Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 was America’s first World’s Fair, and was ostensibly held to mark the nation’s 100th birthday. But it heralded the future as much as it celebrated the past, showcasing the country’s strongest suit: technology.
The centerpiece of the Expo was a gigantic Corliss engine, the apotheosis of 40 years of steam technology. Thirty percent more efficient than standard steam engines of the day, it powered virtually every industrial exhibit at the exposition via a maze of belts, pulleys, and shafts. Visitors were stunned that the gigantic apparatus was supervised by a single attendant, who spent much of his time reading newspapers.
“This exposition was attended by 10 million people at a time when travel was slow and difficult, and it changed the world,” observes Jim Stogdill, general manager of Radar at O’Reilly Media, and general manager of O’Reilly’s upcoming Internet-of-Things-related conference, Solid.
“Think of a farm boy from Kansas looking at that Corliss engine, seeing what it could do, thinking of what was possible,” Stogdill continues. “When he left the exposition, he was a different person. He understood what the technology he saw meant to his own work and life.”
The 1876 exposition didn’t mark the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, says Stogdill. Rather, it signaled its fruition, its point of critical mass. It was the nexus where everything — advanced steam technology, mass production, railroads, telegraphy — merged.
“It foreshadowed the near future, when the Industrial Revolution led to the rapid transformation of society, culturally as well as economically. More than 10,000 patents followed the exposition, and it accelerated the global adoption of the ‘American System of Manufacture.’ The world was never the same after that.”
In terms of the Internet of Things, we have reached that same point of critical mass. In fact, the present moment is more similar to 1876 than to more recent digital disruptions, Stogdill argues. “It’s not just the sheer physicality of this stuff,” he says. “It is also the breadth and speed of the change bearing down on us.”
While the Internet changed everything, says Stogdill, “its changes came in waves, with scientists and alpha geeks affected first, followed by the early adopters who clamored to try it. It wasn’t until the Internet was ubiquitous that every Kansas farm boy went online. That 1876 Kansas farm boy may not have foreseen every innovation the Industrial Revolution would bring, but he knew — whether he liked it or not — that his world was changing.”
As the Internet subsumes physical objects, the rate of change is accelerating, observes Stogdill. “Today, stable wireless platforms, standardized software interface components and cheap, widely available sensors have made the connection of virtually every device — from coffee pots to cars — not only possible; they have made it certain.”
At the risk of sounding pedantic, I do not think we have actually reached the point of critical mass in terms of the Internet of Things, as mentioned above. It has not quite happened yet, although we can envisage it.
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