The National Museum of Industrial History recently opened a new exhibit titled, The Works of a Mechanical Genius: the Life and Legacy of John Fritz. John Fritz was a Lehigh alumnus, and the namesake for Lehigh's Fritz Labs. (Courtesy of Lehigh University)

National Museum of Industrial History celebrates John Fritz


On display at the National Museum of Industrial History is an exhibit honoring John Fritz, a founder of the American Steel Industry and the namesake for Fritz Laboratory at Lehigh.

The exhibit is named “The Work of a Mechanical Genius: The Legacy of John Fritz.” It explores Fritz’s life and his impact on the steel industry. 

The exhibit opened in November 2021 and will close on Oct. 16, 2022. 

Andria Zaia, curator at the National Museum of Industrial History, said the exhibit overlaps with the 200th anniversary of Fritz’s birthday on Aug. 21. Between now and the closing of the exhibit, Zaia said the museum will also be hosting companion programs including a birthday party.

Mike Pearson, historian at the National Museum of Industrial History, said the exhibit was something he and his colleagues had always planned to create.

“There’s a vast treasure trove of information about John Fritz that more people should know about,” Pearson said.  

Zaia said the exhibit features artifacts from Fritz’s life, as well as interactive activities. Museum-goers even have the opportunity to sit down at Fritz’s desk and view his reproduced letters and papers.

Zaia said her favorite artifact is the John Fritz medal. 

John Fisher, Lehigh professor emeritus of civil engineering, loaned the medal to the exhibit after being awarded it in 2000 for achievement in transportation research.

Zaia and Pearson both recognized that many people do not not know about the life and legacy of John Fritz.

“You have Fritz labs at Lehigh, yet probably a lot of Lehigh students might not know the namesake for the building,” Zaia said. “He had such a huge impact on Bethlehem and even had an international impact, so we want people to learn more about him.”

Mark Hughes, ‘24, said he did not know much about the history of Fritz Laboratory even though he took a course in the building. 

“Although I never learned anything about John Fritz, I think it is really interesting that there actually is so much to learn about him,” Hughes said. “I had not known about the exhibit, but now that I do I hope I am able to visit it before it closes.”

Zaia said in the exhibit there are a few pieces from the personal estate of John Fritz, including a portrait of Fritz’s daughter, Gertrude. The exhibit also features a piece on loan – a silver platter given to Fritz by steel plant workers – from the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg. 

Zaia said many of the people who have come to the exhibit have been engineers and people from the steel and iron business. She said they have received positive feedback from visitors.

Pearson said he found Fritz’s work inspiring and hopes people who attend the exhibit, especially Lehigh students, know that one person really can make a difference. 

“He was a founding member of several engineering societies and his collaborative and ambitious work was very important,” Pearson said. 

In addition to the John Fritz exhibit, the National Museum of Industrial History is running other programming, including a speaker event on April 7 at 6 p.m. featuring John K. Smith, an associate professor emeritus at Lehigh University, who will be discussing how the Bethlehem Iron Company transformed the American Navy in the 20th century.

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