Celebrating American Innovation at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876

Friday, March 11, 2016

I was recently doing some research on the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876, and I realized that May of this year will mark the 140th anniversary of the opening day.

Because of my research, and because Hagley recently acquired an extensive collection of nineteenth-century United States Patent Office models,  American invention and innovation have been on my mind lately.

The International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, as the fair was officially titled, celebrated the 100th anniversary of American independence. The celebration looked backward to commemorate the progress made over the 100-year period, and it announced the ascendancy of the United States of America as a leading industrial power.

On May 10, 1876, thousands gathered to watch as President Ulysses Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil each pulled a lever to start the massive Corliss engine in Machinery Hall. The Corliss Engine powered a myriad of other machines by a sophisticated networking of metal shafts and belts. Countless wheels, shafts, and power bands flew into motion as hundreds of machines throughout the great Hall engaged in their respective operations.

George H. Corliss, of Providence, Rhode Island had volunteered to manufacture a steam engine that would be capable of powering all of the machinery in the hall. The Corliss Duplex Engine was designed and built at his factory in ten months. The project cost $200,000, but it was provided to the Centennial at no charge by Mr. Corliss.

The completed engine weighed 700 tons and was shipped to Philadelphia in 65 railroad cars. The massive engine stood over 40 feet high in the center of 14 acres of exhibits in Machinery Hall on a platform 56 feet across. Two cylinders spun a flywheel 30 feet in diameter and weighing 56 tons to produce 1400 horsepower.

The Corliss engine powered hundreds of machines in Machinery Hall, performing tasks from combing wool and spinning cotton, printing newspapers and wallpaper, sewing cloth and making shoes, to sawing logs and pumping water.

Near the Corliss Engine in Machinery Hall was a long line of the newest U.S. locomotive engines, including those exhibited by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia.

Some of the other amazing sights among the more than 1,900 exhibitors in Machinery Hall included a 15 ¾ inch diameter slice of the cable produced by John A. Roebling’s Sons & Co., to be used in constructing the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Wallace-Farmer Dynamo powered a system of arc lights at the Centennial Exhibition, which later inspired Thomas Edison to work on an improved incandescent light.

Alexander G. Bell demonstrated his prototype of the modern telephone, the Telephonic Telegraphic Receiver.




The typewriter was introduced to the public at the Centennial.  E. Remington and Sons based their Model 1 typewriter on sewing machine construction.  It printed only capital letters, used a foot treadle for a carriage return, and like a sewing machine, it sat on a table, and was painted black with floral decorations. For fifty-cents, fairgoers could have a letter typed on a machine to send to a friend.  







This author said “Please keep.” These letters would serve as reminders of the remarkable experiences visitors had at the Philadelphia Centennial.


Linda Gross is the Reference Librarian, Published Collections Department, at Hagley.