The Greatest Show on Earth

Dazzling technological innovations get all the attention, but it’s the care and maintenance of these new technologies that most benefit society.

Long before Times Square blinked to light, New York City had the shimmering Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, a World’s Fair that began in the summer of 1853. For a 25-cent ticket, throngs of people marveled at the multitiered structure of iron and steel. Poet Walt Whitman called it “Earth’s modern wonder.” Inside the palace were the technological wonders of the age. An English whaling gun was said to look as if it could “do some execution upon the monsters of the deep.” An automated tobacco roller cut and wound 18 cigars a minute, superseding—ominously, in hindsight—hand labor.

But the wonder that still resonates today began with a May 1854 demonstration by Elisha Graves Otis. The 42-year-old engineer was a bedframe maker and a tinkerer with a passion for fixing faults and frailties. In his trim Victorian suit, lush beard, and silk stovepipe hat, Otis mounted a wooden platform secured by notched guide rails. His assistant then hoisted the platform some 50 feet above the ground, grabbing the crowd’s attention.

Otis was there to correct a fault of his own making. He had developed an elegant solution to the problem of cable failure in platform elevators that made use of a hoist with a passive automatic braking system—but none had sold. It wasn’t because people didn’t need them; elevators often catastrophically broke down in granaries and warehouses, killing and maiming their passengers. Otis realized that his design, though superior and straightforward, needed showmanship. The World’s Fair was his moment to flaunt his vertical flight of fancy and function.

Otis had developed an elegant solution to the problem of cable failure in platform elevators that made use of a hoist with a passive automatic braking system—but none had sold.

When the assistant dramatically used an ax to cut the suspension cable holding the platform, the crowd gasped in shock. It appeared to be an act of lunacy—and suicide for Otis, who stood on the platform. However, the platform stopped with a jerk just a couple of feet lower as the braking system arrested the freefall. “All safe,” Otis reassured the audience, “all safe.”

And thus, the crucial safety innovation that led to the launch of the modern vertical city was enabled by a now-legendary stunt. It’s impossible to imagine urban life without it.

Otis’s demonstration exemplifies a time-honored formula that mixes technology and design with entertainment. In some fields, “demo or die” has come to supplant “publish or perish”—highlighting the fact that products or people, no matter how deserving, will not advance unless they are first noticed. From Thomas Edison’s electric theatrics to Steve Jobs’s turtlenecked stage flair, the demo culture has thrived on symbolism, spotlight, and special effects in which pomp is the essence of persuasion.

Still, magicians will tell you that a trick will fail if it lacks meaning, no matter how incredible. There must be a link between the magic and its purpose. Showmanship “brings out the meaning of a performance and gives it an importance that it might otherwise lack,” writer and magician Henning Nelms observed. “When showmanship is carried far enough, it can even create an illusion of meaning where none exists.” And, of course, meaning is something that technology often needs desperately when it has not yet attained a place in our lives.

Meaning is something that technology often needs desperately when it has not yet attained a place in our lives.

When someone asked Phineas Taylor Barnum to describe the qualifications of a showman, the brisk ballyhooer said that the person “must have a decided taste for catering for the public; prominent perceptive faculties; tact; a thorough knowledge of human nature; great suavity; and plenty of ‘soft soap.’” When asked just what “soft soap” was, he clarified: “Getting into the good graces of people.” These human factors are relevant to engineers as well.

Although showmanship is frowned upon when it is pursued too overtly, it is sometimes unavoidable. Consider the rousing words of President Kennedy in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The showmanship in his words was apparent, and it got us to the moon. But what of “the other things?” If we are to take up Kennedy’s bold challenge, it’s time to elevate showmanship to do the other things he alluded to—perhaps the necessary things that are less sexy and more vexy.

Showmanship for prosocial needs could move people to action if the emphasis is on mindful mending rather than blank boosterism. Just imagine a prime-time commercial for roads and public works that inspires infrastructure improvements rather than promoting the latest new feature or flavor. Or a promo for ventilation, sanitation, and disease surveillance systems, all significant public health achievements made possible by invisible engineering. Or a modern-day Elisha Otis demo that captures the public’s attention about the powers of safety standards, quality management, and preventive maintenance in elevators? All of these are actions and technologies that our lives—literally—depend upon.  

Maintenance may seem too pedestrian to be a candidate for showmanship. As scholars Daniel Kammen and Michael Dove suggest: “Academic definitions of ‘cutting edge’ research topics exclude many of the issues that affect the largest number of people and have the greatest impact on the environment: everyday life is rarely the subject of research.” For this reason, innovation and the nonstop narrative around it have become a cultural default, as ambient as elevator music.

Innovation and the nonstop narrative around it have become a cultural default, as ambient as elevator music.

But when the dazzling prominence of innovation overshadows the subtler, kinder, and attentive acts that characterize maintenance, it leads to the collapse of everyday expectations. And these little maintenance misfortunes may ultimately put a stop to legitimate big-picture innovations. Why, after all, build a system if there is no ethic to maintain it well? Maintenance is not a static process; it builds on change, and just like innovation, it fuels change. Innovators often claim to make history, but maintainers start from and sustain the necessary continuities of history. There can be no useful innovation without a vast, invisible infrastructure of maintenance activity that keeps civilization running. 

Nestled between the duties of innovation and maintenance is a responsibility for cultural engineering that does not end when a commission or contract comes to completion. It is a perpetual effort to be attentive to future neglect and decay in our shared dependencies. Very few subjects are as relevant, and also neglected, as care and maintenance—acts integral to our survival and progress and as crucial as the creation itself. Indeed, maintenance over a system’s life cycle may consume more than it took to make a new system. But the result is often a catastrophe avoided. Engineers are full of such half-jokes: today’s innovations are tomorrow’s vulnerabilities. Without maintenance, failures flourish.

Moonshots and their like may inspire us to attempt the impossible. Still, far more practical value has come from suitcase wheels than Ferris wheels, no matter how flashy the latter are. Maintenance is the unsung partner that enables innovation. It is both life and—in its connection to history, present, and the future—larger than any single life. And it needs showmanship to attract the attention it requires to assume its proper place in our civic priorities.

Otis never thought he would become a showman at the Crystal Palace, but P. T. Barnum did. History records that Otis received a hundred dollars for his stunt from the man. There was no need for an elevator pitch.

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Cite this Article

Madhavan, Guru. “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Issues in Science and Technology (August 10, 2021).