Podcast: Professor Susan Branson, Scientific Americans: Invention, Innovation, and Nationalism in the 1st Am. Century

Interview with Professor Susan, Professor of History at Syracuse University. Professor Branson is about to release her newest book, Scientific Americans: Invention, Innovation, and Nationalism in the First American Century. This past summer, she sat down and discussed Scientific Americans with Ben Field in the Maxwell Sound Studio.

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Transcript

Branson Podcast

This is the second installment of Orange History Hub, the Syracuse University History Department podcast. Our second episode features Dr. Susan Branson, Professor of History in the Maxwell School. Professor Branson focuses on early American women, early American society and culture, and Science in American society in her research.

She has previously authored These Fiery Frenchified Dame's: Women, Politics, and Culture in Early National Philadelphia, as well as Dangerous to Know: Women, Class, and Crime in The Early Republic. As a social historian, Professor Branston researches how material culture affected the lives of everyday Americans and how they experienced and interacted with increasingly complex Technologies as America grew in its infancy.

Professor Branson's newest book is titled Scientific Americans: Invention, Innovation, and Nationalism in the First American Century. It dives into topics such as: new tech, including hot air balloons, public events such as an astronomical sighting, and the most essential belonging of the average American—the almanac. Professor Branson sat down to discuss all these topics and more from Scientific Americans at Eggers Hall in the Maxwell Sound Studio. Thank you. 

Ben Field: I guess I wanted to start out first by talking about just the plain title, Scientific Americans. What makes Americans scientific in your eyes?

Dr. Susan Branson: Well, first of all, it's kind of a steal or a borrowing from a book about Benjamin Franklin by Joyce Chaplin. It's called The First Scientific American but more because you might have heard of the magazine, Scientific American, which was started by one of the people that I write about in the chapter on balloons. Yeah, and it was founded and given that title to be sort of very comprehensive. So not just people who deal with you know, beakers and Bunsen burners, but just everybody who's tinkering and inventing and so the word scientific is meant to be this very umbrella term that includes all sorts of things. So, Americans were scientific, but science was also American and a certain sense by what they're saying.

BF: Moving on to the three subtitle words: invention, innovation, and nationalism. I don't usually hear nationalism included with both innovation and invention, especially in a scientific discussion. What made you decide to group the three in your book?

SB: Well, nationalism is kind of the obvious one that lots of people have written about in many contexts. The reason that I meant to use it was because people are so familiar with the idea of nationalism. You as a student and other people have read about what happens as nation-building begins, after the revolution and particularly in a political context and just all that implies. It's very familiar, but it's not usually familiar, as you just said, not having to do with science or technology. Yeah, so my goal was to sort of bring Science and Technology from the periphery of what's happening in the early 19th century to the center to show that it's very necessary. There's a lot going on and to the extent to which people are consciously using rhetoric about nationalism, they're using it in the context of talking about science and technology as well. So, science and technology are the servants of this ideology of nationalism.

BF: Yeah, so you kind of paint a picture where these things are kind of living in like a mutual relationship in America, where science and technology are on one end, and you know American government is on the other end. The American government can fund the science and technology while the science and technology raise America on the national scale.

Because at the same time, and we'll go on to it later, we have things like, you know, the British doing amazing things in the colonial world and the French doing crazy scientific experiments like hot air balloon and things like that. It was kind of like we were behind in a race and we had to go forward. Do you think that Americans had to go towards science out of necessity, or do you think that it was like almost natural for them to go towards it?

SB: Both. First of all, I start the book in the colonial era when Americans are part of the British Empire and its natural for them to appropriate or participate in the kinds of things that are happening, especially in technology, on the other side of the Atlantic.

They don't have to invent things out of whole cloth once the revolution occurs, but they do have to quite literally produce whole cloth because they can't buy it from Britain anymore. There's the necessity of coming up with or replicating the technologies that had been available to them as members of the British Empire that now were suddenly just absent.

But it doesn't mean that they have to figure out how to do it. They already know how to do it. It's just that they now have to do it themselves or they have to improve on it, and certainly do it much more quickly and in greater numbers than was necessary because they moved from the periphery of the largest empire the world had ever seen to now being the center of their own world.

It's kind of interesting you describe technologies and things like that, but it's not, complex technologies. We think of it like, maybe, warfare and things like that. Necessarily, it is including things like that, but you also talk about things like alcohol and how there is a plea for colonials, even before leaving Britain, that they need to stop purchasing alcohol from France and Italy and everything to become self-sufficient in things like hard cider, which was a local product. It's interesting how this American identity is crafted even before America is necessarily a thing, right. That's how the I see these two things going hand-in-hand, that they know there's things they need to get done. They can promote it or encourage people to do it. Not just because of economic necessity, but in terms of crafting this national identity, right, do this because America needs to become great. It's kind of interesting to see.

BF: Let’s dive into the three main topics about how Americans wanted to be great. First, you wanted to be sure that this book was necessarily not just about elite people in colonial America and early America, you wanted it to be more about non-elites to kind of get past this idea that science was a thing for the rich or for the educated only. It was kind of like a mass media pop culture phenomenon. Can you talk about how that may be, how that idea that that the average American wasn't, you know, scientifically educated came about and why that isn't true?

SB: Well, it goes back further than just what's happening in America for people who are historians of science or historians of Technology. There's lots of books about the ways in which most innovations, most technological developments come about through experimentation trial and error and people learning to do things from other people who already know how to do them.

