When The New World Dazzled The Old

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The great physicist Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) was struck by American leadership in electric and telegraphic apparatus. He tested the instrument of a young and previously unknown inventor: I need scarcely say I was astonished and delighted. … This, perhaps the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric telegraph, has been obtained by appliances of quite a homespun and rudimentary character. With somewhat more advanced plans, and more powerful apparatus, we may confidently expect that Mr. Bell will give us the means of making voice and spoken word audible through the electric wire to an ear hundreds of miles distant.

Another young inventor, Thomas A. Edison, exhibited his Quadruplex Telegraph, which simultaneously transmitted several messages at record speed.

The British reports were confirmed by the French, though the commissioners Ozenne and du Sommerard started on a condescending note. They praised their own devotion to duty in staying at their Philadelphia post despite the insufferable heat and living conditions, which were unlike the Parisian way of life. But the French judges were impressed. Commandant F. Périer noted that many European manufacturers had failed to participate: That was a great mistake. Some industrialists feared that their machines, their inventions, their processes would be copied in America. Such fears were not justified. The Americans possess the genius of invention to the highest degree, and if they still have something to learn from us, we have much to learn from them.

The chemical manufacturer Kuhlmann predicted great progress for the United States because the Americans were enterprising, resolute, and “confident of their institutions which are admirably suited to their nature.” The Marquis de Rochambeau found American furniture “truly remarkable” and consoled himself with the fact that many American furniture craftsmen were of French origin. M. Dietz-Monnin, a judge of fashion, was alarmed: Fifteen years ago American production counted for nothing; today it is a menace. The recruits have become excellent soldiers, proud and sure of their courage, marching with a firm step, sometimes a little too fast, for the conquest of independence at home and to the invasion of the foreign market.

Dietz-Monnin found at least one class of products in which the American manufactures were inferior: The French corset, like the French woman, is the most supple and the most elegant; it protects the strong, it supports the weak. The American corset is a graceless instrument of torture which disfigures and deforms.

Courage is ascribed to Americans throughout the French report; American architects are “daring men par excellence,” American bridge engineers built “some of the boldest works ever undertaken,” and even American publishers are characterized by “audacity.”

In the Swiss report the engineer John Icely looked for reasons behind the “astonishing performance” of American industry. He was greatly impressed by the mutual respect between American workers and their employers, and he noted a distinctive American approach to work: We build our machines to imitate manual operations as completely as possible; the American designs machine tools to produce a given object without keeping manual processes in mind. He usually arrives at a solution not by developing his from a theoretical basis but by practical experiments.

The Swiss engineer here observed a characteristic American way of thinking and acting that William James later called pragmatism.

The most influential foreign report on the Centennial was an unofficial one. The German commissioner, Professor Franz Reuleaux, a brilliant scientist and perennial official at international expositions, wrote a small book entitled Letters from Philadelphia . Reuleaux saw the superb exhibition as a great triumph for the United States and a defeat for Germany. America had bested Britain in this tournament of industry. American workers and processes were so efficient that the twenty-two Bessemer converters in American steel plants produced as much steel as the seventysix units in Germany. Reuleaux called German products “cheap and bad” and urged German industry to stop trying to compete by low prices. The way to increase worldwide sales was to improve quality while maintaining the price. How could this be done? By emulating the Americans, who had mastered mass production of quality goods. Reuleaux’s candid book caused a storm of controversy, but his advice was taken. Historians have credited Letters from Philadelphia with having a decisive effect on the development of modern Germany. The book was long remembered. In July, 1941, a month after his invasion of Russia, Adolf Hitler was at his headquarters in East Prussia; the F’fchrer lectured his entourage on diverse topics: Busy as bees, we were able to mass produce goods. They were cheap but at first they couldn’t have the quality of the English products. We were beginners and didn’t know the secrets of production. That’s how, at a world’s fair in Philadelphia in the eighties, German products got the adjectives “cheap and bad.” But then three fields were developed in which our work was superior to the English … chemical, electrical, optical.