Exposing American Ingenuity

GabeAmerican History(ML), Mini Lessons

Read from Common Sense American History eBook:

Visitors to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition during the summer of 1876 could see numerous reminders of the previous century of American freedom, including copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. These documents were displayed with exhibits showing American and European contributions to science, agriculture and the arts. These exhibits expressed Americans’ faith in the exceptional nature of American democracy and the material progress made over the last century.

The greatest attraction at the exhibit was the industrial halls, which drew an estimated 10 million visitors. Here visitors saw Thomas Edison’s telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, a Remington typewriter and John Heinz’s ketchup—all competing for attention with the powerful and immense seven-story tall Corliss steam engine.

The exposition occurred at a tumultuous period in American history. A wrenching financial recession—the Panic of 1873—was just ending. The exposition came during a presidential election year, which produced an electoral deadlock between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes from Ohio and Democrat Samuel Tilden from New York. Only in March 1877 did Congress reach a compromise to select Hayes as President in return for withdrawing federal troops from the South.

That summer, Lakota Sioux defeated General George Armstrong Custer’s U.S. Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The Great Railroad strike of 1877 produced the worst labor upheaval in American history. The strike cascaded from east to west along the Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Ohio railroads, and pitted workers against managers in a manner reflective of the unsettling nature of the industrial era. Federal troops finally suppressed the strike. But none of these events seemed to discourage fairgoers who came to witness and to celebrate the sensational technological progress on display in Philadelphia in 1877.

  1. People sometimes talk of “American ingenuity.” What do you understand by the idea?
  2. “MacGyvering” means to make or repair something in a creative, inventive way. Can you think of popular media representations of “MacGyvering” from other cultures (e.g. some of the ideas in the French movie Amelie, or some of the creative scenes in, especially, the older James Bond movies)?
  3. Americans have won 371 Nobel prizes, from among the 889 total awarded. Among those 371 Americans, almost 30% (106) were foreign-born. The foreign-born American winners would rank fourth in terms of awards, if they were their own country. Why do you think creative people, particularly in science and industry, migrate to the United States to do their work?

This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History Common Sense eBook.  Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers.  Click Here to download the Common Sense American History materials.

The Victorian display, featuring a pillar of gold, at the International Exhibition, London, 1862, by Joseph Nash, La Trobe picture collection, State Library of Victoria