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The Columbian Exposition of 1893—celebrating the fourth century since Columbus' landing and a century of remarkable progress in America—was the last and greatest of the nineteenth-century world fairs.
It was also the most dazzling display of technology ever put together, and for many of the estimated 27 million visitors who came to see it, the fair seemed to embody the meaning of the era, of the very idea of progress, and even the identity of America as a whole.
Held in Chicago, the quintessential city of the industrial era, the Exposition transformed the 633 acres of Jackson Park into a marvelously constructed fairground, the centerpiece of which was the pristine White City. The model city was the fruit of an unprecedented collaboration between artists, architects, engineers, and planners. It was a chance to re-imagine America in miniature as the proverbial "city on the hill" for all the world to see and admire.
And by all accounts, there was plenty to marvel at, from a moving sidewalk to the first Ferris wheel.
Most popular—and perhaps most dazzling—was the exhibition fairgoers usually saw last: the Hall of Electricity. Here, they found a futuristic model household stuffed with new electrical appliances. Artifacts from the history of electrification were on display: the world's first telegraph message, the first seismograph, and Thomas Edison's kinetoscope. Dominating the hall was Edison's 82-foot, 18,000-bulb Tower of Light.
Not surprisingly, the Hall of Electricity, the White City, and the entire Exposition's display of technological grandeur and abundance elicited strong reactions from visitors who took in the spectacle.
The western writer Owen Wister probably captured the overwhelming experience for many in his diary: "I went to the fair at once, and before I had walked for two minutes, a bewilderment seized me...until my mind was dazzled to a standstill."
With our shiny new inventions, production in the late nineteenth century skyrocketed.
The United States moved from being the world's fourth largest manufacturer in 1870 to being the world's largest in 1900. In industry after industry, the introduction of new processing technologies led to a re-imagining of the production process on a previously...unimaginable scale.
Classic example: the American steel industry.
Before the 1860s, there hardly was an American steel industry—just low-output, local operations, and production was crawling along throughout the decade.
After a trip to Europe in the 1870s, the enterprising industrialist Andrew Carnegie adopted the European innovations of the Bessemer blast furnace and the Siemens-Martin open-hearth process that had already revolutionized steelmaking across the pond.
Both the Bessemer and open-hearth technologies were new ways of heating iron—to be transformed into steel—more evenly and efficiently, replacing an older, costly method that took days with one that took less than an hour.
All it required was an investment in the new technology. And in America. And Andrew Carnegie was one of the first to see this. Following his lead through the decade, steel production had reached 1.25 million tons by 1880, roughly ten times the amount produced in 1870. That output would increase another the ten times by 1900.
The secret? New industrial entrepreneurs like Carnegie, although not scientists or engineers themselves, knew how to stretch the dollar into the business sector.
They understood that a technology like the Bessemer furnace didn't just change the industry by converting iron ore into steel more quickly and cheaply. The new technology implied, in its speed and cost-efficiency, that the the industry could be reorganized as a whole into larger and larger firms, achieving vast economies of scale.
Steel was pushed down the organizational track laid by the railroads decades earlier. With new technologies, steel was the ultimate moneymaker. It would be produced in accordance with the capacity and rhythm of the industrial factory.
Or, what some like to call the machine.
Cheap steel contributed to mass production as a construction material and as a model product for the new industrial economy. It's the story we know best, but there's a similar story to be told for the cigarette industry, soap, flour, cameras and many more, each of which saw new processing technologies feed the growth of huge companies that tapped into the new national market.
In the last few decades, to put it lightly, urban America's received the short end of the stick.
The pattern of urbanization that had held up until the late twentieth century dates back nearly a hundred years to the Gilded Age, when technological advances fed the tremendous growth of industrial urban centers and helped create a new phenomenon in the American city: the suburb.
Nineteenth-century manufacturing tended to concentrate in urban locations with abundant labor, easy access to a wide variety of local services and markets, and the all-important railroad connections linking to a larger constellation of customers and resources.
The increasing use of steam power late in the century allowed manufacturing growth to explode in these dense urban clusters. This process would be furthered with Nikola Tesla's 1888 invention of the first motor for translating electricity into mechanical energy and by the quickly widening range of uses for electrical power in industry.
But harnessing electricity would have a massive impact on cities and their social geography, moving far beyond simply feeding the industries that were first weaned on steam.
Following the establishment of the first successful electric streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, well over a hundred cities introduced electric streetcars. This early form of urban mass transit marked the death of the pre-industrial walking city and the birth of urban sprawl.
Without the necessity of living within walking distance of work, centrally located housing was no longer a must.
Thus, the middle class began the trend of suburbanization, leaving the central business districts crowded with industrial pockets and working class neighborhoods.
They basically escaped to a ring of privilege miles away from the problems and pollution of the inner city.
