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Technology on Display

Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860. New permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Opened November 21, 1986. The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History recently opened a new exhibit on the industrial revolution in the United States. Covering some 6,000 square feet, the exhibit treats the development of American technology and industry from 1790 to 1860. Its thesis is that in these 70

By | January 26, 1987

Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860. New permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Opened November 21, 1986.

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History recently opened a new exhibit on the industrial revolution in the United States. Covering some 6,000 square feet, the exhibit treats the development of American technology and industry from 1790 to 1860. Its thesis is that in these 70 short years, the United States was transformed from an agrarian nation into an industrial power in which the "engines of change had begun" to move the world.

Steven Lubar, a museum curator, and Brooke Hindle, former director of the museum and now historian emeritus, prepared Engines of Change, which is accompanied by a small catalog written by Lubar and a larger, handsomely prepared textbook co-authored by Hindle and Lubar and published by the Smithsonian Institution Press. The exhibit and publications reflect meticulous attention to the latest historical scholarship on American technology and industrialization.

Herein, however, lies the exhibit's greatest weakness. In each of its six areas, the exhibit curtsies noticeably to recent books and articles without really departing from an older, highly nationalistic interpretation of the development of technology in the United States.

The exhibit's opening and closing demonstrations clearly illustrate this point. Visitors enter Engines of Change through a striking replica of the exhibits at the first world's fair, the London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. Here, we are told, the world acknowledged "American technological achievements." What was a technologically backward nation in 1790—struggling to maintain its hard-won independence from Great Britain—had by 1851 become the envy of the world. (I heard a discerning middle-aged woman remark at this point in the exhibit, "Sixty years, huh, that's all it took?")

The next four areas set the scene in 1790, discuss the transfer of British technology to the United States, describe the promotion of American industry by local, state and federal governments, and examine in some detail "Machines, Factories, and American Society."

In the final section, the visitor re-enters the Crystal Palace Exhibition, only this time it's the 1853 New York World's Fair, the United States' vain attempt to emulate the British. A number of important British industrialists and engineers flocked to New York. The visitor learns here that "Their visit represents a turning point in the American Industrial Revolution; England, America's industrial mentor, decided it had something to learn from its former colony."

Such a presentation suggests that the United States had to become both technologically independent of and superior to Britain and other European nations. Most American scholars of the 1950s and early 1960s held such a view. But the nation's perceived "technology slip" of today, and its accompanying loss of competitiveness, should serve to remind even hard-core American chauvinists that technology in the 19th century was, as it is today, an international affair. After the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition, industry continued to rely, for example, upon Britain for iron and steel technology; upon Germany for chemical refrigeration, internal combustion and heavy engineering technologies; and upon Sweden and Switzerland for precision instruments.

Despite this major flaw, Engines of Change is well worth seeing. The exhibit is rich with American technological icons. The curator has tried to capture the dynamic nature of machines and factory processes by using videotapes of exhibited artifacts in actual operation. But here, the Smithsonian's penchant for like-new restoration of machinery undermines the curator's objectives. The soot, smells and sweat of industrialization are absent in the sterile environment of the museum.

Hounshell is associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, Newark, 19716, and senior scholar at the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, 19807.

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