There isn't this idea of guys in lab coats, testing new materials or whatever. So, in terms of when we think about science and technology, there's more technology going on in the early period than there is science. I'm sure there are people who want to know about logistics on or what's happening in terms of anatomy and medical practices.

But especially when you're talking about mechanics, even things like air balloons, but more mundane things like grain mills; or how do you invent a better wheel or a better tool? Those aren't things that people go to school to learn how to do. They figure it out on their own or they observe other people doing it and that's why I really wanted to emphasize the idea of how most people in America are not Elite.

Most people in America who are participating in this technological or scientific development have not had a scientific education, right? So, they might read in almanacs or other books about scientific experiments with optics, or error, or what have you. It was the people on the ground when it comes to thinking about well, how do we how do we make things? How do we produce things? How do we have better agriculture? A lot of it is trial and error and knowledge that get just gets passed down.

BF: Yeah, and it seemed like the American interpretation of science and technology was different than, say, the French interpretation—what they wanted to do with it, what came across in the book, it seems like whereas the French were, and maybe I'm stereotyping, but they were very curious to just find out things that were unknown and to test new things.

Americans were looking mainly just at function and finding things that they could use to employ and improve their status in the world, improve their everyday lives and things like that. Do you think that's true or it is true but there were also Americans who are scientists in the way that we probably today understand that word?

SB: I mean certainly Benjamin Franklin. He’s one of them but I mean, he's interesting because he's both. He invents this wonderful stove that improves the way heat radiates in a room, but he's also experimenting with electricity—which really isn't going to help anybody very much for a long time.

BF: Moving to Ben Franklin just for a moment. He, it's kind of that mindset that he had that kind of encapsulates the American idea of invention, when he was viewing hot air balloons. He thought you know, this is an amazing thing, but we're doing this not for my generation, but for the generations in the future. He kind of realizes, I'm not viewing these things and not interested in these things for myself, but for the knowledge that we’re furthering mankind and furthering our country, so it was kind of like a very selfless kind of venture to discover these things which I feel unique for people like Franklin.

SB: He did jokingly in a letter to one of his friends, say well, “you know my as my Gout bothers me more and more and it's harder to get around perhaps I could hitch some air balloons up to my carriage and I'll be able to, you know, just float around Philadelphia much more easily because it couldn't ride in a car anymore on the Cobblestone, but just too many bumps.

BF: Yeah, that's interesting. The first topic of the book being scientific education practices among non-elites, the second was the place of Science and Technology in American culture. You discuss place, is this in a sense of science and technology having to adapt to early American culture, or vice versa?

SB: No, it's about how pervasive science and technology are in American culture. Chapter one discusses a lot of the ways in which particularly Elites can gain an education about science, but the second half of the chapter deals with almanacs as the scientific textbooks of early America because they're everywhere. Everybody's got an almanac and not all almanacs are going to have information that has to do with science and technology, but there’s all this blank space in the back of these almanacs and they insert all sorts of stuff including sometimes Snippets from Newton's Optics. Which yes, it's like how many of us—raise your hand if you've read Newton's Optics now! But what does that say about what they think people are interested in and are capable of reading in the back of an almanac? It's sort of the litmus test, right? Who understands this? Well, clearly Joe almanac maker thinks that his readers, you know, all 500 of them, might find this interesting.

BF: It was almost like at the as America was testing out this, you know, Democratic experiment, even before there is this realization among elites that non-elites could be educated and could understand this information if you didn't put it in a language that was limited to just your social group. And I feel like that that really characterizes America right at the beginning, that everyone can participate even if it's in their own little way. Do you think that Elites were like, let's spread this information as much as possible because even if they don't interpret it right, only good can come out of it?

SB: I don't think it's necessarily that top down, that Elites are saying, let's make sure everybody gets some scientific education. Like I said, there are people already that have that knowledge and they're getting it in all sorts of ways that has nothing to do with the elite institutions. It's certainly true that the people who are thinking about these issues see it as a national project and if you want to get things done; if you want innovation, if you want progress, you've got to get as many people involved as possible, which is why certainly later on by the teens and 20s you start seeing all of these societies and institutions that spring up. This is not something that should be kept secret and only practiced by 20 people.

BF: Now it makes me think that the average American kind of viewed America as the new technology, or a scientific experiment in which they were they were participating in, and they viewed each American as like a cog in the machine. It was almost like there was a national duty to make the machine work. If you weren't doing that, you were failing the pursuit of man. It was like a higher calling that they derive.

SB: Yes, which is certainly the way many of them would have characterized it, but you have to remember that that's a fancy way of masking the idea that really like to make some money.

BF: Yeah, it would always go back to that, of course. I'm sure the almanac sales were pretty good.

SB: Yes.

BF: I guess we can move on to almanacs specifically. You talked about how they were such an integral part to everyday life for the average American. I mean there could be fit in a pocket, most—if you find them nowadays—have a hole punch through them and/or a piece of rope tied through it, so they were on a nail. They're very used. It wasn't like something that was thrown in the corner like a book nowadays and not looked at just, you know, just left there. They were set out in an area that they could always function. So, I hate to make the basic comparison, but it I mean, was the almanac like the Google for the average American back then?

SB: It was the iPad. This sort of illustrates the level of education that. was assumed to be held by people who read almanacs, which is pretty much everybody. They would have mathematical puzzles. There's Benjamin Franklin, of course—Poor Richard's Almanac maker.