The new suburbanites could enjoy the quiet and comfort of their remove in homes that, by the turn of the twentieth century, featured hot and cold water, central heating, electric lighting, and telephone service.
Every morning, they could hop on a streetcar and be whisked through the city, right past its slums and social ills and on to the workplace.
One of the best-selling American novels of the 1880s was what would now be called science-fiction: a man falls into a trance-induced slumber for 113 years only to wake up in a futuristic utopian society.
That's right, we said utopian. Well before George Orwell or The Hunger Games tipped us off to a dystopian future and foreshadowed an obsession with depressing zombie apocalypses, the American public liked their social commentary with a positive twist.
The book, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887, published in 1888, not only became one of the most popular of its era, but continues to pop up, at least in historical discussions, to this day.
The novel's usually remembered for Bellamy's success in smuggling socialist ideas—the nationalization of industry and the redistribution of wealth—into a hugely popular piece of fiction. Less often emphasized, but no less important, is how he managed to do it.
The novel's protagonist, Julian West, wakes up in the year 2000 to find America transformed. Gone is the inequality and social chaos that threatened Bellamy's own industrial society. Instead, West sees the promise of production technology realized. Looking back from the future, he learns that as the giant nineteenth-century corporations became more technologically advanced, they became more efficient.
New machines and new organization led to an ultimate merging of all industry with a benevolent government. Production was so great and material wealth so abundant that there was an end to scarcity, worker exploitation, and social conflict.
In the future society of Looking Backward, everyone has a job to which they're well suited and they retire at 45—all the while indulging in endless consumer goods at gigantic department stores that accept something akin to credit cards.
And peering all the way into our own time, Bellamy's future citizens entertain themselves with music and broadcasts straight from the telephone.
Not a long shot from Netflix, Bellamy. Not too shabby.
Bellamy's readers thought his future sounded like an idyllic place. The book became an instant bestseller, spawning the formation of clubs across the country to discuss and promote his ideas. This meant the spread of a sort of socialist thinking, but it also meant the spread of what might have been a peculiarly American sort of technological utopianism.
At its foundation, that's what Bellamy's particularly optimistic view of the future was based on: the idea that technological advance, used wisely, could solve our problems.
Looking Backward saw plenty to worry about in the turbulent events of the 1880s, but it identified a hope for the future in America's increasing material wealth and productive capacity.
And in its success, the book also suggested that many Americans had come to identify technological advance as perhaps the best means for social and political progress, an idea that would be very influential with the Progressives of the early twentieth century.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. But although technology has found its way into the wrong hands, too, this idea persists as an article of faith in the future to this day.
As both symbolic and socioeconomic fact, nothing in late-nineteenth-century America rivaled the power of the railroad.
Everybody and their brother wanted a better way to shlep it across the country.
At best, you'd get to the West in a few months with a mule-pulled wagon or a pricey ticket on a steamship chugging around the tip of South America.
At worst, well, you might contract cholera, suffer from bouts of watery diarrhea, and die in the middle of Wyoming.
So, when the final golden spike was hammered and the first transcontinental line was completed at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory in 1869, the newly stitched-together nation shrank just a bit.
The coasts grew closer together as the outlying rural communities and the Great West were that much more accessible from the urban metropolises of New York and Chicago.
The significance of the burgeoning national rail network is hard to overstate in any history of the period, but here, we're primarily interested in three aspects of the rail system's tremendous historical impact.
On one level, the national railroad network provided the routes for the new national market for consumer and capital goods. Consequently, the railroad was a technological innovation that spurred more, faster innovation.
And last but not least, the locomotive steaming across the country became a powerful symbol of technological progress and promise.
Nowadays, we're more likely to choose a five-hour flight over a four-day train ride to get across the country, but completing the milestone left people wanting more cool stuff.
The huge change shaped attitudes toward future innovations, including the automobiles that would emerge in the next century.
In 1866, not long before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the first transcontinental telegraph cable was laid.
Not only did it preface the invention of the telephone and thus give us Liam Neeson's gift of a telephone monologue to the world, but this was huge for other reasons, too. It did for information what the railroad would do for people and goods a few years later.
Although Henry David Thoreau, commenting on transnational telegraph lines, famously suggested that "Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate," the people of these and other places seem largely to have disagreed..
The publicity stunts failed, but out of the larger struggle between GE and Westinghouse came the first corporate research labs, the prototypes for the twentieth century's cradles of innovation. The story of electrification, then, is more than just an energy revolution. Although that's pretty huge in itself.
In miniature, it's the story of how innovation and research in pursuit of new technology became a big business and, in some sense, an integral part of both the American economy and the American identity. The U.S. assumed the global lead in technology in the early 1900s not on the shoulders of a few brilliant inventors like Thomas Edison, but carried by a much broader system made up of the GEs and the Westinghouses, the new corporations who made invention their very business.