Engines of Change: American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860

November 21, 1986 – June 12, 2006

National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

1st Floor, Engines of Change Hall Floor Plan

With more than 250 original artifacts, this major exhibition brings to life the American Industrial Revolution. It tells the stories of craftspeople, factory workers, inventors, and entrepreneurs who in the first half of the 19th century made contributions crucial to our modern way of life.

The exhibition begins with a re-creation of London's Crystal Palace, home of the first world's fair in 1851, where American technology first gained international recognition. The exhibition then examines the circumstances that made possible U.S. success at the exposition. The exhibition examines American industry's human, social, and environmental impact, the nature of the American working class, and the development and influence of automation, craft work, slave labor, and management concepts. Also explored is the extent to which the Constitution may have foreseen the Industrial Revolution and its impact.

Highlights include:

  • re-creation of a machine shop with boiler and 1850 Faber steam engine
  • re-creation of a Massachusetts textile factory
  • scale-model of Philadelphia's Norris Locomotive Works
  • model of a McCormick reaper
  • Chickering piano
  • model of a Palmer artificial leg
  • saws, axes, drills
  • cabinetmaker's tool chest
  • locomotive John Bull and a section of the first iron railroad bridge in America (outside exhibition entrance in east corridor)
  • patent models of cotton gin, sewing machine, telegraph
  • an interactive video-disk program shows machines in operation.
  • A new demonstration center, "A Revolution in Shoes," shows the tasks involved in shoe-making.
  • Another demonstration center, "The Machine Shop," demonstrates the workings of 19th-century machine tools.

The exhibition concludes with a short film exploring the later years of the Industrial Revolution.