He used British, older British almanacs too, as a model for his Almanac and also to take information from them because if you go to the American Philosophical Society, they have a collection of the almanacs that Franklin owned. There were other people's almanacs and there's one that's the ladies Almanac from the early 18th century.

So, an almanac directed at women, potentially Elite women, but even so that's got algebra problems in it. Which I failed to solve one. Even Amusement can be something instructive or a quiz. Most Americans expect that each other to kind of be able to pick up this.

BF: Do you know what literacy rates were at the time? Could most Americans read and write? I mean, I'm sure there's not any actual data.

SB: Scholars say that literacy rates are higher in some regions than in others: highest in New England and urban areas and I don't know if it then sort of diminishes geographically that by the time you get to Georgia, it's you know, less than Virginia, and Virginia is less than Boston. But many people could read. Not necessarily, write, but read.

The other thing about almanacs, the reason that they're so well used with that hole so you can hang them up, is they've got monetary translations if you want to know what a Spanish Doubloon is in terms of a British pound. They've got mileage between various points on the East Coast. They've got the court days and town affairs. Everything you need, you need it and you need it to be handy. You're not going to put it away and forget about it. It's got to be out somewhere where you might be consulting it several times a year. Everyone pretty much read them from the top to the bottom. It's got Tides. It's got, even well into the late 18th century, it's still got Saints days. Obviously, before the Revolution, it tells you when the King's birthday is, when the Queen's birthday is, when all the princes’ birthdays are. That kind of fades away after 1776. But yeah at some point they probably start telling you when George Washington was born, but that's later.

BF: We can also talk about the scientific info that the almanacs included, such as astronomical events. They would bring people together from a lot of different groups and even continents, as you described in the beginning, before America's independence. Things like eclipses can be seen from multiple areas in the British Empire and they talked about how if people in America didn't see an eclipse, don't worry, someone else in Empire saw it. A Brit still like saw it, someone like you did, and people got comfort from something like that. They felt, you know, comforted that there was always someone like them that was experiencing something so dramatic. What was it about scientific info that can bridge so many gaps and differences? Enough to form a national identity because we're talking about not just like, you know thirteen colonies that are spread across the seaboard that's hardly connected, but we're talking about an entire empire that's you know, sporadically placed on every continent except for Antarctic. You have different types of people going everywhere. How did all these different types of people feel so connected?

SB: One of my favorite examples is, in terms of eclipses or transits, the Transit of Venus. What they report in the newspapers and later in the almanacs, the almanacs will predict when these eclipses are transits are going to occur. Certainly, in the newspapers after the fact they will tell readers that, yes, when you were standing in Philadelphia watching this partial eclipse, the Princess Royal was out on her balcony at Kensington Palace and she was watching it too. So, you have a sense that you're immediately connected. In this case with someone who’s Royal but I mean, it could be a group of people in Leeds.

It's like you're all staring up the sky at the same time looking at the same Celestial phenomenon. It's like that. You've got these this connection with these people who are all part of the empire.

BF: That reminds me of the 2017 Eclipse and how it just struck the nation and how there was, you know, TMZ and everyone was just reporting what every celebrity was doing for it. It's still very similar, you know, science and technology may change, but Americans don't change very much in a lot of ways.

We talked about how these almanacs and a lot of information was disseminated very far in America, but you know, there are still limitations placed on different genders and races, specifically women, of course, and non-whites to much more extreme degree than we see today. We still see some of the same things in America with women not making as much as men on the average job. Despite that, how did women make such a mark in the science community in the first American century? And how is it that we're talking about them right now in historical texts about science even though that they weren’t allowed to be in scientific circles?

SB: Well, again, that goes back to my emphasis on the ways in which you don't have to have a formal scientific education in order to participate in science, either as just an interested observer or perhaps as a tinkerer or an inventor. Two things begin to happen. One is soon after the revolution in the late 18th century, early 19th century. There's more formal education for young women. Now again, this is something you have to be able to afford, so it's not for everyone. But as that picks up and it becomes more popular, more people are sending their daughters to these schools.

They become more elaborate in terms of what they teach. Initially, maybe it's reading, writing, embroidery. Very basic sorts of science that they would read in textbooks by the time you get to the 1840s and 1850s. They've got models of steam engines and they're being taught about, you know, the principles of steam technology. Women are exposed to science and scientific education more and more as the 19th century progresses.

But the second thing that happens, and again, about the same time it’s getting back to this National project and how everybody needs to get involved in the kinds of propaganda or the kinds of societies that develop to encourage people to become tinkerers and inventors. They award prizes and there's financial incentives for people to invent things and it doesn't matter whether you're a man or a woman. If a woman invents an improvement on something for spinning or grinding wheat, they're going to give the prize to her.

BF: But in many ways it was a gendered way of allowing women to get in, and even it is like very amazing that they were even given that opportunity. At the time, America inherited English common law, which basically said that the wife was the property of the of the husband. Why was it, I guess not why because we know why, but how do you see the way that women were placed into science? Do you think that it was done just to benefit men, or do you think that there were some women who were going for liberation, an early feminist movement?

