Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 300:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 300.

Today, we visit the Paris exhibition of 1889. 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.

The 1889 Paris Exhibition gave us the Eiffel Tower. Today we've forgotten a much larger structure that was spread out below the Eiffel Tower -- a building called the Gallery of Machines.

In the early 1800s, France's technology lagged far behind England's. But she'd gained ground since then. By 1900, 13 other world fairs had followed London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. These fairs, each grander than the last, were major declarations of material progress. France hurled herself into that game. Five of those thirteen exhibits were put on in Paris.

Iron and steel were the specie of the 1889 exhibit. The Eiffel Tower was the great symbol of it all, but the content was to be found in the Gallery of Machines. The Gallery had the largest open floor area of any building ever made. It was a quarter mile long and 460 feet wide. The three-hinged arches that shaped it were the latest structural innovation. Each one was formed of two huge iron half-arches, hinged at the ground and hinged where they met in the center, 143 feet above the floor.

Into this great building was poured the new heavy power technology of the late 19th century: engines, dynamos, transformers. It was all lit by the new electric lights, now only seven years old. Huge traveling walkways carried passengers overhead so they could gaze down on all this. A 13-year-old boy told about the ride, many years later:

I remember very clearly the hallucinatory [ride] through the brightness of the nave above whirlpools of reptilian belts, creakings, whistles, sirens, and black caverns containing circles, pyramids, and cubes.
The president of France in 1889 was Sadi Carnot, Jr. His father was the Sadi Carnot who gave us the second law of thermodynamics -- the scientific law that limits how much power a machine will produce. Before he became president, the younger Carnot had been one of the planners of the exhibition.

But if natural law limited power production, you were not to learn about that in the Gallery of Machines. You were here to see a modern world being forged out of iron and smoke. The Gallery was further expanded for the 1900 Paris Exhibition. It was there that Henry Adams was moved to write his famous essay on modern technology, The Dynamo and the Virgin.

The Gallery finally came down in 1910 to make room for other things. By then the three-hinged arch was being used in the huge railway stations and airplane hangars of the 20th century. Today, only the Eiffel Tower remains as the symbol of modern France. But it was the engines going forth from that now-forgotten Gallery that helped to create modern France.

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

(Theme music)

Stamper, J.W., The Galerie des Machines of the 1889 Paris World's Fair. Technology and Culture, Vol. 30, No. 2, 1889, pp. 330-3.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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