By Glen Martin
Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 was America’s first World’s Fair, and was ostensibly held to mark the nation’s 100th birthday. But it heralded the future as much as it celebrated the past, showcasing the country’s strongest suit: technology.
The centerpiece of the Expo was a gigantic Corliss engine, the apotheosis of 40 years of steam technology. Thirty percent more efficient than standard steam engines of the day, it powered virtually every industrial exhibit at the exposition via a maze of belts, pulleys, and shafts. Visitors were stunned that the gigantic apparatus was supervised by a single attendant, who spent much of his time reading newspapers.
“This exposition was attended by 10 million people at a time when travel was slow and difficult, and it changed the world,” observes Jim Stogdill, general manager of Radar at O’Reilly Media, and general manager of O’Reilly’s upcoming Internet-of-Things-related conference, Solid.
“Think of a farm boy from Kansas looking at that Corliss engine, seeing what it could do, thinking of what was possible,” Stogdill continues. “When he left the exposition, he was a different person. He understood what the technology he saw meant to his own work and life.”
The 1876 exposition didn’t mark the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, says Stogdill. Rather, it signaled its fruition, its point of critical mass. It was the nexus where everything — advanced steam technology, mass production, railroads, telegraphy — merged.
“It foreshadowed the near future, when the Industrial Revolution led to the rapid transformation of society, culturally as well as economically. More than 10,000 patents followed the exposition, and it accelerated the global adoption of the ‘American System of Manufacture.’ The world was never the same after that.”
In terms of the Internet of Things, we have reached that same point of critical mass. In fact, the present moment is more similar to 1876 than to more recent digital disruptions, Stogdill argues. “It’s not just the sheer physicality of this stuff,” he says. “It is also the breadth and speed of the change bearing down on us.”
While the Internet changed everything, says Stogdill, “its changes came in waves, with scientists and alpha geeks affected first, followed by the early adopters who clamored to try it. It wash’t until the Internet was ubiquitous that every Kansas farm boy went online. That 1876 Kansas farm boy may not have foreseen every innovation the Industrial Revolution would bring, but he knew — whether he liked it or not — that his world was changing.”
As the Internet subsumes physical objects, the rate of change is accelerating, observes Stogdill. “Today, stable wireless platforms, standardized software interface components and cheap, widely available sensors have made the connection of virtually every device — from coffee pots to cars — not only possible; they have made it certain.”
“Internet of Things” is now widely used to describe this latest permutation of digital technology; indeed, “overused” may be a more apt description. It teeters on the knife-edge of cliché. “The term is clunky,” Stogdill acknowledges, “but the buzz for the underlying concepts is deserved.”
Stogdill is quick to point out that this “Internet of Everything” goes far beyond the development of new consumer products. Open source hardware and software already are allowing the easy integration of programatic interfaces with everything from weather stations to locomotives. Large, complicated systems — water delivery infrastructure, power plants, sewage treatment plants, office buildings — will be made intelligent by these software and sensor packages, allowing real-time control and exquisitely efficient operation. Manufacturing has been made frictionless, development costs are plunging, and new manufacturing-as-a-service frameworks will create new business models and drive factory production costs down and production up.
“When the digital age began accelerating,” Stogdill explains, “Nicholas Negroponte observed that the world was moving from atoms to bits — that is, the high-value economic sectors were transforming from industrial production to aggregating information.”
“I see the Internet of Everything as the next step,” he says. ”We won’t be moving back to atoms, but we’ll be combining atoms and bits, merging software and hardware. Data will literally grow physical appendages, and inform industrial production and public services in extremely powerful and efficient ways. Power plants will adjust production according to real-time demand, traffic will smooth out as driverless cars become commonplace. We’ll be able to track air and water pollution to an unprecedented degree. Buildings will not only monitor their environmental conditions for maximum comfort and energy efficiency, they’ll be able to adjust energy consumption so it corresponds to electricity availability from sustainable sources.”
Stogdill believes these converging phenomena have put us on the cusp of a transformation as dramatic as the Industrial Revolution.
“Everyone will be affected by this collision of hardware and software, by the merging of the virtual and real,” he says. “It’s really a watershed moment in technology and culture. We’re at one of those tipping points of history again, where everything shifts to a different reality. That’s what the 1876 exposition was all about. It’s one thing to read about the exposition’s Corliss engine, but it would’ve been a wholly different experience to stand in that exhibit hall and see, feel, and hear its 1,400 horsepower at work, driving thousands of machines. It is that sensory experience that we intend to capture with Solid. When people look back in 150 years, we think they could well say, ‘This is when they got it. This is when they understood.’”
If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter.
This post originally appeared on O’Reilly Radar. (“More 1876 than 1995”). It’s been republished with permission.