An Extraordinary World's Fair


Year 1939 Saw Birth of Copier, Computer, TV

Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture.
Eventually, I think Chicago will be the most beautiful great city left in the world.  (1939)

- Frank Lloyd Wright

by John Hillkirk

Window to the World: A television receiver gets a great deal of attention at the New York World's Fair in 1939.
RCA spent 7 years preparing for the exhibition

Ask any 70-year-old what he or she remembers most vividly about 1939, and the answer might be the lingering Depression.  Or Europe preparing for war.  Or FDR's New Deal.  All those developments dramatically affected people's daily lives.

Now zoom forward 50 years to 1989.  Consider the technologies that permeate modern society: computers and copiers in our offices, microwave ovens in our kitchens, TVs in our living rooms, high-speed jets for travelling.

Every one of those technologies appeared in 1939.  The USA's John Atanasoff built the first computer.  Chester Carlson patented his Xerox copier.  RCA launched TV at the New York World's Fair.  Germans flew the first jet-powered plane.  Brits came up with microwave technology to detect enemy planes.  No one is sure why so much happened at once.  But 1939 certainly was the most important year in modem times for technological breakthroughs.  Few of us could make it through the day without using a product dating to that incredible year.

In any given period, there usually are one or two breakthroughs to marvel about.  As Victor McElhaney, science historian at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says, "We've been living in a technological revolution for 350 years."  The 1970s marked the birth of gene-splicing and personal computers, the '80s reusable space shuttles and cellular phones.  But certain years boast an astounding number of breakthroughs that significantly alter the way we live.  In 1876, the car engine and telephone were invented within two weeks of each other.  Soon after that, Thomas Edison's incandescent light flickered on.  But in 1939, "it's pretty clear there was a renaissance," says John Hench, 81, who joined Walt Disney in 1939.  "There was some kind of consciousness, some kind of special love in the air that hasn't been seen since."

Flashes of genius by inventors working on their own birthed most of the dazzling discoveries of 1939.  The inventors weren't striving for money or fame.  They genuinely were looking for a way to improve people's lives.  And they lived in a simpler world, where the inventor's tradition of tinkering - of manipulating objects, not symbols - was still part of daily life.  "People weren't so fat and lazy back then," says Dale Whitford, a University of Dayton aerospace researcher.  "Everybody was striving to get better, to improve their standard of living - just like the Japanese and Koreans are now."  As often happens, inventors had a miserable time convincing people that their ideas would work.  IBM refused to buy Atanasoff's computer and Carlson's copier, the British and Germans ignored jets.  But the inventors stuck with it.  Here's a glimpse of what a few of them experienced:

bulletAtanasoff - Then an Iowa State professor, he spent years performing routine math on IBM calculators.  He knew there must be a better way.  One night in 1937, he got into his car and began driving across Iowa.  He wound up, 200 miles later, at a bar in Illinois.  On his second drink, a flash of genius hit him: build a computer that uses Base 2 - a series of "1s" and "0s" - instead of the traditional Base 10.  In 1939, his first prototype appeared.  While it could only add or subtract up to eight-digit numbers, Atanasoff's discovery laid the foundation for ENIAC, the world's first general-purpose computer, introduced in 1946.
bulletFrank Whittle and Hans von Ohain - Unbeknown to each another, these two simultaneously developed the jet engine.  Germany's Von Ohain wanted to get rid of the rumbling piston engine because it destroyed the beauty of night.  The solution: Throw the piston away and substitute a quieter turbine.  Britain's Whittle, a Royal Air Force cadet, reached a similar conclusion.  The English Air Ministry turned him down flat.  "Despite the threat of war, we nearly went broke," says Whittle, now living in Maryland.

The world ignored the jet engine until the late 1940s.  Von Ohain says that if the British government had backed Whittle's work, there might not have been a World War II.  His reasoning: Jet-powered planes could have torn the Luftwaffe to pieces.

bulletCarlson - Employed at a New York patent office, he suffered from painful attacks of arthritis when making handwritten or carbon copies of documents.  He was convinced there must be a better way.  His breakthrough occurred in a second-floor room above a bar.  He and German refugee Otto Komei created the first xerographic copier with a zinc plate, some cheap chemicals and an ordinary lamp.  The static electricity was provided by rubbing a piece of cloth.  Carlson approached 20 companies in 5 years about his discovery.  Finally, Battelle Memorial Institute agreed to help.  But Carlson wasn't able to market a commercial copier until 1959.

