- Exhibiting Electricity *
Exhibiting Electricity is more a chronicle than a history, but as such it should prove useful to a wide range of historians of technology. Perhaps its most valuable feature is a table, spread over pages 25 to 29, listing 164 “major technological exhibitions” between 1756 and 1996, plus another eleven planned through 2005. Name, date, location, days open, and number of visitors are listed. The rest of the book can be considered an amplification of this base.
The author’s stated purposes are ambitious. One of them is to consider these exhibitions as presenting a “mirror to the progress of science, engineering and . . . electrical technology” (p. xi), and he proposes to give examples of the key factors in that progression. This is to be achieved primarily by describing novel electrical devices as they were displayed at the various fairs. In fact, the best he can do is give us a somewhat eclectic view of the development of electrical technology. There are highlights: a Siemens electric locomotive at Berlin in 1879, Bell’s telephone at Philadelphia in 1876, high-voltage power transmission at Frankfurt in 1891, American television at New York in 1939. But for the argument to have any real force, a much more systematic and detailed account would be necessary. In addition, a number of unfortunate errors have crept into the text. The Paris Exposition of 1878 presumably displayed a current version of the two-decades-old Hughes telegraph, but certainly not the much later version which is illustrated on page 121. The Bell telephone instrument illustrated on page 129 was an experimental device from 1875, not one of those demonstrated at Philadelphia in 1876; and the liquid transmitter (same page), although taken to the exhibition, was not shown to the public. De Forest’s audion had not been invented in time for the St. Louis fair in 1904 (p. 207). And Columbus made his first voyage to America in 1492, not 1493 (p. 186).
The author also proposes to consider factors affecting the changing format of exhibitions as different nations vied with each other. By “format” he apparently means something that he also calls “three aspects”: “displaying the skill and ingenuity of a nation; informing and educating the visitor; and entertainment or commercial influence,” to which he adds a fourth, “to express nationalism or to provide propaganda relative to a particular theme or culture” (p. xi). Indeed, he makes a reasonable case that the tone of the exhibitions has moved over time through these four stages, but the tentative reasons given are more technical and financial than national.
Of particular interest is his argument that electrical technologies have been major factors in defining the exhibitry at these fairs. For the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, electricity was understandably [End Page 184] a minor consideration. But starting in the mid-1870s, electricity played a key design role. First it was lighting: a few arc lights in Philadelphia in 1876, thousands of incandescent and hundreds of arc lights illuminating the buildings and grounds at Chicago in 1893, colored lighting effects in San Francisco in 1915, and elaborate lighting schemes in all the fairs that followed.
At the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, an overhead electric railway was supplemented by an elliptical moving platform over a kilometer in length. The moving-platform approach was elaborated at the Paris International Exposition in 1900, and electrical transportation systems have become standard at many exhibitions since. More recently, computer-controlled video displays are omnipresent information and entertainment vehicles.
The author ends on something of a wistful note. Exhibitions have become less about technology and more about entertainment. And as government support has dwindled, they have become more commercial. But, whatever the form and purpose, the content, at least, has become dominated by electricity.
Dr. Finn is curator of electricity and modern physics at the National Museum of American History.
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