America demonstrates its knowledge and power at the Great Exhibition, Bill Bryson style:

Not all displays were equally scintillating. Newfoundland devoted the whole of its exhibition area to the history and manufacture of cod liver oil, and so became an oasis of tranquility, much appreciated by those who sought relief from the pressing throngs. The United States’ section almost didn’t get filled at all. Congress, in a mood of parsimony, refused to extend funds, so the money had to be raised privately. Unfortunately, when the American products arrived in London it was discovered that the organizers had paid only enough to get the goods to the docks and not onward to Hyde Park. Nor evidently had any money been set aside to erect the displays and man them for five and a half months. Fortunately, the American philanthropist George Peabody, living in London, stepped in and provided $15,000 in emergency funding, rescuing the American delegation from its self-generated crisis. All this reinforced the more or less universal conviction that Americans were little more than amiable backwoodsmen not yet ready for unsupervised outings on the world stage.

So when the displays were erected it came as something of a surprise to discover that the American section was an outpost of wizardry and wonder. Nearly all the American machines did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do—stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles—but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking. Elias Howe’s sewing machine dazzled the ladies and held out the impossible promise that one of the great drudge pastimes of domestic life could actually be made exciting and fun. Cyrus McCormick displayed a reaper that could do the work of forty men—a claim so improbably bold that almost no one believed it until the reaper was taken out to a farm in the Home Counties and shown to do all that it promised it could. Most exciting of all was Samuel Colt’s repeat-action revolver, which was not only marvelously lethal but made from interchangeable parts, a method of manufacture so distinctive that it became known as “the American system” . . . . For many Europeans this was the first unsettling hint that those tobacco-chewing rustics across the water were quietly creating the next industrial colossus—a transformation so improbable that most wouldn’t believe it even as it was happening (pp. 28-29).

Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Anchor Books, 2011.

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