Ancient Galaxies send light our way through gravity lenses and cosmic dust. Our tangled calculations imagine them as they were when their photons set out.
The year 1892 reaches us through the lens of history. We strain to conjure its image when the present moment surged through it.
Memories about the year are sparse and secondhand. It was an election year. We'll remember Grover Cleveland as the only president elected to two, non-sequential terms, and, yes, that was 1892.
It was also 400 years after Columbus reached America, and we may remember something about the Homestead Strike, the Dalton Gang, and the Pledge of Allegiance. They get into modern summaries of 1892. We probably remember Chicago's Columbian Exposition, but present-day summaries stick it in 1893, not 1892.
The Internet offers several easily found lists of 1892 events.
But what did the 1892-ites find important, and do our perspectives diverge? To that question the Internet offers, "Appletons' Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Year 1892." It records the century-old scholarly take on 1892. Old newspapers give us the Every Man thinking.
Listing events, then and now, misses things. For example, Buffalo Bill was arguably the most famous American in 1892. He'd made highly successful tours of Europe and Britain, met the Pope once, and the Queen twice, she was pleased, and brought some Brits back to the states for a rough-riding experience in the Far West. The newspapers were full of Buffalo Bill in 1892, and in 1893 he set up shop in Chicago near the Exposition, but he's not in the lists of important events, then or now. Nor was the planet Vulcan.
Much of the importance of happenings in 1892 has accreted from later events. The following, for example, are prominent in current lists of 1892 events, but went unmentioned in Appleton's (though they're all in the newspapers).
All of these events, along with the births of now famous people, were unremarked by the guardians of 1892's "official think" because they all represented beginnings of things judged important later. They all made the papers, but smart people didn't pay much attention.
Other events in 1892 were mentioned in Appletons' but not with the emphasis, or moral weight, they now hold. The following, for example, were listed, but signaled different stories than now.
Our modern memories of 1892 include things unremarkable at the time. How about the other way around? What did the Cyclopaedia think noteworthy about 1892? Appletons' preface has the answer.
"The great topic of the year," was, "The World's Columbian Exposition," now popularly called the Chicago World's fair. It isn't even mentioned in current 1892 summaries because it opened in 1893. But the heavy lifting came in 1892, and tapped the energies of state and federal governments; a strong unifying force.
Next up in Appletons' preface is the 1890 census. In 1892 it was remembered as the most scientific census ever taken, involving Hollerith machines and novel methods of analysis. Appleton's marvelled at the additional information published in 1892. The 1890 census is now famous for being a great gaping hole in our national records. It was damaged by two different fires, the most serious in 1921, neglected for a decade and finally destroyed by bureaucratic indifference (see the story nearby).
Building the modern Navy was mentioned next, consistent with today's history, although there was some distance yet to go. Smokeless powder was adopted, but just for calibers of 6 inches and under. Nickel steel armor was also adopted on most ships.
Economic development was stong, but America was about to enter the panic of 1893, days after Grover Cleveland was inaugurated. It probably wasn't his fault. As with 1929, the causes of the 1893 panic are more obscured than revealed by the subsequent scholarship. At the time there was a feeling the railroads had overextended, and scuttled the great reformer's economy, but railroad demand was linked to agriculture which also declined. The economy is a multivariate complex system, and as we've more recently realized, it defies interpretation by smoothly changing equations. It makes sudden swerves at unexpected trigger points.
Appletons' speculated next on the quick annexation of Hawaii. It didn't happen right away, but five years later. Sugar production and the power strokes of intrested parties put it in America's orbit.
Our association with Canada was mentioned, and things were complicated. Among southern neighbors, Venezuela is singled out because of the 1892 revolution, and England's regional ambitions. Today 1892 is seen as just another year of crisis in nearly unending Venezuelan crises.
Appleton's spent several pages on American foreign policy, mostly treaties on Seal Hunting, a topic little mentioned in recollectons of 19th century American statecraft.
Progress in the sciences is hailed with articles on Astronomy (giant sun spots), Chemistry (discovery of non-existant element Masrium), Metallurgy (manganin alloy discovered), Meteorology (altitude of clouds), Physiology, and Physics. Science was a champion of public perception in 1892, but its gains are buried in the strata of subsequent progress.
In 1892 Einstein (see link under the title banner above) was just finishing at what is now called the Albert Einstein Gymnasium, and he was still thirteen years from reworking the concept of relative motion (1905) that obviated the need for the theoretical "ether", once supposed to pervade space and provide the medium for light waves. Nevertheless, 1892 was five years past the Michelson–Morley experiment (1887) that is now popularly supposed to have put an end to the ether blather by demonstrating the lack of the expected "ether" drag on the speed of light. Surprisingly, Appletons' article on physics provides some incoherent, to modern ears, discussions about how the ether drag is seen, or, perhaps, not seen, but seems unaware of the theory's untenability. Our modern concept of how these theories evolved and devolved, seems largely a myth told by text-book authors, similar to their strange elision of Columbus and the refutation of flat-earth theories.
There is a short survey of new books, American, British, and Continental, along with literary analyses of famous authors deceased during the year. Modern history of 1892 mentions now popular publications from the year, and, surprisingly, they appear in Appletons' lists.
The major religions in America are discussed to a length well beyond the interest of current historical summaries. We learn about recently discovered clay tablets containing various biblical stories and fragments.
Congressional action is extolled next, but little Congress did that year gains current notice. Appletons' does mention the former Speaker of the House in its "Events of 1892," saying, "The Supreme Court renders decisions affirming the constitutionality of the McKinley tariff, [and] Speaker Reed's method of counting quorum...."