SB: No, I don't think that that was the primary motivation for women becoming involved in science. I would have to say, from the evidence of women that we know were scientists, women who especially are scientific educators from their publications, what they're saying is “I was just very curious. I wanted to learn now. I want to teach other people I particularly want to teach other women.” Especially for some of the early texts, there's definitely an emphasis on, “I want to teach other women so that they can become better wives and mothers”, that they need to know how chimneys work. They need to know about insulation that they need to know how to reset their child's bone after he falls out of the tree. So, they're actually learning useful things, but it's put within the context of something that everybody is familiar and comfortable with, right? They're not getting what you need to go out and get a career as a scientist. “If you read my book and you go and take a class on this, you'll be able to see like”, no. No, they wouldn't they wouldn't get it. They wouldn't get any customers if they did that, but I like to think of it as like feminism by stealth right? I see it might put the seed on people's minds that you're capable of doing more things than your mother or your grandmother was. I wanted to lay the groundwork and now you know this and now you have women who are teaching and publishing and who become botanists, become phonologists—not everything's pretty.

BF: You mentioned the curiosity aspect of women, not just women but all people in general, being exposed to some knowledge lead them on a hungry search for more information. What do you think drove so many people to consider themselves less than a novice at one point in a subject, but then once they got into it, they felt like they could become the greatest scientist in the field? You mentioned Rachel Van Dyke as one girl who began to study chemistry with her brother, felt that she would never do anything and then after doing the experiments and reading a book for a week, she felt that she could be the greatest scientist in the world.

SB: Well, I think it's like anything that when you haven't done it yet or you haven't succeeded at something yet, you don't have a lot of confidence. But the first time something works or the first time you figure something out like, “oh I can do this. Maybe I can keep doing it.”

BF: Do you think that type of confidence was new for the American woman?

SB: I do. I'm hesitant to say that science and technology were the first pathways that allow them to do that, but it was not on that scale. It's certainly one of the pathways that gives them that confidence. As I say, certainly by the time you get to the 1840s and 1850s, women are trying and eventually succeeding in pursuing medical degrees, being rewarded and applauded for their inventions and things like that back in the 18th century people wouldn't have thought possible and many of those women wouldn't have thought was possible just a generation or two later.

BF: Not much at all. I guess we can move on to a discussion more of the natural world and in terms of science and technology, how do you think Americans perceived themselves within the natural world at the time? That they fit in the same taxonomic structure as, say, other animals, or did they perceive themselves as a separate category?

SB: What the Bible told them was man is set aside as the premier the ruler of the world.

BF: Yeah, but do you think that this whole movement to become like taxonomic experts, explain everything—do you think that it drove any kind of ideas into people's heads? Like, maybe all these things we’re figuring out, these creatures are so similar. Maybe we're kind of similar to some creatures to, or did that not raise any suspicions?

SB: I don't think that they were interested in finding similarities between themselves and dinosaurs or the hippopotamus. For the most part they were not interested in finding similarities between themselves as white British Americans and Native Americans or Africans.

Just the opposite, they’re very interested in finding differences and explaining, you know, economic and political hierarchies or power relations in terms of something natural. It's like well this has this has to be because of the way, this has to be, not because we just happen to be the people with bigger spears, and you know greater army so that we can overcome you.

BF: So, there's almost this feeling of, we know man, we're experts on man, but now we need to go and become experts on what man controls. Do you think that that was the feeling of the average person? They felt like man is in his separated area. We've done all this philosophy and metaphysics for all these centuries and now it's time to go discover how we can control the area around us and use that power that they felt that they have.

SB: Well, That's not new. I mean that they've been doing that for millennia. I think what the ideas about science gives them, certainly in the 18th century, is more ways of articulating this drive for control and identifying themselves as being in charge as the most powerful animal and language to express that. Again, as I say, following off of that, a language to express the ways in which they can see differences between races.

BF: Continuing on with nature, you mentioned in America's goal to find its national identity and to build up its national prominence in the global stage, there is the certain idea that American nature was inferior to European nature. Can you can you talk about what that was, how that was started, and maybe how it was countered, as well?

SB: Well, Europeans had this theory that the American environment was inferior to, at least, Northern Europe, What that did was, well two things, one that the animals in the nature that occurred in the Americas were inferior to the animals in the nature that occurred in Europe, and the second thing that happened was that when Europeans went to the Americas, it began to diminish them both physically and mentally. They had this idea that the Americas are a really bad and dangerous place because they're running into stomach bugs and everything. It just debilitates you; it diminishes your mental capacity. There's just nothing good about that, coming from northern Europe to Virginia.

Then what happens, obviously, Europeans have been in the Americas for generations by the middle of the 18th century. They've lived and died there and reproduced there. Now you have people who for many generations have lived in the Americas whoa are more American, Then Europeans have a way of saying well, look they’re now a product of all this bad environment in the Americas so they can't possibly be as good as we are. So, you sort of lose some of your European identity over time and obviously a lot of this is based on totally absurd examples of things that may or may not have happened to people and to animals.

The biggest problem is you have these ideas that Europeans have about the Americas, fine. But once you have an American nation, once you have the United States, people in the United States don't want to see themselves as inferior, you know, just the opposite. They've got a lot to prove now in all sorts of ways—politically, economically. All of these long-standing theories about how inferior the Americas are has to somehow be turned on its head.

