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