The Great American Hall of Wonders: Art, Science and Invention in the Nineteenth Century

Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact


  • The exhibition The Great American Hall of Wonders examines the nineteenth-century American belief that the people of the United States shared a special genius for innovation. It explores this belief through works of art, mechanical inventions, and scientific discoveries, and captures the excitement of citizens who defined their nation as a "Great Experiment" sustained by the inventive energies of Americans in every walk of life. The Great American Hall of Wonders investigates questions that are still critical today. The exhibition reveals both the successful experiments of the past, as well as the ones that went awry, and invites today's citizens to explore a valuable legacy left by the founding fathers: a belief in the transformative power of American inventiveness.
  • The exhibition features 161 objects, including paintings and drawings by pre-eminent artists, including John James Audubon, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, Frederick Edwin Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Moran, and Charles Willson Peale, as well as sculptures, prints, survey photographs, zoological and botanical illustrations, patent models, and engineering diagrams. The exhibition explores six subjects that helped shape America during the period-the buffalo, giant sequoia, and Niagara Falls represent American beliefs about abundant natural resources for fueling the nation's progress, while inventions such as the clock, the gun, and the railroad link improvements in technology with the purposeful use of time.
  • The museum's National Historic Landmark building is a fitting place to display the exhibition. On July 4, 1836, President Andrew Jackson authorized the construction of a patent office on this site. The building was designed to celebrate American invention, technical ingenuity, and the scientific advancements that the patent process represents. The building was always intended for public display of patent models that were submitted by inventors. By the 1850s, more than 100,000 people each year visited the building, which became known as the "temple of invention," to see the designs that filled display cabinets in the exhibition galleries. In addition to patent models, the government's historical, scientific, and art collections were housed on the third floor. The Patent Office occupied parts of the building from 1840 to 1932.


  • Audubon, John James 1785-1851
  • Peale, Charles Willson
  • Bierstadt, Albert 1830-1902
  • Catlin, George 1796-1872
  • Church, Frederick Edwin 1826-1900
  • Eakins, Thomas 1844-1916
  • Homer, Winslow 1836-1910
  • Moran, Thomas 1837-1926
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • The Great American Hall of Wonders (Exhibition) (2011-2012: Smithsonian American Art Museum)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Catalog of exhibit of the same name at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from July 15, 2011 - January 8, 2012. The museum was the only venue for the exhibition, which was organized by Claire Perry, an independent curator who specializes in nineteenth-century American cultural history. Until 2008, Perry was curator of American art at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • History of Science and Technology
  • Technology
  • History of Technology
  • Inventions
  • Creative ability in technology
  • Exhibitions

Physical description

Number of pages: 266 Page numbers: 1-266

Full Record

View Full Record