Denying a quorum had long been a minority method of slowing Congressional action. Members knew if they didn't show up the speaker would have them arrested and hauled into chambers. Some countered by sitting at their desks, and refusing to answer roll call. This worked until Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, in 1890, took the unprecedented action of declaring them present if he could see them. Some objected, and Reed responded, "Does the gentleman from .... wish to dispute that he is present?". In 1892 the "quorum dispute," went before the Supreme Court, and those worthies decided being physically present constituted de jure presence. This is a good moment to recall Churchill's comment on Democracy, the worst form of government etcetera, etcetera.
Christopher Columbus, Cholera, Diphtheria, sugar, pipe lines, and discussions of thirty-seven American cities are next mentioned. Cholera warranted a lengthy article in Appletons', but nothing of much consequence was recorded. They did note Robert Koch's work, though, and that was the most important thing, historically, to occur on the subject in 1892. He isolated Vibrio cholerae as the infectious agent, and furthered the germ theory of infectious disease. The disease provided days of sensational headlines and political bickering, but caused few deaths in America.
Petroleum in pre-automobile 1892 was mostly used as lubricant and heating oil. Pipe lines had been under development since the late 1860s, a response to the primitive transportation methods. It was even considered feasible, though not yet economical, to transport pulverized coal through them.
The famous deceased for the year come next with special mention of Tennyson, Whittier, "the most distinctively American of our poets," and Whitman, "the most peculiar of all poets." Caroline Scott Harrison, "mistress of the White House," is mentioned, along with Charles Spurgeon, "the most popular of preachers."
The authors mentioned in 1892 did not include Jack McCullough who published a science fiction novel called, "Golf in the Year 2000." You can peruse it nearby, and will probably agree with his exclusion by Appletons'. Nevertheless, few agree with their assessment of Whittier and Whitman these days.
Joel Chandler Harris published the last of his Uncle Remus stories, and he makes both the "then" and "now" lists, though with mostly embarrassment these days. Mark Twain's book of short stories, "Merry Tales," gets a mention at the time, but not in most subsequent summaries. Twain's experimental novel, "The American Claimant," is mentioned in modern summaries, but was unnoticed by the Cyclopaedia.
Whittier gets a long biography in the 1892 account, but nowadays he's popularly remembered as one of the authors featured in the 1897 card game, "Authors," and as an active abolitionist and women's rights advocate.
Whitman also merited a lengthy biography by the 1892 chroniclers, but they didn't anticipate his burgeoning influence in American literature. Acolytes from Ezra Pound to Lawrence Ferlinghetti have cited him as mentor and muse.
Now let's consider the thing about 1892 that is completely unfair to its denizens, but the thing we first wonder about in harking back that far. There is no awareness, not even a hint, that they were at the beginning of a technological explosion. There were signs, in the inventions of that year, but even the futuristic attempts like "Golf in the Year 2000," failed to see the implications of accelerating adaptations of machines. In the next seven years personalized transportation and communication, viz. autos, telephones and radios, changed everything, did it quickly, and surprised everyone.
The sense of revolution dawned in the last year of the nineteenth century among the truly deep thinkers. One of these, Henry Adams, grandson of John Q., and great-grandson of the founding Adams, attended both the Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the 1900 Paris Exposition. In his wonderful "The Education of Henry Adams," see nearby (Chapter XXI), he
"began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force."
A moral force! Moral! He follows with this remarkable bit of nearly unhinged prose in describing what had transpired between 1893 and 1900.
"In these seven years man had translated himself into a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old. He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his senses, perhaps even imperceptible to his instruments, but perceptible to each other, and so to some known ray at the end of the scale."
A little later Adams warns us,
" No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous…."
That sums it up. Our vision of past, present and future is trapped in language, or trapped by language, and we forever struggle to make it say more than it really does. Time before its time doesn't happen, but then we forget what really happened.
...And from Dr. Campbell...
The Columbian Exposition was conceived as part of the anniversary celebration of Columbus' famous voyages that began in 1492. Columbus has since become universally controversial, with a vast array of accusations, confessions and apologies from people now over five centuries removed from the man's adventures. At the time his fan club was universal among the smart set, and most of the non-indigenous population. Whatever the current verdict on Columbus the man, it's fair to say the celebration in his name was impressive.
Of all the exhibits on display in Chicago in 1893 (not 1892 because getting things organized was more difficult than anticipated…is that a familiar story?) the most popular by far, and the most remembered, was the Ferris wheel. It was a 250 foot, steel behemoth that challenged the engineering expertise of the time. Two steam engines of 2000 HP each, one on constant standby in case the primary failed, were installed to spin the thing. The boilers were located over 700 feet away, for the obvious reason that boilers were dangerous and sometimes blew up. How many lives would have been spared by that separation is speculative, but the distance was probably great enough to prevent the wheel from being destroyed by the blast. Passenger capacity was 2160, so getting those boilers away from them was a good idea.
The construction of the Ferris wheel was a marvel. It's safe and trouble-free operation was equally marvelous, and unexpected. But we, in our time, almost 128 years later, can marvel at ourselves, and our diversely informed opinions about it.
Someone recently posted a Youtube video on the fabled Ferris wheel. The video itself is a short, superficial encounter with Wikipedia, but the comments, oh the comments, they are of a piece with our time.
You can't make this stuff up. The human brain generates quantum theory and Beethoven's Fifth, and noise–level stuff like the above. Whether it's ignorance or apathy, it's great fun, like John Quincy Adams' mole people. It's true! I read it in Smithsonian!
Below, find more picture stories about this apparently mythical (or alien built) structure, plus some other Expo memories.