It was a time when the public's imagination walked on long legs, and"wond'rous curiosities" like mummies, mermaid skeletons and electricity were exhibited by showmen like P. T. Barnum.
The early 1800s were the era of the Peale family, headed by Charles Willson Peale, inventor, artist and collector of nature's wonders. His son, Rembrandt Peale, founded Baltimore's Peale Museum in 1814, now the oldest museumbuilding in the Western Hemisphere.
Thirteen Howard County elementary students got a glimpse of the Peales' zealous curiosity last month when they entered the museum's pilot program, "Great Expectations."
The program brings together teachers and the museum staff, who together work to inspire students on such topics as inventions, portraiture, puppetry and living history.
The October program concentrated on inventors and attempted to show students how to be problem solvers. The students were selected froma pool of gifted and talented fourth- and fifth-graders at Waverly, Laurel Woods and Bushy Park elementaries.
The program was the pilot for a series at the museum to be aimed at students in different grade levels in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and Baltimore
Eileen Langholz, education specialist at the museum, said the experiences of Charles Willson Peale could inspire students tobecome inventors themselves. "It's a good partnership," said Langholz. By working with county teachers, she said, the programs "are not developed in a vacuum . . . and the teachers have the advantages of the museum. It's a good information exchange."
Co-teaching the course were Howard County resource teachers Debbie Jagoda of Waverly Elementary, Judith Rice of Laurel Woods, and Lynn Spence of Bushy Park Elementary.
For two hours each Saturday last month, the students wereintroduced to the science and art of inventing. They discussed Pealeinventions like the replicating machine and a water wheel designed to "dig up some (mastodon) bones that were once inside clay," said Sean Mayer, a Laurel Woods
Like museum professionals, the children donned white gloves to examine strange artifacts -- acherry stoner, an apple peeler and a black, metal "mystery object" with legs, whose purpose still baffles museum staffers. For each, theyattempted to deduce their function and compare them with modern counterparts.
Stretching their imaginations, students hunted for inventions through the museums' present exhibit, which re-creates a typical early museum of the Peale era with curiosities culled from around the country.
Included in the collection are some of the mastodon bones recovered by Peale's water wheel, a static electricity generator,gas lighting, and ancient weapons.
Students also learned the importance of visualizing what they hope to achieve, of finding new uses for existing technology, and of keeping a journal of one's mistakes and successes.
After experiments with motion and lessons on scale drawings, the students met inventor Robert Fischell of Dayton, who holds several patents on medical devices.
"The whole idea was to say 'Somebody invented this; there was a need for that. Now you're going to be thinking about your invention and the need for it,' " Langholz said.
On a P. T. Barnum lecture stage and accompanied by an actor portraying Rembrandt Peale, each student presented a scale drawing ofhis or her invention.
"I invented the flying saucer," explained Jenny Kurdziel from Bushy Park Elementary, of her fly catcher that hangs from the ceiling. Her schoolmate, Gabriel Martinez, created a humane mouse trap. But, he added, you dispose of the live mouse by "feeding it to the cat."
Other inventions included a pair of $35 retractable spring shoes, a headband to hold a computerized toothbrush, no-mess scissors, a reclining TV superchair, and an improved clipboard.
Some students plan to build their inventions as an independent research project at school, Jagoda said.