STEAM IN ACTION AT SMITHSONIAN


| July/August 1976



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

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.