Party Like It's 1876! 12 Items From the Centennial Exposition

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Getty Images

The 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine, which was more commonly known as the Centennial Exposition, was held in Philadelphia in honor of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. From May through October, almost 10 million visitors, including repeat guests, wandered through the 249 temporary buildings and stayed in the temporary hotels constructed in and around Fairmount Park. These visitors were treated to more than 30,000 exhibits from all over the world, with each participating country determined to showcase its inventive clout. Here's a sampling of some of the more famous and bizarre items on display.

1. Corliss Steam Engine

The Corliss steam engine was assembled on a platform in the center of Machinery Hall, the main attraction inside the most popular building at the fair. After presiding over the opening ceremonies, President Ulysses S. Grant and his guest, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro, each pulled a lever to set the famed engine in motion. The impressive machine, which symbolized the United States' rise to industrial prominence, was nearly 50 feet tall and powered most of the machines within the 13-acre building.

2. The Telephone

While the Corliss steam engine initially attracted the largest crowds, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone would eventually become the talk of the fair. Bell, who hadn't planned to attend the event, gave the first public demonstration of his instrument on a sweltering afternoon in June, in front of an audience that included Emperor Pedro and Lord Kelvin. Bell picked up the transmitter and spoke into it. Standing 20 feet away, Empeor Pedro put the receiver up to his ear and famously remarked, "My God, it talks!" Lord Kelvin took the receiver and reportedly said, "It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in America."

3. Portable Bathtub

Ethelbert Watts, a Pennsylvania native who was cashier of the Centennial Board of Finance, introduced a portable bathtub made of rubberized cloth at the Exposition. The inspiration for Watts' invention was what he perceived as a lack of bathing services for travelers.

4. Typographic Machine

The typewriter on display at the Centennial Exposition wasn't nearly as popular with the judges or the public as Bell's telephone. It resembled a sewing machine and featured a QWERTY keyboard that produced only capital letters. The Remington No. 2, which was released in 1878, featured both upper- and lower-case letters on the same type bar. By 1893, Remington was producing typewriters in multiple languages.

5. Mechanical Calculator

George B. Grant, who holds four patents for calculators, displayed his barrel model difference machine in Philadelphia. The machine was 5 feet by 8 feet, weighed 2,000 pounds, and included 15,000 components. When hand-cranked, Grant's invention could calculate 10 to 12 terms per minute. When connected to a power source, its efficiency doubled. The machine received high praise from the judges, but by the 1880s, it was obsolete. Cheaper, more efficient, and—most importantly—smaller models hit the market.

6. Hires Root Beer

Charles Elmer Hires served free glasses of his recently perfected root beer from a booth at the exhibition, a refreshing treat for thirsty fairgoers. The average daily attendance at the fair was never greater than 34,000 between May and August, which was partly the result of a devastating heat wave. The average daily attendance in September and October spiked to roughly 80,000 and 100,000, respectively. Visitors to Hires' booth could purchase 25-cent packages of the dried roots, herbs, and bark that went into his root beer, along with three-ounce bottles of condensed extract. The following year, a local newspaper publisher convinced Hires to advertise his root beer and the rest was history.

7. Bananas

For many visitors, the Philadelphia Exposition was their first opportunity to try an exotic yellow fruit. Bananas, which were still a novelty in the United States and were often served with a knife and fork, were wrapped in tinfoil and sold for 10 cents apiece.

8. Popcorn

Citing records provided by the aforementioned Centennial Board of Finance, which managed to do its job even while some of its members were busy inventing portable bathtubs, the Philadelphia Record reported that a vendor paid $3,000 for the right to sell popcorn at Fairmount Park. "This in its way is as remarkable as the concession to lager at $50,000, and to catalogues at $100,000," the reporter opined. "Considering the cheapness of the delicacy, think how many tons of pop-corn must be sold at the fair in order to justify the merchants in paying $3,000 for the privilege of selling it!" Buttered popcorn was indeed a big hit at the Centennial Exposition. Charles Cretors would display some of his patented popcorn machinery at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago.

9. Kudzu

Kudzu was one of several ornamental plants exhibited in the Japanese pavilion. While the plant was first used in the United States after the Centennial Exposition as a decorative shade provider, it was later adopted for a much different purpose. When the Soil Erosion Service, which later became the Soil Conservation Service, was created as part of the New Deal, it began recommending kudzu as a means of erosion control. "What, short of a miracle, can you call this plant," Hugh H. Bennett, head of the SCS, remarked.

10. Lady Liberty's Arm and Torch

Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, who began constructing the Statue of Liberty in 1876, sent the completed arm and torch to Philadelphia for display beginning in August. The torch display was part of a fundraising effort to help pay for the base of the to-be-completed statue. Visitors paid 50 cents to climb a ladder to the balcony around the torch. After the Centennial Exposition closed, the torch was displayed in New York City's Madison Square Garden for several years.

11. Monorail

Long before Disney World opened, General LeRoy Stone's monorail carried passengers around the fairgrounds at the Centennial Exposition. Stone's monorail ran more than 150 yards between Horticultural Hall and Agricultural Hall. The double-decker vehicle featured two main wheels and the rear wheel was powered by a rotary steam engine.

12. Iron Lifeboat

In its centennial look back at the Centennial Exposition, Popular Mechanics recalled the popularity of a lateen-rigged, noncapsizable iron lifeboat on display. "It boasted luxuries no one had ever seen before in a lifeboat—"˜covered accommodations for females and children, arrangements for water-saving, mail box, and required no lowering device.'"

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

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