STEAM IN ACTION AT SMITHSONIAN

Green flywheel

Green flywheel with decorated spokes in Machinery Hall at 1876: A Centennial Exhibition, at Smithsonian Institution. [Photo by Robert C. Lautman, courtesy Smithsonian Institution].

Robert C. Lautman

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How did the United States celebrate its 100th birthday?

To help us better understand and appreciate the events of a century ago curators of the National Museum of History and Technology have recreated the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which was held in Philadelphia. The two-year display has been set up in the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building on Jefferson Drive, S.W., Washington D.C. The exhibit takes up the entire building.

The original centennial covered 236 acres and included five buildings which cost $4,500,000. The buildings were the Women's Pavilion, the Machinery Building, Agricultural Hall, Horticultural Hall and an art building, called Memorial Hall. Power to keep the machinery in motion was supplied by the giant Corliss Engine, which was located in the middle of Machinery Hall.

Of special interest to Iron-Man Album readers are probably the steam-powered machines of the last century, restored and humming (or roaring) away in this centennial reconstruction, and special crops of corn and wheat grown from the same kinds of seeds used in 1876.

The items displayed come from various sources. Collectors, museums, corporations and individual craftsmen all contributed to the display. Some objects were found right in the Smithsonian having been sent there from Philadelphia in 42 freight cars when the Philadelphia Centennial closed its doors. In fact, this gift was an important element in the establishment of the Smithsonian as a national museum. The Arts and Industries building was built to house this and other early collections.

Curators have spent more than two years and traveled many miles gathering artifacts for this exhibit. Some of the items on display are Liberty Bells made of various materials, a 100-year-old steam locomotive, an ice cream freezer, a model of the sloop-of-war Antietam, sculpture carved from a 1,000 pound block of soap, a 19-ton refrigeration compressor, ceramics and silver articles. These are just a few of the more than 25,000 objects.

What songs did our forefathers sing? A mechanical, one-ton organ, rescued in the nick of time from a bulldozer, will play the music of 100 years ago for visitors. This instrument has 451 pipes plus other features.

The Museum has prepared a catalogue entitled 1876: A Centennial Exhibition, which describes the Philadelphia Exposition and its re-creation at the Smithsonian. The book contains 350 illustrations and may be bought by mail from the Museum shop at a cost of $6.95.

The National Museum of History and Technology is to be commended for this unique project. How better to help mark the nation's bicentennial than to reconstruct the way it was at the half-way mark? We can look and appreciate the distance we have come in the last century. We can see what we have gained, and indeed, what we have lost.

This reconstruction is not, of course, an exact duplicate of the five-building Philadelphia Centennial but it captures the essence of that event and fills a structure containing over an acre and a quarter of floor space.

As we mark our bicentennial, it is certainly fitting for us to remember how the men and women of 100 years ago observed the first century of nationhood.