every part could be reached by means of iron stairs and balconies.

In contrast to the mammoth Corliss Engine, standing next to it on the platform was the smallest steam engine in the world, shown by Mr. Levi Taylor of Indianola, Iowa. It rested on a gold twenty-five cent piece. It was made of gold, steel and platinum and the whole thing weighed seven grains. The engine alone weighed only four grains. The stroke of the piston rod was one twenty-fourth of an inch, and the cutoff was one sixty-fourth. Many of its parts could be recognized only by the use of a magnifying glass.

Steam engine fans who do not already know, may be interested in reading a bit about the developer of the Corliss Engine.

George Henry Corliss was born on June 2, 1817, in Easton, N.Y. His father, a surgeon, felt that George could be better educated in Greenwich, N.Y., so the family moved there when the boy was eight years old. In school he early showed an inclination toward mathematics and mechanics.

As was the custom in those days, George went to work at age 14. After he worked four years for a storekeeper, his father sent him to Castleton Academy in Vermont. George studied there for three years, then returned to Greenwich and opened a store of his own.

Customers complained about faulty stitching in the shoes which he sold. Corliss turned his inventive nature to the task and came up with a machine for sewing boots. He received a patent in 1842 and in 1844 went to Providence, R.I. to try to market his invention. Fairbanks, Bancroft and Company were interested in George but not in his machine, and offered him a job. So he sold the store and went to Providence with his wife, and, by now, two children. Here he soon invented mechanisms that were to revolutionize the manufacture of steam engines.

Always alert for better things, Corliss joined John Bar stow and E. J. Nightingale of Providence in 1848, forming a new company called Corliss, Nightingale and Company. Here his first steam engine using the unique Corliss features was built. In 1856 a new plant was constructed and the company incorporated under the name of Corliss Engine Company.

What was the great thing Corliss did for the steam engine? He invented a throttle valve gear actuated by a ball governor to regulate the amount of steam admitted to a cylinder in response to the load requirement. This 'variable cutoff' prevented the waste of heat and pressure and resulted in fuel savings under a partial load.

This giant of industry, who contributed so much to the nation's growth, died in Providence, R.I. on Feb. 21, 1888. He was survived by his second wife, the former Emily Shaw, of Newburyport, Mass. His first wife, the former Phoebe Frost, of Canterbury, Conn, died in 1859.

The great Centennial Exhibition lasted six months, closing on Nov. 10. Total admissions numbered 9,910,966. Of these visitors 7,250,-620 paid admission fees of 50 cents. 753,654 paid 25 cents and 1,906,692 people were admitted free.

The Corliss Engine was later used for about 30 years by the Pullman shops near Chicago.

When the nation celebrates its tricentennial in 2076 there will no doubt be many wonderful sights to see and many great inventions. Probably nothing will be more remarkable than was the Corliss Engine when it was shown in 1876 in Philadelphia.

Information gleaned from The Centennial Exposition, Described  and Illustrated by J. S. Ingram, Imperial Encyclopedia and Dictionary, Vol. 7, Encyclopedia International, Vol, 5, and Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 7.