Those discoveries, and other significant 1939 breakthroughs - TV, nylon, the atomic bomb and microwave technology - were spurred by some events of that era:

bulletThe threat of war - British scientists led by J T Randall and H A H Boot developed microwave radar to detect nighttime attacks by Hitler's Luftwaffe.  Says McElhaney: "The A-bomb may have ended World War II, but radar won the war."  In the USA, Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt's science adviser, mobilised teams of scientists at five labs - Bell Labs, Cal-Tech, Harvard, MIT and the Carnegie Institution.  Says McElhaney: "We thought totalitarian states would make mincemeat of us if we didn't unleash our technological weapons."  Bush's team helped persuade FDR to build the atomic bomb, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1939.  US scientists were aided by refugee European physicists.
bulletAttempts to leave the Depression behind - For many, the period between 1929 and 1939 was mired in despair.  Social unrest led to such FDR programs as the Works Progress Administration to employ the unemployed.  Government replaced private industry as the nation's primary economic engine.  To restore public confidence in the private sector, exhibitors at the 1939 New York World's Fair focused squarely on the future.  RCA spent seven years of intensive research preparing to launch TV at the fair.  Du Pont unveiled nylon, while others showed dishwashers and fluorescent lights.  The fair was a mental "cure for the Depression," says historian Larry Bird of the Smithsonian Institution.  "The companies were trying to recapture their social leadership."

Lately, the big breakthroughs have trickled off.  Says Whitford: "You might speculate that the easy thing; have been accomplished."  But the renaissance men of 1939 say much remains to be done.  The secret is to consider ideas from any source, to be willing to listen to ideas that sound outlandish, even faintly ridiculous.  "The great inventors tend to get the crackpot image put on them," says Whitford, a close friend of Von Ohain's.  "But usually that's because they're too far ahead of their time."

Source: USA Today Friday 1 December 1989

Trylon and Perisphere: the 1939 World's Fair

An early prospectus read, "The Fair will dramatically display the most promising developments of ideas, products, services and social factors of the present day in such a fashion that the visitor may gain a vision of what he might attain for himself and for his community by intelligence and cooperative planning."

Ignoring the darkening clouds of war, Grover Whalen, the Fair's gregarious president, described its aim as "to place en route the world's resources in a gigantic crusade against man's chief foes: inertia, lassitude, and chance."

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the opening day crowds in a seminal television broadcast; Albert Einstein threw the switch that electrified the Fair's phantasmagorical lighting systems; and New York's mayor Fiorello La Guardia was described by NBC television as the most "telegenic" man at the Fair.

The Fair's central theme exhibit, Democracity, was a multimedia extravaganza portraying America in 2039 as a harmonious network of urban, suburban, and rural areas.  "This is not a vague dream of a life that might be lived in the far future," wrote a Fair official, "but one that could be lived tomorrow if we willed it so."

The Fair's provocative, often symbolically designed pavilions were organised into seven thematic zones featuring the aspects of modern life that wed man and machine:

bulletProduction and Distribution
bulletCommunications and Business Systems
bulletMedicine and Public Health
bulletScience and Education
bulletCommunity Interests

Futurama, Norman Bel Geddes' extravaganza for General Motors, was the most ambitious and visionary multimedia educational entertainment ever built.  After waiting an average of two hours, visitors took their places in comfortable, high-sided chairs to set out on a simulated airplane ride over the American landscape of 1960, featuring express highways, radio-controlled cars, massive suspension bridges, and modern high-rises.  Visitors stepped from their seats into a full-scale realisation of the latest model they had seen.

Upon exiting Futurama, dazzled spectators received an "I have seen the future" button, a treasured badge of honour matched only by the Heinz pickle pin.

