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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Bryson’

A beautiful passage from ‘At Home : A Short History of Private Life’ by Bill Bryson, that I am reading now. This passage is about the great exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 and about the American participation in it.

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 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 it came as something of a surprise when the displays were erected 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, mould 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 marvellously lethal but made from inter-changeable 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.

The affectionate descriptions ‘amiable backwoodsmen’ and ‘tobacco-chewing rustics’ made me smile 🙂 What an underestimation!

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