Ignite 2023: Brad Baer

From Portable Bathtubs to AI: What we can learn about Innovation from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition

MCN 2023 Conference
November 8, 2023
World Café Live, Philadelphia


Hello, MCN friends, and welcome to the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. I'm here tonight to hopefully ease your concerns about innovation, and to tell you why I believe that the easiest way to understand and be hopeful about the future is actually to look to the past. You see, while modern technology might be disrupting the world at a speed we've never seen, I'd like to posit that today's advancements closely mirror the progress that we witnessed nearly 150 years ago at the Centennial Exhibit right here in Philadelphia, PA.

This was our country's first official world fair, and it brought us lasting contributions such as popcorn, bananas, the Band Aid, root beer, ketchup. And a glimpse at what the empowerment of women outside the home could and should look like, largely thanks to Ben Franklin's great great granddaughter. Shout out to Ben Franklin's granddaughter.

The exhibit was a version of a Metaverse for Americans who couldn't quite afford a trip to Europe. It was multisensory and provided the perfect mix of curation and exploration. All for just 50 cents, which is the equivalent of 14 dollars in today's world, which is much cheaper than a 3,500 dollar headset. Many attendees made their way to the fairgrounds seamlessly and easily, and most of the time, without a driver.

There was concern over disasters, but this semi-autonomous vehicle, the monorail, was and is actually quite safe. Amongst all the excitement, there were articles written and panic reports of Americans asking, What about the jobs? Sounds familiar, right? Of course, their concerns were all about the most cutting-edge automation of the time, the dishwasher and the sewing machine.

During the expo, Americans learned about this concept of shared ownership and exploring how we could decentralize elements of our world without completely disrupting society. As you probably didn't guess, I'm talking about the kindergarten system, where the only chain of blocks was made out of wood. Now, imagine people's excitement when they could use their voice to ask questions into a small device, and immediately get back answers in a way that was totally customized.

While we didn't have Alexa back then, we did have Alex, as in Alexander Graham Bell's brand new telephone. Now, when we think of the evolution of cities, it probably makes sense that we want to use technology to simplify the building process, right? You know, as one example, the machinery building seen here was assembled in a way that was modular and sustainable, essentially being 3D printed out of iron and metal.

So, once people began to understand that even a traditional object could be, as it was termed, electrified, we searched for ways to modernize them to provide even more tools. The typewriter and the electric pen helped us write on lines. But they were also early foreshadows of the Internet of Things, online.

But I'd be remiss not to talk about some of the examples where tech took a strange turn and became something we didn't intend. R.I.P. Hitchbot. As with any new innovation, it's impossible to foresee all uses, so it's important that we're constantly reassessing if something is net positive or net negative.

Be safe, Philadelphia. Uh, for instance, many visitors brought home souvenirs like wreaths made of human hair or a Liberty Bell made of soap. And while this is a good lesson that there's always room for novel solutions, I think we can also agree that some innovations come and go because they focus more on spectacle than substance.

One big feature was a new product called asbestos, which involved fiber spun into fire-resistant textiles and building materials. We quickly rushed to put it anywhere and everywhere, but much like social media, we learned that the short-term gains might not be worth the long-term effects. One of the most buzzed-about items, though, was a badge of prestige, if you were lucky enough to get one.

However, once people actually stopped to think about it, they realized that the portable bathtub was useful on some occasions, but to most it was a token that was quite fungible. But I saved the star of the show for last. Imagine this. Mechanically informed processing meant to increase human potential.

But back in 1876, the AI was called CE, as in the coreless engine, a generative, steam powered tool that made almost every industry more productive. Okay, joking aside, there's a reason why nearly 10 million people took boats, carriages, train, or foot to visit the exhibition. This subject matters to me because I think there's a ton we can learn from studying the evolution of how we view, perceive, and create the future.

Keep in mind, this event was only 11 years after the end of the Civil War, yet we somehow joined together to pursue the next great thing and a better future. And while we aren't technically at war stateside today, there are days where it feels like we're emotionally split to a level beyond repair.

That's where you all come into play. What I admire about the exhibition and your museums is that you both play an essential role in bringing people together in real life. I've talked a lot about the tech on display, but the most valuable outcome was that millions of people were inspired as one nation and one community.

And while I've had similar fears to many of you about the world becoming too flat from using the same tools, I read a familiar concern in a newspaper article from 147 years ago about tech taking the art out of the world. So while new technology might seem scary, history tells us things will be okay. So with that, I'll come to a close, but I hope you have a great rest of your MCN, everyone.

I hope you continue to show your visitors what's possible, and I hope you think fondly of my hometown the next time you eat a banana, make a call, or use soap on a rope shaped like some strange object. Thank you, everyone.