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No. 869:
1876 Technology

Today, we ask how America came of age. 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 celebrated our centennial in 1876. In just a century we'd turned from England's outback into a great industrial leader. We threw a great party that year -- the Philadelphia Exposition. It was by far the largest world's fair up 'til then.

Now I've come across a magazine that plays counterpoint to the Philadelphia Fair. It's the 1876 volume of a magazine called The Manufacturer and Builder. It's a kind of Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Scientific American, all rolled into one.

It says a lot about heavy machine tools, dynamos, turbines -- the great engines of material progress. But where did those engines come from? They were fed by mathematics and practical science. This now-forgotten journal, like Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, is packed with random scientific knowledge.

Some of that knowledge is profoundly on target. Much of it is not. One item talks about an unsuccessful attempt to make artificial butter. The product, called oleo-margarine, came out streaked and speckled, and it soon turned rancid.

Another speculative item tells about experiments with a new kind of talking telegraph, called a telephone. And that was two years before Bell's famous patent. They end with the words, "We are perhaps only on the threshold of a mighty revolution ... "

They tell of a 29-year-old inventor in Menlo Park, New Jersey, named Thomas Edison. Edison thinks he's found a new form of electricity. The editor thinks he's mistaken. But then, the editor is nothing if not contentious. He writes editorials correcting wrong answers to readers' questions given by the editor of Scientific American -- his competition.

Yet it's here I see the strength of 19th-century America more clearly than ever before. For reader questions are the heart of this strange multi-dimensional magazine. There are pages of questions. Many are just left for readers to answer. The magazine is many things, but at its heart it is a great question bank.

Is Darwin the sole inventor of his absurd new theory?
Is the danger of trichinosis in pork a real concern?
How elementary are the chemical elements?
What ore do you extract tellurium from, and how?
How does water get into the working barrel of a pump?

We built America on our confidence in the face of questions -- by being unafraid to face our ignorance and beat it down.

So I read on. One item sings praises of the French metric system. Another tells about a grand engineering scheme -- a plan to turn the Sahara Desert into a great inland salt sea and to make Timbuctoo into a seaport. But then, why not! That's the kind grand, question-driven thinking that drove us just over a century ago. That's what made us what we are.

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

(Theme music)

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Library, for making her personal copy of the original 1876 The Manufacturer and Builder, (Vol. 8) available to me.