Detail from a view of Pennsylvania Avenue with the U.S. Capitol in the background, 1870–1900. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian. From the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Alexander Graham Bell Grosvenor, age 9, and Charles G. Abbot, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, October 1937. Science Service photo.
Had your train rolled into the District of Columbia around 1870, you might not have thought it a particularly innovative place. Or even a particularly pleasant place. You might have been too distracted by the smell.
The Washington City Canal, part of Pierre L'Enfant's plan, fell into disuse in the late 1850s and became a stagnant open sewer. By 1870, the District was home to over 130,000 people who lacked basic sanitation. Things began to change with the Organic Act of 1871. A new city government took on the formidable task of modernizing the nation's capital. Alexander Shepherd, director of D.C.'s Board of Public Works, spent over $20 million to improve the city. Railroad tracks and streets were graded, sidewalks paved, bridges built, a water and sewer system installed, and trees planted. The squalid Tiber Creek section of the Washington City Canal was covered over and a new street--the future Constitution Avenue--was built in its stead.
Washington's Reconstruction-era status as a swampy, undeveloped town belied the visionary activity brewing there. Federal agencies like the U.S. Patent Office made the city a science hub, where inventors and entrepreneurs convened and organizations sprouted to support invention, discovery, and economic development. At the helm of the Smithsonian Institution as its first Secretary, Joseph Henry made extraordinary contributions to the organization of American science, in addition to his own pioneering research in electromagnetism. In 1871, Henry founded the Philosophical Society of Washington, based on the Saturday meetings he hosted at his home for prominent men interested in science. The Society advanced science and learning, and fostered open debate among its members.
Another, perhaps surprising, participant in the city's transformation was Alexander Graham Bell. His connections to a growing network of science advocates and institutions reveal the capital as a burgeoning hot spot of innovation at the end of the 19th century.
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-- Amanda Murray