Obviously, Thomas Jefferson is one of the first people to do this and he does this actually before the Revolution occurs and his Bet Noir is Count Buffon, this famous French scientist who's one of the people in his very popular publications that's explaining to readers about American inferiority. So, Jefferson makes it his mission to prove first to Buffon, and then to the world, that this is not true. The reason his target is Buffon is because Buffon is one of the most respected European scientists, but also because his books are so popular. If Jefferson can get Buffon to retract what he said in prior editions of his book and instead say, “No, Thomas Jefferson has shown me the error of my ways. Look how wonderful the Americas are!”, Jefferson can rest easy, but of course that doesn't happen. Jefferson keeps trying. Buffon dies six months after receiving something important, a big giant moose, which proves that American animals are not small. They are just as large as European or Asian animals. Yeah, so who knows what would have happened if Buffon hadn't died, you know, he might not have rewritten his book.

BF: Speaking of Jefferson, he also drove the discovery, he didn't drive the discovery, but he drove the media circus around the American mastodon and how it was found as a sign of American excellence and identity. Can you talk a little bit about how that beast became a sign of America and how America could take credit for something so ancient?

SB: This is part of the agenda of disproving what Europeans think about Americans, so finding these gigantic bones. And by the way, Jefferson was among people the people who believed that these animals still existed. It's just that clearly, they didn't exist in Virginia anymore, or they weren't running around in Boston, but probably some around in the Far West. When he sends Lewis and Clark out to the Far West, he's got this long list of things that they're supposed to accomplish. One of them is, “Oh by the way, keep your eye out for those mastodons.”

BF: You never know. In a more lighthearted note, moving on to a giant wheel of cheese. How does that represent the American identity? Can you talk about the cheese?

SB: Yes. Well, it fits in very well with this idea of everything being big in America. You've got the Mastodon people, who are very excited about it when Charles Wilson Peale digs up three quarters of a mastodon in New York and puts it on display in his Museum. So, everybody's crazy about this is, like the first dinosaur craze really, except mastodons aren't dinosaurs. So, the newspapers are just full of naming things the mammoth: the mammoth beet, the mammoth cow, the mammoth potato.

When Jefferson becomes president, these Baptists in New England, who were so happy that he supports the idea of the separation of church and state and he's now president. He's now, sort of, defending their right to be Baptists. And this is a largely congregationalist state. They think the best way to pay tribute to the man who has done this for them is to create the largest wheel of cheese that was ever made, the mammoth cheese, which they do and they carted it all the way to Boston and put it on a boat. It makes its way down to Washington, making several stops along the way so people can see it. It's definitely PR, the newspapers are just full of, “The big giant cheese is coming, if you want to see it when it docks in New York.” There’s going to be poems to the cheese and things like epic poems.

BF: Yes, many stanzas. I mean, the satires alone just amazing. I remember there's a Biblical excerpt that someone made about the cheese that they framed in a Biblical tone and referred to the Creator as Jacknips, which he kind of signed himself as, was hilarious.

SB: Yeah, so when the cheese gets to Washington, Jefferson puts it in a room in the White House and calls it the Mammoth Room and you can just imagine, or I imagine to myself, somebody's got to eat this cheese. Jefferson's got this huge wheel of cheese. It's stinking away in a room in the White House.

BF: Was Jefferson a cheese fan or not?

SB: Oh, yeah probably wasn't by the time they got done with the cheese. But I imagine you're in congress and you've got to go see Jefferson. You're hoping nobody's going to offer me a piece of cheese because they’ve got to get rid of it.

BF: So, he killed all of his enemies by offering them the cheese. It's funny, but I want to talk about Charles Wilson Peale when he excavated the Mastodon, but also, he's a famous artist. He drew, or painted, the excavation, but the focus wasn't on the beast itself. It was focused on something different; you talk about that.

SB: Yeah, if you see this painting, which I think is in the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

BF: I'll attach a copy.

SB: Okay, Peale himself is front and center, which he also does in his painting of the Mastodon in his Museum, but what he's front and center next to is the rigging and the gear and the excavation machinery for getting the Mastodon out of the ground. If you just don't think about what's in the painting, just look and describe it, what you see is this this huge wooden structure with some little people and then you kind of have to look hard to see that there's bones coming out of the water, people are getting very wet trying to get this this out of there. In some ways it's more of a celebration of the technology that was necessary to excavate this natural thing than it is the Mastodon itself.

BF: It's not the Mastodon, it's the man behind the machine that conquered the Mastodon and exhumed it for everyone to see.

Moving on to the more, I guess, interesting technology with the turn of the to the 19th century, the possibility of flight arose with the hot air balloon, as I mentioned before. Pun not intended. Can you talk a little bit about what the balloon meant for the American identity?

SB: First of all, it's not an American invention, but it's quickly appropriated by Americans. And one of the first demonstrations of the balloon is by an American. Peter Blanchard comes over and launches a balloon out of the prison yard in Philadelphia. It's attended by the president. This very formal event occurs, but the first balloon launching that we know of that's reported in the newspapers is by this this man in Maryland who figured out how to create one himself. He's never seen one before. I mean Blanchard, he hung out with the Montgolfier brothers, he knows how to do this.

But this this Maryland man, whose name I'm forgetting at the moment, he's just got to look at books about this and figure out what materials to use, and how to get the hydrogen to stay inside the balloon or not, everything that has to happen to get this balloon to go up. She does, and again balloons are not, balloons are kind of like electricity. No one's got lights in their house yet. It's not a useful object. At least in the first decades that people are encountering it, but it's something that holds the promise of what they might be able to do. It's used as a symbol of the ways in which America is going to develop, the ways in which people in America are in the future going to be able to create things using air balloon technology.

