Friday, April 21, 2017

The Electrical Exhibition in Powelton, 1884

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                 On September 2, 1884, Poweltonians suddenly got a unique glimpse of the future.  On that date, the Franklin Institute opened the International Electrical Exhibition in a temporary building at 32nd and Lancaster Ave.  There had been a few such exhibitions in Europe beginning in 1881 in Paris.  However, this was the first in the U.S.  It marked an important turning point in history when electricity came out of the research laboratory and started to enter the lives of ordinary people.  The New York Times understood this when it noted that
 “if an exhibition had been desirable 10 years ago, it would have been very difficult to find the materials, if we except the one department of the telegraph.  Nothing calls to mind more clearly how very recent indeed are the most noted improvements in applied electricity than does an examination of the dates when the most noted and important of the appliances were invented.  Another of the curious circumstances is found in the fact that few even of the newest contrivances show the advent of hitherto undiscovered principles.  It is in the method of application and in the ingenuity rather than the originality that the striking effects are shown.” [1]

 Although it covered all aspects of electricity, the largest share of the exhibits was given over to illumination.  The first electric lights in Philadelphia were street arc lights installed on Chestnut St. three years earlier.  The first electric system in West Philadelphia wasn’t started until 1891.  Although there were gas street lights and gas lights in homes, they only provided small patches of warm lighting.  It was into this darkness that the Exhibition burst into light.

The International Electrical Exhibition Building (Left) and the Pennsylvania Railroad Terminal

                The Franklin Institute built a temporary building of wood and glass.  It included a central arched span 100 by 200 feet.  The front corners rose to 60 foot towers.  It was linked by an elevated walkway to the Pennsylvania Railroad Terminal which included additional exhibits.  The New York Times article reported that “Powerful lights flash from the roof of the main building and shine all over the city.”  One tower held the Navy’s newest search light which illuminated small objects 2.5 miles away [to east of  Broad St.].”  The other was a tower of different color incandescent bulbs mounted by Thomas Edison.  The Times went on to explain that
 “in the interior are 350 arc lights and 5,600 incandescent lamps….  A dozen steam engines [run]… 16 of the biggest dynamo machines ever constructed …. [T]he illumination… presents a scene of surpassing splendor.  Not the least of the attractions is a beautiful fountain… the whole being illuminated by electric lights surrounding it, and shining down from above.  Looked at from the gallery the appearance is that of wonderful brilliancy.  Then, too, there are the colored lights arranged in groups and the burnished chandeliers of artistic design, to say nothing of the great lines of fire from aloft which irradiate the spaces with the refulgency of noonday and a splendor all their own.”
                The Exhibition offered a large display of historical items most provided by the Patent Office.  It included 19 electrical and ten mechanical telephones, the first patented electric motor, early lightning rods and Morse’s first telegraph from 1846.  New inventions included a large electric clock which transmitted the time through wires to clocks throughout the hall.  There was a “perfect hatcher” which could incubate 2,100 chicks at a time.  Wanamaker & Brown set up electric sewing machines which were “running with lightning speed and by lightning power.”  Cloths made on them were for sale at their store.  One exhibit displayed a synchronous multiplex telegraph capable of sending 72 messages to 72 recipients back and forth through a single wire.  The Inquirer reported that
“At the exhibition the force carried through a single slender wire may be seen moving a number of heavy machines, such as would tax a steam engine’s strength, and doing it without expense for coal or water, without ashes or smoke, and without danger of exploding.” [2]

                Off in one corner was a curious device invented by Thomas Edison.  It was described as an “Apparatus showing conductivity of continuous currents through high vaco.”  It was called the “Tri-Polar Incandescent Lamp.”  Edison didn’t have time to study it and considered it an aesthetic matter.  Its actions could not be fully explained until the discovery of the relationship between electrons and electricity.  This was the first public showing of the vacuum tube which became the foundation for modern electronics. 

The Exhibit of the Weston Electrical Instrument Corp.

 There were also more decorative exhibits.  At the exhibit of the Weston Electrical Instrument Corp. (a major competitor of Edison), a large jar contained gold fish whose scales were illuminated by submerged incandescent lamps.  The exhibit also included bouquets of real flowers surrounding a small incandescent bulb.  The Inquirer noted that “At first a young lady, evidently a belle in society, timidly drew back from her escort when he offered her one of the bouquets. In a few minutes her natural fear of the subtle, powerful, but eminently useful agent, was alleviated and she was induced to take the brightly illuminated flowers….” [3] 
The Franklin Institute offered a series of lectures on a wide variety of topics.  These included lectures on “Dynamo-Electric Machinery” and “The Divining Rod.”  They also commissioned a large series of primers to explain the principles of electricity and many advanced topics.
The hall was used only once more for an exhibition of recent inventions and in 1886 it was offered for sale and dismantling.  But for a brief six weeks, it lighted up Powelton’s night sky.  More than 300,000 visitors to the Exhibition saw for the first time the true potential of electricity to change everyday life.  It brought electricity out of scientific laboratories and presented it as much more than a mysterious curiosity.  We can only imagine the awe inspired by an electric sewing machine or a lighted bouquet of flowers.  But today satellite images of massive glowing cities can still awaken a sense of what electricity has done to change the world we live in.

[1] "A Dazzling Exhibition." New York Times, Sept. 3, 1884.
[2] Inquirer, Sept. 23, 1884. Pg 4.
[3] "Electric Sparks." Inquirer, Sept. 6, 1884. Pg. 8

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