Trump speech to Congress highlights 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philly

In his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, President Trump highlighted a major event in Philadelphia's history: the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

The months-long event in Fairmount Park aimed to show off the prowess of Philadelphia and the United States for the country's 100th birthday. The sprawling fair attracted millions of visitors from dozens of countries, spurred construction and development in Philadelphia, and showcased new American inventions.

When the fair opened May 10, 1876, the Inquirer devoted most of its front page to a map of the grounds.

More than 140 years later, the golden age of American invention that the Centennial sought to highlight still evokes strong feelings of pride and some nostalgia.

Describing the event, Trump said:

"On our 100th anniversary, in 1876, citizens from across our Nation came to Philadelphia to celebrate America’s centennial. At that celebration, the country’s builders and artists and inventors showed off their creations.

 

Alexander Graham Bell displayed his telephone for the first time.

 

Remington unveiled the first typewriter. An early attempt was made at electric light.

 

Thomas Edison showed an automatic telegraph and an electric pen.

 

Imagine the wonders our country could know in America’s 250th year."

More than 200 buildings were constructed for the exhibition. Only one significant structure, Memorial Hall, which now houses the Please Touch Museum, remains in use.

Memorial Hall (Courtesy of the Free Library)

Another building, the Ohio House, is still standing but not in active use.

Ohio House (Courtesy of the Free Library)

Those structures and others – the grand Main Exhibition Building, Machinery Hall, Horticultural Hall, and more – were filled with exhibits on science, industry, education, farming, and arts. Exhibitors demonstrated their manufacturing processes, showed off their inventions, and offered merchandise for sale. There were also musical celebrations, speeches, and sideshow attractions.

The inventions inside, highlighted by Trump, drew varying amounts of attention at the time. As one history of 1876 notes: "One new invention which interested hardly anybody, yet which would affect the nation profoundly, was Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. It attracted less notice than the packages of magic tricks on sale nearby."

Indeed, the day after Bell demonstrated his device, the Inquirer covered it in a single paragraph, with no mention of the inventor and calling the invention a "talaphone."

While the telephone, telegraph, and typewriter went on to great acclaim and wide use, Trump also, seemingly strangely, included a major flop in his list of inventions showcased at the Centennial: Edison's electric pen.

"By 1880, however, the electric pen business was in serious decline because it could no longer compete 'against a field borne of its own seed' as a host of mechanical pens that did not require batteries came on the market," according to the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project at Rutgers University.

A.T. Goshorn, director-general of the Centennial Exhibition, praised the inventions on display in his closing remarks, telling the exhibitors: "You have contributed abundantly of the rich products of the soil and mines, and of your own ingenious and skillful workmanship, you have won fresh honors in every department, and have revealed and made better known to our own people and to the world your strength and progress, and the vast resources at your command. Your contributions and intelligent co-operation entitle you to claim a large share both of the credit and benefits of this Exhibition."