BF: Yeah, one thing that really struck me was how the image of the balloon seemed to stick for the first half, even more in America than the first half of the century. The image of the balloon could have certain meanings, depending on if it's rising, who's in it, if it's going down, someone's holding it up. There's a lot of different political cartoons depicting it. There are a lot of different paintings with balloons.

Even as the balloon seemed to disappear as a functional piece of technology in the future, the image still stuck. Do you think that the role of the media in developing new scientific technologies is essential, or do you think it's a side effect? It seems like even after the science was gone, the image was still there because of its cultural meaning.

SB: Yes. In the case of balloons, I think it's happening simultaneously. I don't know if there's a residual effect after because balloons don't go away. They become more and more useful until the last thing that I talked about, the way that they're used for observation during the Civil War.

They find a way of making them a useful technology as opposed to just this sort of interesting plaything, but balloons, kind of the way the dinosaurs become birds, balloons become dirigibles and that technology gradually fades away. Then you know, the Wright Brothers come up with airplanes.

I think the way in which the media is engaging with these kinds of technology tends to be simultaneous with the use of the technology rather than after the fact, but I think you're right. I think the fact that the media picks up on air balloons, right, cartoons about these politicians rising in balloons, you know, as they're hoping that their political fortunes rise or balloons popping as they lose elections. I mean, so the balloon becomes a metaphor for all sorts of things. And then the question is why would it be a metaphor? Why, A), would people recognize it as something that would make these cartoons understandable? I guess there is no, B), but balloons are recognized as something that people tie to aspirations and potential. You can clearly see that when you're making fun of politicians, you know, what are their aspirations? Well, maybe their balloon is going to burst.

BF: Yeah. It's the double nature, power but fragility, at the same time. You wield that power, but it can crush you if you don't wield it correctly.

SB: At the same time that you have these fantasies about flight or about what air balloons can do, you do have people who are trying very hard to figure out how to make this technology. That's where Rufus Porter comes in. Rufus Porter, editor of Scientific American Magazine, has this idea of making flying ships that can take you all the way from New York to California so that you can go mine the Gold Fields using balloon technology. Never quite gets off the ground.

BF: I was going to ask you about that. It seems that he stopped right at the outset of the Civil War. Was it because of the Civil War? Or was it just like everything built up, and it just so happened that that was the moment.

SB: It wasn't because of the Civil War. A), and there really is a B) this time, he ran out of money. B) is, at some point, people figured out this was not a viable technology. It just really wasn't going to be able to go up and take you in the air. The thing about air balloons is, even today, you can't really control where they go.

You're at the mercy of nature. The idea that you could have an airship with rudders, paddles, and a steering wheel. There was the idea that you could get this to happen, that was behind his airship but the idea and the actual getting it to work was very far apart.

BF: Yeah, and that's kind of where you know science and fiction meet, he's got these ideas for this massive airship and he doesn't have a way of creating it, but he tries. A century later, not even, people are flying around in blimps and things like that.

It’s why I think of Science Fiction as so very popular and important in America. It's kind of functioning as a part of science, even though it is fiction. It's kind of like, “this is what's far-fetched now, so anything not as far out as that is doable”.

Then, in the future, you make something more extreme and then that's possible. I mean, I'm sure there's a lot of things where people can watch Star Trek from the 60s and be like, we have a lot more things that are more complicated. A cell phone is much more complicated than their little transponder or whatever.

It’s amazing how science fiction can drive science to new ends and drive the public to science through excitement. But sometimes it can drive the public to be a little too excited, even when it doesn't go off the ground. Can you talk a little bit about specifically the Vauxhall Riot and what was included in that?

SB: It was an air balloon ascension that went wrong. People loved watching air balloons go up. There's this sense in which air balloons are purely entertainment and many people dismiss them as not a technology that's ever going to be viable. We're not going to be able to use it for anything, people just like to watch balloons go up and they would pay to watch balloons go up. Except, when they didn't go up, they were mad that they paid.

This one incident in Philadelphia was in a popular pleasure garden that had a fence around it, obviously, because you needed to pay to get in. You couldn't just walk in and not pay. The air balloon was going to be launched from the pleasure garden that was inside this fenced-in area, but the thing about air balloons is once they go up you can see them up in the air.

You don't have to be on the inside of the fence. You could see it from the outside of the fence, this guy’s having trouble launching his balloon. It's just not going up. The stated time for when the balloon launch was supposed to happen comes and goes and all of the people inside the area obviously are very frustrated, but they're being entertained by musicians. There's an open bar, they have other things to do with their time while they're waiting for the balloon to go up. But, there's all these people in the outside of the fence who have read in the paper that there's going to be this balloon launch and they're standing there and they're getting more and more restless. Clearly, they can't see the balloon and they won't be able to see it until it's launched, but time passes and there is no balloon.

They just start getting out of hand and eventually the ‘tear down the fence’ mentality takes over. They’re just so mad that the balloon hasn't gone up that they invade the pleasure garden and destroy the musician’s instruments and drink all the beer at the bar and then destroy the balloon. They've destroyed the balloon and subsequently there's these charity performances in Philadelphia to recoup this this poor man's losses. In addition to the damage that was done to the pleasure garden, his balloon is destroyed.

BF: Did they get a lot of Charity funds?

SB: Well, there are advertisements about these musical entertainment side, whether he actually got enough money to recoup his losses, I’m not sure.

