Centennial Corliss Engine Groups

The Corliss Steam Engine of 1876

Centennial Corliss Engine Groups: The Corliss Steam Engine of 1876

Centennial Corliss Engine Groups: The Corliss Steam Engine of 1876


A full one hundred years removed from the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America celebrated in style. It was a celebration that was carefully planned years in advance, and it cost the country lots of time, money, and resources.

Philadelphia was selected to host this great affair. Historically speaking, there was no better choice. In 1876, America was the home of the world’s fair - The Centennial Exhibition - to celebrate 100 years of American freedom. As all world’s fairs are, it was to be a showcase of cultures, both foreign and domestic, a grand stage for individual nation’s to show the rest of the world exactly "what they were made of," a lesson in diversity, and a celebration of that diversity.

However, from what I have read, the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 did not quite capture the worldly sphere of influence that it had hoped for. Instead, it was a showcase of American strength, pride, and technology. The buildings were tremendous and beautiful. They all stood firm with an awesome presence. But, there was one building in particular that held a special significance. It is possible that even the people who visited the fair did not grasp its importance. Inside Machinery Hall stood a huge mechanical wonder. Not only was it the main attraction at the Centennial, but the Corliss Steam Engine signified the end of an era, and the beginning of another.

For six months, visitors from all around the world walked through the fair grounds, just taking in the magnificent sights and exhibits. The Main Building contained an art gallery that included works from the finest artists in the world. It was practically impossible to take in the entire gallery in one day (Crew 409). There was a building for virtually every state in the union and each tried to emulate the style and character of the state. There was a buildings for agriculture and horticulture. The fair was simply immense. But, at the center of it all was the Corliss Engine. Thousands of people a day would come and stare at the sheer power and grace it exhibited. It was a symbol of the very power that it possessed.

The Engine Itself

George H. Corliss was an inventor from Providence, Rhode Island. Although he is not responsible for the invention of the steam engine, he is responsible for bringing the phenomena to Fairmount Park in 1876. He also was the first to implement the vertical style, double-acting style steam engine. Work on the engine was completed on April 10, 1876 and it was slowly transported to Machinery Hall. It was assembled there on a five foot high platform in the center of the immense room. It stood in excess of forty-five feet above the floor and has cylinders of four-four inches in diameter with a ten foot stroke. Another characteristic is the huge fifty-six ton, thirty feet in diameter, and twenty-four inch face, flywheel which made up to thirty-six revolutions per minute (McCabe 158). The engine was connected to and powered hundreds of machines that were spread out over the 13 acres of Machinery Hall. On the opening day of the fair, there was a ceremonial "starting of the engine." Thousands gathered in the building to watch as President Ulysses Grant and Emperor Dom Pedro each pulled a lever to send the Corliss Steam engine silently into motion. Within seconds, all the machines in the hall were working. These machines performed all sorts of tasks including combing wool, spinning cotton, tearing hemp, printing newspapers, lithographing wallpaper, sewing cloth, manufacturing envelopes, sawing logs, making shoes, and pumping water (Brown 129).

Significance of the Corliss Engine

At the exhibition, the Corliss engine was the main attraction. However, in the overall picture, it signified much more than that. In 1876, the Industrial Age was looming on the world’s horizon, and the United States was ready to be associated with it. The Corliss engine was looked at with pride by Americans. "It was a symbol of the grandeur and strength of the American people" (130). Many spectators believed that the Corliss symbolized the Centennial, and with it, American civilization. It showed the enterprising American spirit that was building and was clearly recognized by foreigners (Daumas 727). Standing at the site of the engine, one observer noted that "one cannot fail to utter his pride and content...it is still in these things of iron and steel that the national genius most freely speaks" (Sutherland 266). However, the significance did not stop with nationalism. This great showing of mechanical power represented the death of an old era of individual handicrafts, and a birth of a new industrial era which would transform the world (Brown 130). Just think about all of the above tasks that were being performed and powered by the engine. It is also important to note that the great Corliss engine was operated by a single engineer who, for the most part, sat next to the machine and read his newspaper. What was being called the "great athlete of steel and iron" attracted many famous thinkers from around the world. Walt Whitman demanded to have see it. When he arrived, he positioned his chair directly in front of the engine. He sat and stared at the machine for a half an hour without saying a word. Joaquin Miller, a poet and Whitman friend, summed up the display of power by saying that "it is the acorn from which shall grow the wide-spreading oak of a century’s growth" (Rydell 16). The Corliss engine and Machinery Hall in 1876, provided a looking glass into the future. Steam had began to be used to power locomotives and the world had already to become slightly industrialized. The evidence in Machinery Hall was undeniable. The days of man-power were over.

Six months after it was started, the engine was stopped for a final time at Fairmount Park on the last day of the exhibition. However, its scope was far reaching. It is apparent today, that the idea that Corliss had, did indeed have merit. Just due to the simple facts of exactly how industrialized we are today, proves that the exhibits in Machinery Hall were a virtual crystal ball to the future. After the Centennial, it is difficult to trace where the engine went. However, it turned up in Chicago, 7 years later, in 1881. It was purchased by George Pullman who was busy building the city of Chicago. Its purpose was to power Pullman’s shops. It performed very well, as those shops became the nation’s largest single producer of railway rolling stocks in under one month (Miller 235). Although the understanding of the potential of the engine was slow, by 1904, John Henthorn writes "There has been a gradual development and appreciation for the Corliss system during the past thirty-six years. It is appreciated now more than ever and will be even more in years to come" (Henthorn 2).


The Corliss steam engine was not only the focal point of a world’s fair that took place 120 years ago. It was a symbol a new age. Whether they knew it at the time or not, when people stood in Machinery Hall, they were looking at what the future was about to bring. John Maass writes, "The Centennial belonged to the Steam Age, and the Corliss engine was it’s symbol". It was also a symbol of American spirit that was embodied by the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

Centennial Corliss Engine Groups: The Corliss Steam Engine of 1876