The Fair was shaped by other outstanding exhibits, some with social, but most with commercial, messages.

bulletGilbert Rohde's surrealistic model of a man highlighted the Community Interest focal exhibit.
bulletRaymond Loewy's Transportation exhibit contained a pyrotechnic finale in which viewers took a simulated rocket trip to London.
bulletConsolidated Edison featured the world's largest diorama, a perspective model of New York City showing its tremendous daily energy needs.
bulletIn the General Electric Building, visitors witnessed fearsome bolts of lightning shooting 30 feet through the air from an artificial lightning generator.
bulletAt the American Telephone and Telegraph Building, the Voder, a speech synthesizer, simulated the human voice as well as a sheep bleating and a pig grunting.
bulletThe RCA Building's transparent television revealed the workings of "picture radio" for the first time.
bulletWestinghouse offered hourly demonstrations of Electro, its walking/talking robot.

It was a fair of lasting firsts.

bulletThe first television broadcast of a speech by an American president
bulletThe first public use of fluorescent lighting
bulletThe first Kodachrome transparencies and colour home-movie film
bulletThe first noiseless fireworks
bulletThe first 3D film, viewed through Polaroid glasses
bulletThe first use of nylon
bulletThe first use of Lucite
bulletThe first use of Plexiglas

"The visitor who wants to get the most out of this World's Fair will do best to regard it not as a show of things," wrote H G Wells in The New York Times, "but let his imagination off the leash of discretion for a bit.  Then he may really get a glimpse of the realities of tomorrow that lurk in this jungle of exhibits.  It will cease to look like a collection of things for sale and reveal its real nature as a gathering of live objects, each of which is going to do something to him, possibly something quite startling, before he is very much older."

Wells was right, for the Fair did sweep the visitor up into the grandest illusion of the century.  Walking among its richly coloured streets, fairgoers became part of a great experiment that conditioned them to yearn - among other things - for the material goods displayed in the name of progress.  "The World of Tomorrow is arranged not as the visible rendering of a utopian dream but to assemble before us what can be done with human life today," continued an exuberant Wells, "and what we shall almost certainly be able to do with it, if we think fit, in the near future."

Source: Poster by Albert Staehle from Trylon and Perisphere: The 1939 New York World's Fair by B Cohen S Heller and S Chwast

Dreamland?  Thanks to Thomas Foley, I now know that the above photo is from the 1964 - 65 NYWF, not the 1939 - 40 NYWF.
I appreciate that information.  I am, however, leaving this picture up because I like it.

The ideals of the 1939 - 40 New York World’s Fair certainly had their limitations, which the rest of 20th century America has met, but the wonder and awe which surrounded it has not subsided.  In the context of the 21st century’s view of technology, 1939’s view of the future even takes on an aura of nostalgia.  The World of Tomorrow was a dreamland, and it remains so, a work of art incomplete yet planned well into "the future."

The fair is a time capsule unto itself, filled with kitsch and theoretical salvation, a rare icon of hope in the 21st century, ready to be opened time and again for future generations.  The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair is both yesterday and tomorrow.


The Time Capsule

The Time Capsule!

Fascinating alike to scientists and to everyday folks, this record of our times has been prepared for the eyes of a civilisation 5000 years away.  But your own eyes can see a cut-away duplicate of it, with all its contents, if you join the Middletons - Babs and Bud, their parents, and Grandma - at the Westinghouse New York World's Fair Building.  Visit the Halls of Power and Electrical Living...  see the Playground of Science; the Microvivarium; Elektro, the Moto-Man, and many other electrical marvels.  A warm welcome awaits you at this "fair within a fair."


(The Middletons were designed to represent a typical upper-class family visiting the fair.)


See also:

bulletComputers of a Bygone Era  (the next page in this section) - for photos of computers in the 50s and for one prescient electrical engineer's 's prediction of computers today.
bullet1962 Imagines 2001 (further on in this section) - Back in 1962 - the year Seattle played host to the World's Fair - humans were clearly primitive creatures who knew nothing of the wonders of the Internet or, for that matter, the wonders of the Post-It note (which wasn't invented until 1974)...
bulletWhat Was Life Like in the 1500s? (in the section on Photographs, at the bottom of the page) - "Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good..."
bulletWhat Was Life Like a Century Ago? (in the section on Wellington) - The average life expectancy in the US was 47.  Only 14% of US homes had a bathtub...
bulletOrder the Home of Your Dreams (in the Oddities section) - for an idea of what else could be ordered from the Sears catalogue 100 years ago...

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