BF: It’s interesting, you get a riot one week, you might get another one next week if you're trying to get more money. I guess another failure of the balloon was an intended failure by Edgar Allan Poe, but the failure was that he claimed a success. He claimed that a man had crossed the Atlantic Ocean by hot air balloon. Even though that it did not happen, but the American public ate it up.

SB: It accomplished his purpose. It sold copies of the newspaper. Eventually, this does happen but decades later. There are even more outlandish claims of people who’ve taken a balloon to the moon and conversed with the moon men, who spoke Hebrew.

One of the things that fascinates me about the way that Americans interact with science and technology is that it's not just this sort of straightforward, yes, let's invent something or let's examine what someone has invented. There's this creative, fantastic imagining of the ways in which science and technology might go and ways in which it could be interesting and fun.

As you say, all the science fiction stories, and when it comes to the steam engine, there's lots of science fiction stories that talk about what potentially the future is going to be like when everything is powered by steam. Interestingly in a lot of cases with that that kind of speculative fiction, it's pretty accurate about what does come to pass and what does come to pass fairly quickly.

In the 1870s, this man in Newark, New Jersey invents a steam man, a walking man that's powered by steam. I could show you the picture to put that one up too. It's a particularly interesting case because the order is reversed, in terms of speculative fiction and what might come to pass in terms of the technology really developing. So, this guy comes up with this steam man. He demonstrates it in Newark and then someone in the area, who it's assumed either knew about it or had actually seen the steam man demonstrated, writes the first science fiction dime novel.

Called The Steam Man of the Prairies, he creates this machine that looks almost exactly like what this guy’s actually developed. He writes this whole series of science fiction stories about the steam man's adventures. Imaginations are just running at an all-time high because Americans are starting to feel like things that were way off in the distance are a little closer on the horizon.

BF: Now, do you think that there was any feeling that if they put their minds and their efforts towards something, that the American people could accomplish whatever they wanted?

SB: I think success breeds optimism. You see that with steam; steam is probably the technology that you see the evidence of how quickly it has an effect. Not just on developing, you know, more refinements or more innovations that come out of it, but the way it affects the economy. The steam engine comes along and it is not an American invention.

People in France and Britain are developing this, the first steam engines that appear in the US are imported from Britain. Americans can't take credit for that. But what they can take credit for is refining and developing and applying the concept of steam technology. So, Robert Fulton, American hero, he doesn't invent a steam engine, but he develops a steam engine that's very successful and puts it in a boat. Suddenly, you've got commercial shipping on the Hudson River and then on the Mississippi that's powered by steam really quickly; within a couple decades you go from people having to use sailing ships or row boats or canal boats, to steamboats that are everywhere and doing everything—sometimes exploding in rather gruesome ways. That doesn't dampen Americans optimism by any means. Then you get railroads, right?

BF: So even if Americans weren't the first to do something, they could always be the best to do it. There's always a feeling of something more to do, a new task at hand.

SB: Yes, tying it back in with development and, again, this national pride, especially with the railroads. The first railroad is the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. It starts in Baltimore, clearly, as the name implies. It's supposed to go to Ohio or the Ohio Valley. The idea is that it's going to make trade and commerce between the East Coast and the Hinterland much more efficient and more productive. Eventually, you get to the Ohio Valley, you get to the Ohio River, you're going to get to the Mississippi. You've now got this this continental enterprise of economic development and settlement that's only possible because you've got railroads and steamboats.

Although, the first railroad was powered by horses, not by steam engines. A lot of people don't know this, but you think oh, railroads, right? You have a steam engine; you have a locomotive. The first railroads, this is true in Britain as well, were pulled by horses. So, you've got the iron rails for coal mines. You've got the carriages, but the power source is horses.

BF: How many?

SB: A team, usually. Sometimes, just one. The B&O (Baltimore and Ohio Railroad) initially has horse—literally—horsepower. They decide they're going to convert to the steam engine and persuade people that this is a good idea because it’s going to cost a lot more money. People are uncertain about this. Steam engines tend to explode, we're not sure we like this idea.

They staged a race. They have two sets of tracks. On one track, they put cars with a steam engine. On the other track, the cars have a horse pulling them. They have a race between the horse and the steam engine. Now, the end of the story is that the horse wins, but it only wins because, at some point during the race, one of the gears slipped on the cars that were being pulled by the steam engine and the steam engine loses power. The horse goes ahead and ends up winning the race, but if that hadn't happened, clearly, the steam engine would have won. People were shocked.

BF: Although they were relieved to see that reliability still stood with the horse.

SB: Yeah, to me, one of the things that this demonstrates is this: why bother having this race? Why not just talk to your board of directors about how you're going to switch to steam power and stop using horses?

Because people at large are very invested in seeing what happens and how these technologies are developing. It's this PR campaign to persuade not just the people who were literally funding your steam engine, but people who eventually are going to be passengers on this train.

BF: The technology can't be just amazing; it has to be able to sell regularly too. A balloon ascension sells as a public event because they're rare. Someone is not going to take a trip on a train just for fun, once it becomes regular.

I guess we can begin wrapping up. Back to the balloon, you mentioned before that the balloon was employed by the Union Army until 1863, when it began to not be used correctly by military officials. The funding wasn't felt worth it. The Confederacy was starting to lose in some manners. How often was it used at the beginning of the war? Was it for every battle or was it for special campaigns?

