Electricity - Experiencing Electricity at the Fair

I. Types of Electricity

The many types of electricity, beyond just the light bulb, were what made the electricity displays at the fair so significant. There were a variety of home-improvement items, such as "gadgets including hot plates, fans, bells, bed warmers, radiators, and a complete Model Electrical Kitchen with a small range, saucepan, water heater, broiler, and kettle" (from the Preface of Book of the Fair, by Hubert Howe Bancroft). Additionally, displays "contained an enormous array of industrial applications of electricity ranging from ovens to furnaces to metal- and woodworking machines (lathes, drills, presses) and from railway signaling equipment to an electric chair." (Bancroft, 91).

i. To get an idea of the wide range of electrical technologies on display, read the Preface and Table of Contents of John Patrick Barrett's book Electricity at the Columbian Exposition.

ii. Select and read a chapter of the book and read about the electrical device detailed in the chapter.

iii. Use the Internet to research the history of the electrical device you chose.

Write a short essay on the history of the your device, from the perspective of a visitor at the fair who sees this device in your chapter for the first time. Some questions you can answer in the essay include: What do you think about it, and how do you imagine it will be used? How will it change your life? Will it make your life back at home more convenient or more difficult?

Prepare for a small-group discussion of the impact of your device.

II. Electricity and Infrastructure

Within your group, each group member will take on one of these sources and the assigned questions. Examine the source on your own, and prepare for a group discussion

i. SOURCE ONE. Read the article "Electricity at the Fair," by Murat Halstead, pages 577 to 582 in the May 1893 issue of The Cosmopolitan

Locate this passage within the article: "The whole electrical service at the exposition comprises these systems : arc lighting, incandescent lighting, electric power, telephone service, police signal service, fire alarm service, telegraph service, electric transportation!"

What does it mean to rely on electricity to power all of these services? How did people communicate before electricity? How do you think people alerted the police or fire department to emergencies before electricity?

ii. SOURCE TWO. Electricity as a Fire Hazard by W. J. Jenks (1893) presented at the World's Fire Insurance Congress held at the Columbian Exposition. This work includes charts and explanatory text showing fires caused by electrical circuits.

Examine the text and charts, and analyze the possible threat that electricity could pose to major cities. Is electricity dangerous or risky to use? What does it means to have started creating a regulatory system concerning electricity?

iii. SOURCE THREE. Read the following excerpt from the book The Century World's Fair for Boys and Girls by Tudor Jenks (1893) , which discusses children visiting Electricity Building and observing that electricity won't replace steam as source of power.

Visit Department of Energy's website finding information on current energy statistics: http://www.eia.doe.gov/kids/energyfacts/science/formsofenergy.html

Compare the perception of electricity as a source of power at the Columbian Exposition with use of electricity today. Prepare a short lecture describing this comparison.

iv. SOURCE FOUR. Examine the following three photographs. One is of the exterior of the Electricity Building (and then a close up of the statue) while the other shows the interior of the building. The statue standing in front of the Electricity Building is of Benjamin Franklin. In the photograph from inside, you can see a couple of famous companies--General Electric and Westinghouse.

Exterior of Electrical Building

Interior of Electrical Building

This photograph was taken in September 1893 and shows the Electrical Building with an exterior view of the south door.

Interior of Electrical Building

Interior of Electrical Building

This photograph was taken in September 1893 and shows the Electrical Building with an interior view from the north gallery. In the photograph can be seen the exhibits for a couple of companies including Westinghouse and General Electric.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin

The Statue of Benjamin Franklin stood in front of the Electrical Building

a. Visit the corporate websites of General Electric and Westinghouse and find the section on the websites about history of each company.

b. Visit the Library of Congress's website and the section giving information about Benjamin Franklin and electricity: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/cgi-bin/page.cgi/aa/leaders/franklinb/electric_1

Summarize brief histories of General Electric, Westinghouse, and Benjamin Franklin and electricity. Prepare a short report on these histories.

III. Symbolism and Significance of Electricity

Students will rejoin into group to finish assignment and do assessment.

On Becoming Cuban, by Louis A. Perez, Jr. is a book about the cultural history of Cuba, and its relationship with the United States. The following excerpt describes the experience of several Cubans who visited the World's Fair of 1893. They were deeply moved by the electrical displays at the fair, and what the technology that the United States developed said about the progress of their own nation. As you read the excerpt, think about the difference between the displays brought to the fair by Cubans, versus the displays from the United States, and how the Cubans felt about the difference:

Write a short essay explaining why the Cubans believe that their country is less civilized than America, just because it lacks electricity. Also keep in mind the disparity in conditions in the United States.

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