Bringing a museum object to life: The John Bull locomotive


Most history museums face the challenge of bringing objects to life. Most of our artifacts weren’t made just to be on exhibit. People of the past made or used these objects, but in our effort to keep the objects viable for research, they become “artifacts” which can no longer be touched, turned, or (most of the time) operated. I was delighted to find a recent exception to this rule—the only one of our museum’s landmark objects that isn’t surrounded by a glass barrier—the John Bull locomotive.

For the past few years, I’ve been on a mission to develop educational materials related to the seven landmark objects of the museum. The Star-Spangled Banner was easy, then the Greensboro lunch counter, and our fabulous telescope used by Maria Mitchell. And then I turned to the John Bull locomotive on the first floor of the National Museum of American History.

The “John Bull” was one of the first successful locomotives in the United States. It was imported from England by the Camden and Amboy Railroad in 1831. Upon its arrival, it was assembled by C and A Railroad employee Isaac Dripps.

I know plenty of little kids who love trains, so I was intrigued by what magic we could whip up with this big old locomotive. As I sat down with curator Susan Tolbert to write a suite of educational activities, she pulled out a VHS tape and shared its story with me.

John bull locomotive smithsonian landmark object
The John Bull locomotive on display at the National Museum of American History

For the 150th anniversary of the John Bull, the museum did extensive research and decided it would be safe to operate the locomotive one last time. In 1981, several staff members dressed in period costume and the curator/train operator Bill Withuhn fired up the engine for a video recorded trip along the tracks in Georgetown. We edited down the video to be suitable for an elementary school audience (and added a few seconds of introduction), but enjoy these few minutes of the John Bull’s anniversary run.

If you enjoyed this video, there are also many other short videos available on the America on the Move site, categorized as transportation technology, transportation history, and transportation infrastructure.

I love that you can hear the whistle of the John Bull blowing, the fire snapping, the thrum of the wheels turning. You can see how embers flew from the smokestack. It gives a glimpse of what travel by train felt like for those 1830’s passengers who were “wow”-ed by its speed.

In exhibits, museums do the best we can to bring artifacts to life while keeping them safe from harm. In America on the Move, for example, the artifact cases are placed into contextual life-sized dioramas, complete with sound and lighting. But with the web, museums have a new frontier for expanding that interpretation even further.

What objects in our museum would you like to see come to life? We can’t make any promises, but we can certainly double-check the video archives and share any findings on our blog!

You can find more images and historical information about the John Bull Locomotive in America on the Move.

Jenny Wei is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History. She’s from New Jersey, so she loved that the John Bull traveled through the "garden state".