Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What hath God wrought?

America celebrated its centennial in 1876 with a grand exhibition in Philadelphia designed to showcase the nation's emerging preeminence in science and technology. Between the opening of the exhibition on May 10 and its closing six months later, 8 million visitors -- one in every five Americans -- trekked through the displays, which took up 450 acres in Fairmont Park. Most of those visitors, we can assume, were impressed by what they saw -- the giant steam engines and electrical dynamos, the presses, pumps, gins, hammers and lathes, the roaring, thumping colossi of iron and steel that screamed "POWER!" The gentle naturalist John Burroughs was discombobulated by the "hellish cacophony" of the Machinery Hall. His heart went out to a bird that had somehow wandered into the hall and flapped frenziedly about the ceiling in search of escape.
He was not the only visitor who fretted. Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, worried that the rising tide of science and technology might tear Americans from their spiritual roots.

Meanwhile, a speech professor from Boston University, Alexander Graham Bell, demonstrated his new invention, the telephone. President Ulysses S. Grant was astonished to have a chat with Don Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil, who was sitting all the way on the other side of the fairground! It was perhaps Bell's gizmo, rather than the mammoth instruments of power, that was the real star of the show. Here was the first inkling of coming Age of Human Connectivity. I read somewhere recently that half of the people in the world now have mobile phone subscriptions. And here I sit typing a few words about the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition that can be read right around the world a instant after I click "Post."