SB: Well, it certainly wasn't used in every battle. It was a chore to get the balloon. It took a while so that these balloons are filled with hydrogen, and you have to generate the hydrogen. You have to fill the balloon and unlike today, with helium where you go to the grocery store and pick up these big helium tanks and takes two seconds to fill a balloon, it would take hours. These balloons are big. They're like the size of a house. So, it takes hours to fill, this whole team of men to control it, fill it, transport it.

BF: This isn't something where they spontaneously say, “Oh, no, the Confederates are attacking us! Get in the balloon! Get in the balloon!

SB: Typically, it was it was only used in campaigns where they're dug in and the two armies are skirmishing or fighting in an area over the course of several days, or maybe even longer. They need info on enemy positions. The enemies try and shoot the balloons, but the distance that the rifles could fire couldn't hit the balloons. There's some of the guys that have to go up in them and are reporting afterwards, “Yeah. There was some firing at us as we were up here.” They quickly figured out that bullets weren't going to hit them, that they were too far up.

Also, they're tethered. You can't control these balloons. They're just on a long string, hovering in one location, or moving from one location to another by the people on the ground who are controlling the tethered balloon.

BF: They would have a telegraph line, as well.

SB: Right, you're not going to have that if it's floating around over a field. The wires must be stationary.

BF: The most interesting part was that, once they would get fired on, they would call in an artillery strike on the position.

SB: Well, it's like, what a stupid thing to do. If you fire your rifle at the balloon, they're going to know where you are.

BF: Did they even try shooting cannons at them?

SB: I’m not sure about that because I don't know if you can I don’t know if they can go straight up in the air.

BF: It was amazing that the South never attempted this, did they?

SB: They had at least one of their own balloons. I think they just didn't have the coordination. Some of the early developers of these balloons persuaded the US government to fund the air balloon corps and get it up and running. Not everybody was convinced that it was a successful technology, in part because it's not spontaneous. You can't move it around quickly. It does seem it was proven to be useful, if nothing else, for drawing the enemy fire.

BF: Yeah. I thought some of the images depicting battles with a balloon off in the distance are so strange. I've seen that before and I never knew why there was a balloon there, but now it makes complete sense. That was cutting edge stuff, at the time.

So, I guess my last question is going to be, what was the Centennial Exhibition? In Philadelphia, correct? If you want, talk a little bit what it did, what purpose it serves, and if it was successful or not.

BS: It was highly successful. It's to celebrate the first American century, 1776 to 1876, and, not surprisingly, to celebrate everything American. They take over what's now Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Over acres, they put up 20 odd buildings, maybe even more than that, that housed livestock for showing off agriculture. There was a building for each state. Not every state had a building, but the plan was that each state could show off whatever products or technologies that that state was proud of. For me, one of the centerpieces was Machinery Hall, that showed off all of the cutting-edge machines that are available for sale in 1876. All the machines that were on display were actually powered by this mammoth, I don't know if they use that word, steam engine that was in the in the center of the building. It was big and powerful enough that it could drive everything else: looms, grinding machines, whatever.

It showcased what Americans could do and the kinds of products that Americans sold. So, the 1876 Centennial is attended by not just Americans but people from all over the world. There’re also items on display from other nations as well. It wasn't just things that were produced in America, but a lot of it was having to do with selling things. We're proud of our American Products. We want to emphasize the fact that after a hundred years., we are now this great nation that has a powerful force in the world. Please come buy our things because they're wonderful.

BF: It was kind of a of a project to solidify the American identity as a scientific and technologically advanced nation. You mention it was done in the realm that there were plenty of things to purchase. It was always placed in this materialist lens, which continues today. I think most Americans are looking for the next greatest iPhone or latest greatest technology. Everyone's waiting to hear about AI and transportation systems, you know, green energy.

It’s interesting to see that at our hundred-year mark, we placed our idea of the nation around the newest and greatest technology, which was the steam engine. Do you think that will happen in 2076? What do you think it'll be?

SB: I don't know. In 1976, there wasn't a bicentennial fair. Not quite sure why, probably because it would have cost too much money. I think the idea of fairs as a venue for showing off nationhood, technology, and achievements has passed its prime. There used to be world fairs, there just aren't any more.

There's plenty of technology fairs and more specifically focused fairs that happen around the world, but that phenomena are something that, by the bicentennial, had passed away.

BF: Yeah, the idea of having everything, from entertainment to education, at the same place is gone because people can get all that information in their everyday life. They don't have to travel all across the countries.

SB: Yeah, plus the phenomenal amount of money that it cost to build it. As I say, where they staged the centennial is what's now Fairmount Park. I think there's two buildings left from the Centennial that are still part of Fairmount Park. They are obviously repurposed for something different today, but they're still the vestiges of it more than a hundred years later.

My grandfather went to the 1876 Centennial. I know, you're looking at me, thinking she's not that old, but I think he was four, okay? He was taken there by his father in school.

BF: Interesting. I’d love to see something like that in the future. I think it's a great way for people to see what's going on in their country; and what is becoming the newest greatest thing, without the filter of the media. Not that the media is driving them in any certain way, but that they pick and choose which technologies to explore. They might miss some things, sometimes.

I guess we'll be waiting to see what comes in the future. I mean, flying cars doesn't seem like it'll ever happen, but fingers crossed. Back to the Future is a great movie.

Is there anything else that you wanted to discuss? I think I covered everything that I wanted to. Thank you very much.

SB: Thank you.