Arts Post
Posted at 01:12 PM ET, 07/15/2011

“The Great American Hall of Wonders” opens at the Smithsonian

What do the buffalo, Sequoia trees, Niagara Falls, the clock, the gun, and the railroad have in common? All helped set the stage for modern innovation in America.

The Great American Hall of Wonders,” the newest exhibition to open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, showcases the boom of science and experimentation during the 19th century. Many of the patent models and drawings are returning to a familiar place because the American Art Museum building was once the location of the patent office during the Industrial Revolution.

Albert Bierstadt, "The Last of the Buffalo," about 1880. Oil on Canvas. Private Collection. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum)
While Americans were discovering best uses for water and steam power, they were also hunting buffalo and bison, as depicted in several paintings, most notably the 1888 work “The Last of the Buffalo” by Albert Bierstadt. Also on display are journals and instructional guides on zoology, entomology, and even a peek into John James Audubon’s journal, the namesake of the National Audubon Society.

The exhibition is broken into two main themes of natural resources and technological improvement. In each area are prototypes created by the inventors themselves, including Thomas Edison’s lightbulb, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, and the sewing machine, created by George Hensel in 1859. One patent model that stand out is the ”Patent Model of Machine for Making Paper Bags,” created by Margaret E. Knight in 1879.
Unidentified artist. Drawing for Patent Application for Samuel Applegate's "Device for Waking Persons from Sleep," 1882 U.S. Patent No. 256265. Photo reproduction, 10 x 15 inches. (Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration)
Also on display is the first “Device For Waking Persons From Sleep,” better known as an alarm clock, was sketched out in 1882 by Samuel Applegate, with the idea that a light frame would drop on a sleeping person’s face in order to jar them from even the deepest of slumbers.

Margaret E. Knight, "Patent Model of Machine for Making Paper Bags, 1879, U.S. Patent No. 220925, wood brass paper and paint, (Courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)

The collection was organized by Claire Perry, an independent curator who opens the display with a self-portrait of science pioneer Charles Willson Peale, whose studies of zoology led to his discoveries of mastodon skeletons and studies in how animals behave amongst each other within their own habitats.

The exhibition opened today and will remain through Jan. 8, 2012. For more information, visit

By Erin Williams  |  01:12 PM ET, 07/15/2011

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