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World’s Fairs – Back To The Future

December 24, 2010

Part 1

Looking Back – Looking Forward

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Thomas Jefferson

The mission of this site is to tell “Stories about the History and Future of Innovation.” What better way to close the old year and open the new year than with a two part post about World’s Fairs?

In these posts I’ve cobbled together a patchwork of stories, photos and videos to muse about the American Dream as told in tales of innovative World’s Fairs. It’s a good way for me to stitch together some of my ideas and interests to help understand where we are, how we got here and where we are likely to be going.

I am a long time fan of World’s Fairs. My favorite the 1939 New York World’s Fair. But there is something to like in all those I’ve learned about from the first Expo held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom in 1851 under the title “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”. “The Great Exhibition” to Expo 2010, China’s first world’s fair. It was held in Shanghai from May to October 2010.

I’ve never thought about why these massive celebrations of industry and nationalism have such a strong influence on me until this week. I have just finished reading Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War by James Mauro and have watched, a not very good 3 disk DVD series titled, Worlds Fairs. I also just learned that there is a new exhibit in D.C. about World’s Fairs of the 30’s & 40’s.

Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s

October 2, 2010 – July 10, 2011

A first-of-its-kind exhibition, Designing Tomorrow features nearly 200 never-before-assembled artifacts including building models, architectural remnants, drawings, paintings, prints, furniture, an original RCA TRK-12 television, Elektro the Moto-Man robot, and period film footage. The artifacts are drawn from the featured exposition.

Between 1933 and 1940 tens of millions of Americans visited world’s fairs in cities across the nation. Designing Tomorrow explores the modernist spectacles of architecture and design they witnessed — visions of a brighter future during the worst economic crisis the United States had known. The fairs popularized modern design for the American public and promoted the idea of science and consumerism as salvation from the Great Depression.

Participating architects, eager for new projects at a time when few new buildings were being financed, populated the fairgrounds with an eclectic modern architecture. Pavilions housed innovative and dynamic exhibitions that paid tribute to factory production, technology, and speed.  Exhibits forecasted the houses and cities of tomorrow and presented streamlined trains, modern furnishings, television, and talking robots. See a video by the BBC about the exhibit…

Before the great fairs of the 30’s and 40’s was the grand daddy of American fairs called the World’s Columbian Exposition and The White City, but best known as…

The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

The original Ferris Wheel, built by George Ferris. This wheel was 264 feet (80 m) high and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 60 people. Wikipedia

The World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492.

The exposition covered more than 600 acres (2.4 km2), featuring nearly 200 new buildings of classical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from around the world. Over 27 million people (equivalent to about half the U.S. population) attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibitionbecame a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.

The Exposition drew nearly 26 million visitors. It left a remembered vision that inspired the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz and Walt Disney’s theme parks. Disney’s father Elias had been a construction worker on some of the buildings at the fair. See Wikipedia article…

I recall first getting interested in World’s Fairs in the early 1980’s when I was doing research and writing on the history of robotics and was enticed into the 1939 NYWF by Elektro, the “Westinghouse Motor Man.” While Elektro was a charming, wise cracking crowd pleaser, he was no more a robot than a factory switch box.

A crude metal impossibility, Elektro was little more than a carny flack who smoked and abused his human straight-man, but still he captured fairgoers’ imagination. Just take a look at this video. Oh yeah, he also smoked and had a robot dog called “Sparky.”

The “World of Tomorrow” was built on the ashes of the past.

“The 1,255 acre (5 km²) park was created from the former dumping ground characterized as “a valley of ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The site, known at the time as the Corona Ash Dumps, was cleared by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, in preparation for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair.” Wikipedia

Gatsby’s View of  the Ash Wasteland of Flushing Meadows, 1922 – Before the Fair

But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust, which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently, some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Chapter 2. by Jeanne I. Lakatos © 2009

The Fairest of them All – My Favorite World’s Fair

Flanked by amusement rides, the fair’s signature central buildings, the Trylon and Perisphere, glow in the night at the fairgrounds in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Photo: Corbis, Wired

1939’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Shaped Our Today

By Jon Snyder, (Excerpt) Wired, April 29, 2010

The New York World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940 promised visitors they would be looking at the “World of Tomorrow.” Not everything they saw there came true, but plenty was close. One reason for that was the fair’s own lasting influence on American architecture and industrial design.

It was a futuristic city inspired by the pages — and covers — of pulp science fiction: huge geometric shapes, sweeping curves, plenty of glass and chromium, and gleaming white walls. The fair was the last great blossoming of the Streamlined Moderne style of Art Deco. It was also heavily influenced by the still-rising International Style of such architects as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. See the excellent photo essay in Wired…

The World of Tomorrow did not delight everyone. E.B. White the noted author and long time New Yorker columnist was highly critical of the Fair and its dream of tomorrow. In his essay about the Fair he said. “And the dream is still a contradiction and an enigma—the biologist peeping at bacteria through his microscope, the sailor peeping at the strip queen through binoculars, the eyes so watchful, and the hopes so high.”  His image matches the eerieness of Fitzgerald’s, Dr.  T.J. Eckleburg’s spectacles overlooking the ash heaps of Flushing Meadows.

End, World’s Fairs – Part 1

World’s Fairs – Part 2


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