The Great American Hall of Wonders

At the end of last week I had to make a quick drive down and back to Washington. The morning I left, I noticed a review of an exhibit that recently opened at the Smithsonian American Art Museum called “The Great American Hall of Wonders: Art, Science and Invention in the Nineteenth Century.” The review described a quirky collection of drawings, paintings and artifacts by the foremost artists and inventors of that era that sounded fascinating. I left Lowell determined to squeeze a visit to this exhibit into my short stay in Washington.

Besides original works of art by John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and others, the exhibit also featured an early telegraph by Samuel F. B. Morse and a light bulb by Thomas Edison. A real bonus was finding the city of Lowell prominently represented by a first edition of Lowell Hydraulic Experiments by James Francis, described in the exhibit guide as follows:

While [Frederic] Church was working out the vectors of the raging currents at Horseshoe Falls, American readers were engrossed by images and descriptions in a recently published book about hydrology. Lowell Hydraulic Experiments (1856) documented a series of more than 160 hydrological trials carried ut during the 1830s and 1840s by James Frances, chief engineer at the famed Lowell Mills in Massachusetts. Because American science had not yet produced useful texts on hydrology, millwrights and mill owners of the period were forced to rely on European studies that were often unsuited to conditions in the United States. The owners of Lowell Mills charged Frances to gather new information. Using several kinds of waterwheels and turbines, he measured the flow of water of different depths over weirs and dams of varying heights. Because calculus and theory were not yet perfected, Frances relied on close observation and accurate visual documentation in his analysis of water flows. By eliminating the logjam of inadequate data and directing significant improvements in the hydraulic systems that powered the factory, the Lowell experiments represented a critical stop in the nation’s progress toward economic independence. Although Lowell’s river-harnessing theories had already been adopted in many American factories, the publication of the elegantly bound Lowell Hydraulic Experiments formally presented to the American public the innovative vision that drove the Lowell Mills’ twenty thousand horse-power turbines and its commercial success.

Besides the wonderful paintings and artifacts on display and the Lowell-related section, The Great American Hall of Wonders helps the visitor make connections between then and now which to me, is the true value of history. It will be open until January 2012, and so if you find yourself in DC this fall, be sure to visit.