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No. 271:
Mercer's Museum

Today, we visit a past that was this close to being our own. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We look at a wild, 8-story building from the outside and wonder what mad animus set it here, in the middle of Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It looks like a French baroque castle, with its vertical lines, gridded windows, and steep roof. But it's all made from cast reinforced concrete -- not stone. It's Henry Mercer's Museum, opened in 1916 with a very special purpose.

It all began in 1897, when Mercer went to a junkyard to find a pair of fireplace tongs. As he rummaged through old wagons, spinning wheels, and salt boxes, it came to him! These were technologies that had been unaltered for millennia. Now -- in a blink -- they'd been relegated to the scrap heap.

"There is," he said, "a greater difference between our lives and the life of George Washington than between his life and the life of William the Conqueror." And that was only 98 years after Washington's death. Mercer realized he was viewing the remains of a civilization that was vanishing -- with dizzying speed -- before his very eyes.

Mercer was an honored and respected traditional anthropologist in 1897. He was a museum curator and a journal editor. But his soul had been touched by that junkyard. He'd seen anthropology where traditional anthropologists weren't able to see it.

For ten years he placed himself outside the mainstream of the field while he built this museum. It is, in fact, part junkyard and part cathedral. The technologies of your great-grandparents are piled deep in gallery after gallery around a central bay -- all lit by windows, not electricity. Small surprises lurk around every corner. The labeling is minimal and idiosyncratic -- no lectures or recorded guides. Author Frederick Allen thinks it's like a church -- quiet, beautiful, reverential, and poorly attended. Even the smell is compelling. The linseed oil, used to preserve the wood, gently perfumes the air.

Mercer's museum honors a past that he couldn't allow to pass away without a decent memorial. Mercer died the same year I was born. And he was preserving the not-quite-dead technologies of the Middle Ages. It's all happened that fast. You and I have never known a world without airplanes, automobiles, and electronic media. But we barely missed living in a world with none of those things.

Mercer's museum, filled as it is with the perfected technologies of hand tools, carriages, and clocks, is a monument to the soaring human imagination just as surely as the wonders that replaced them. In the end, this strange museum tells the mercurial speed and restlessness of our imagination, as well as its power.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Allen, F., The Tower of Tools. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Spring/Summer 1989, pp. 26-31.

For more on Henry Mercer and his works, see Episodes 1048 and 1205 and the following website:

See also this set of my photos of Mercer's works: