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A Guide to the History and Inventions of the World Expo
In 1850, a massive structure was constructed in Hyde Park, London in only five months. It was a great glass and iron greenhouse that covered 19 acres of land and was so tall that it could easily fit four St. Paul’s Cathedrals inside. Dubbed the Crystal Palace, this structure would play host to the greatest global gathering history had ever seen at the time.
Inspired by the Paris exhibition, which was only for French manufacturers, a civil servant named Henry Cole dreamed of creating a World Expo where countries from around the globe could gather in one place to show their latest inventions. Cole – whose only other claim to fame was creating the Christmas card – had no idea that his work would give birth to an event that would span decades and continents. As they say, timing is everything.
In the mid-late 19th century, the world was making sense of the Industrial Revolution and its myriad innovation possibilities. Powered by automation that allowed large-scale mechanics to be mass produced for the first time, the market was no longer concerned with the simple exchange of commodities. Resources like concrete, rubber, and aluminum were being produced for the first time ever, which lead to the invention of textile machines, printing presses, trains, and more. In order to showcase the products and innovations that would soon change the world, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert invited European and American nations to gather together at the very first World Expo, launching a precedent that would take place roughly every two years afterwards.
Some of the novelties shown at the first Expo in 1851 included a knife with 1,851 blades, a four-sided piano, a bed that became a life raft, the world’s largest mirror, and many other wonders. Since their auspicious start, Expos (also referred to as World’s Fairs) from around the world have been the birthplace of some of humankind’s greatest inventions: the computer, the television, even ice cream!
Although the highly anticipated World Expo in Dubai was supposed to occur in 2020, the pandemic delayed its opening. In 2021, Expo starts on October 1 and runs until March 31, 2022 and will bring together more than 190 countries and cultures together in one place. As we look forward to the promise of self-driving cars, devices that extract water from air, concrete that generates solar power, and so much more, we’re taking you back in history to see why the Expo has been such a significant boon to humanity as it races toward the pinnacle of innovation and achievement.
1851 – London, England
Although we already touched on some of the novelties presented at the first World Expo, there were many more in store for the astonished public to discover. Over 6.3 million people visited, causing a public hygiene concern. They solved for this by creating “Monkey Closets”, which featured George Jennings’ newly invented flushing toilets. Celebrities were also an attraction, and the event featured appearances by Charles Darwin, Emily Bronte, Lewis Carroll, and even Queen Victoria herself. Meanwhile, countries took the opportunity to flaunt their skills and natural resources, with embroidered coats from India, porcelain objects from China, watchmaking prowess from Switzerland, and more. Meanwhile, Chile displayed its gold (with a single lump that weighed over 50 kg), and the United States showed off its agricultural accomplishments.
The first World Expo was so successful that the Crown took the earnings for it (equivalent to 18 million pounds today) and purchased 96 acres of land where it would later build the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal College of Art and Music, and more – thereby being dubbed “Albertopolis” after Prince Albert who helped bring the event to life.
1862 – London, England
Held again in London, the theme of this World Expo was “Industry and Art”, but it was steam power that really led the way. Many exhibitions boasted steam power and the way it aided the fast completion of building projects and the building of heavy machinery. Since machinery factored so heavily into the exhibition, one could only imagine what the actual event space sounded like. “At first, the humming and clattering noise of thousands of wheels and spindles in motion is almost bewildering — a perfect Babel of industrial sounds, in which the human voice seems out of place, and indeed can scarcely make itself heard,” the Northampton Mercury relayed. Buzzing with activity and overflowing with interested patrons, the 1862 World Expo had dozens of specialized machines on display, but one of them stood out from the rest.
The first computer made its appearance in 1861, but it’s a far cry from the ones we know today. This mechanical computer was designed by English inventor Charles Babbage, and was commissioned by the British government. Its chief function was to compute and analyze data, and could run up to 1,000 50-digit numbers. It should be noted that this original prototype had a larger storage capacity than any other computer built before 1960. Keeping with the overarching theme of the 1862 World Expo, this impressive machine was powered by steam.
1876 – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The 1876 World Expo was held in Philadelphia, in order to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the signing of America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776; it was the first World Expo to be held in America. This historical event attracted a staggering 10 million visitors, which was nearly ⅕ of the total world population at the time. It was also where one of the most impressive modern inventions in history would be unveiled, one that would change the course of human communication forever.
Alexander Graham Bell unveiled the telephone to a disbelieving audience at the 1876 Philadelphia World Expo. Famously, Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, who was present at the inaugural demonstration, exclaimed, “My God, it talks!” The inventor of the telephone scarcely made it to the finish line. He applied for a patent on February 14, 1876, the same day that Elisha Gray would submit his patent for a similar acoustic telegraphy device that used a water transmitter. Bell’s patent was granted primacy, and was certified only months before the exposition opened its doors in June 1876
There is a lot of debate over what cuisines and culinary inventions are truly American in origin, but the 1876 Expo answers the question with the introduction of popcorn, Heinz Ketchup, Hires Root Beer, and bananas. Bananas, however, are not native to America and, in fact, originated in Malaysia. They were imported and distributed because of the industrious efforts of the American-based United Fruit Company and were considered a delicacy. If you visited the 1876 World Expo in Philadelphia, you would have been presented with a banana wrapped in paper and would have eaten it with a knife and fork.
After women were refused space to independently exhibit inside the Main Exhibition Building, they launched their own Women’s Pavilion. The initiative was led by the great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin, Elizabeth Duane Gillespie, and displayed more than 80 patented inventions that were all created by women. Some of these women-led innovations included a self-heating iron, interlocking bricks, and a dishwasher. Among these impressive attractions was a woman who operated a steam engine that solely powered other exhibits at the Pavilion. One such exhibit that the steam engine powered was a printing press that printed off copies of The New Century for Women, which included information about dress reform intended to free women from the tyranny of the corset.
1878 – Paris, France
With the dawning of the World Expo in Paris came an opportunity for countries to flaunt their fine arts and artifacts. Among some of the more impressive displays was the completed head of the Statue of Liberty, and the Avenue des Nation, a street that contained examples of architecture from almost every country in Europe, as well as examples from Asia, Africa, and America. Another impressive feat was the electric arc lighting that was installed along the Avenue de l’Opera and the Place de l’Opera, operated by a single switch. Speaking of electricity, it was also at this Expo that Thomas Edison launched some of his most notable inventions.
The world had never seen anything like Thomas Edison’s phonograph, which recorded and played back sound, so much so that many of the astonished visitors were convinced it was fake and thought the act was one of advanced ventriloquism. Indeed, it was real, and would be the invention that launched Edison to worldwide fame.
Félix du Temple de la Croix was a French naval officer and inventor. Though history remembers the Wright Brothers, it was he that was among the first to develop flying machines and manned a successful flight aboard his Monoplane. The manned flight is a bit of a stretch, however, as the Monoplane was only able to achieve lift-0ff after running down an inclined ramp, gliding in the air, and gaining height for a short period of time. Nonetheless, it was one of the first successful attempts humankind had ever made at flight. The Monoplane was on display at the 1878 World Expo in Paris.
1889 – Paris, France
The biggest – no pun intended – draw of the 1889 World Expo in Paris was the Eiffel Tower, which was built specifically for the exposition. It was a gamble to create this monumental structure, one made riskier by the fact that Paris was reluctant to host again in 1889, given that the 1878 Paris World’s Fair lost more than thirty million francs. However, it paid off, as people came by the millions not only to see the amazing arts and sciences on display, but also to visit the Tower.
The Eiffel Tower was visited by more than 12,000 people a day when it was unveiled at the World Expo in Paris. At the time, it was the tallest tower in the world, but that didn’t stop people from climbing all the way to the top when the lifts were non-operational in the first week. They estimated that almost 30,000 visitors climbed to the top using a staircase – that’s 1,710 steps apiece. The Eiffel Tower would prove to be a hub of activity throughout Expo, thanks in large part to the Telephone Pavilion at its base, a telecommunications center, which offered such experiences as the ‘Auditions’ display that connected a bank of telephones to the Opéra. A listener could pick up on telephone at the ‘Auditions’ display and hear live music played by the orchestra at the Opéra miles away. The Eiffel Tower is also where the famous frontier showman Buffalo Bill hitched his horse when he toured the tower.
1893 – Chicago, Illinois
After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Chicago spent two decades dedicated to rebuilding, with streamlined (fire-proof) architecture at its core that was so influential as to give birth to the Chicago School of Architecture. When Chicago was awarded the site of the 1893 World Expo, architecture became its calling card. The Expo was held at a site dubbed “The White City”, which was so beautiful in its romantic white facades and Beaux-Arts classicism, that it spawned a resurgence in interest in Classical architecture. Yet, all of this grandeur was practically overshadowed by George Washington Gale Ferris’s gigantic wheel ride, which was created to compete with Paris’s Eiffel Tower from the previous Expo.
As the first Ferris wheel ever built, this was the main attraction at the six-month long event. Visitors paid 50 cents to ride (which was expensive for the time, equivalent to almost $15), prompting one visitor to observe, “We Americans want either to be thrilled or amused, and are ready to pay well for either sensation.”
1901 – Buffalo, New York
Dubbed the “Pan-American Exposition”, this historic event was not without tragedy. Although millions were astonished by the Grand Canal, the Electric Tower, and the mirror lakes, it was at this expo that U.S. President McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgos, casting a dark shadow over the global affair. Somewhat ironically, it was at this Expo that the X-Ray machine was unveiled for the first time. However, doctors were reluctant to try it on President McKinley to search for the bullets. In the early stages of developing the X-Ray, they were not sure of its side effects. President McKinley died one week later.
At this point at Expo, if Thomas Edison’s name was attached to something, it was bound to be the biggest attraction of the entire event. In 1901, it was his X-Ray machine that wowed audiences, allowing medical practitioners to look inside of the human body without cutting it open for the first time ever. It would go on to become one of the most important and life-changing inventions in medical history.
1939 – New York City, New York
Named “The World of Tomorrow”, the 1939 World Expo in New York City was perhaps the most idealistic event of its kind to date. It was there that we were introduced to the “Democracity” diorama, which depicted a utopian city, a raised cork and rubber highway called “The Road of Tomorrow”, the very first world science fiction convention, a futuristic car-based city by General Motors, and other innovations. One of its most popular attractions was an 80-foot sculpture called Pacifica that overlooked the exposition’s vast garden acre.
The device with perhaps the largest impact on modern society was the television (invented by Philo Taylor Farnsworth in 1927), but without anything to watch on television, it would have been a failure. Broadcasts first arrived in 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt delivered the opening address at the New York Expo, and NBC broadcast the speech to homes all across the country for the first time. It amazed crowds, and was cleverly mass-produced for sale at Expo, costing $40 (equivalent to $768 by present-day estimations). The color television would later be introduced at World Expo in 1964.
1970 – Osaka, Japan
Up until 1970, World Expos had been dominated by Western countries. However, with the host city of Osaka, the Asian world was able to capture the human imagination with its incredible innovations. Post-war Japan had undertaken the task of rebuilding, and experienced a boom in the 1960s which led to rapid development. The subtext here is: Japan had a lot to prove. And it more than accomplished what it set out to do, by being the best-attended Expo in history, with more than 64 million visitors. Iconic architecture filled the Symbol Zone, which featured sites like Festival Plaza, the Tower of the Sun, the Theme Pavilion, and the Expo Tower. Technology was also a big theme. Officials communicated by pagers, and online “information systems” were utilized across Expo to coordinate visitor experiences. Even the IBM Pavilion had a feature where guests could select a a comic book character and then receive a computer-generated story based on their selection.
The telephone first made its debut at Expo in 1876, and almost a hundred years later a new version would arrive that would change society again. However, it almost went unnoticed by the crowds attending Osaka’s Expo. The mobile phone was unveiled, but to little fanfare. Guests were far more enamored by a piece of moon rock that was brought back from the Apollo mission in 1969.
1982 – Knoxville, Tennessee
Knoxville, TN might seem like an unusual location for something as large as a World Expo. Even at present day, under 200,000 residents live within its city limits. However, it was once an important manufacturing and industrial hub, and it fought hard to be granted the honor of hosting the World Expo in 1982. With the theme of “Energy Turns the World,” Knoxville’s event had lots of participating countries from all over the world – including Saudi Arabia – and saw roughy 11 million visitors in the six months it was open. However, there was one huge innovation that was displayed that you might be holding in your hands at this very moment.
Although around 50 million people a day speak to each other through a video conferencing channel like FaceTime or Skype, when video phones first debuted in 1939 at New York’s “World of Tomorrow” Expo, the invention was a complete flop. However, fast forward 43 years later and a new innovation would soon come to change telecommunications as we know it. The touchscreen phone first debuted at Expo in 1982, and was made by Tennessee inventor Dr. Sam Hurst. His version was made of curved glass and is the direct predecessor to the touchscreens we use today. The conductive material of glass proved to be excellent for interaction, and was also surprisingly affordable to produce.
2000 – Hanover, Germany
After interest in World Expos waned in the 1990s, the event returned at the turn of the millennium in Hanover, Germany. As one of the most controversial and poorly attended World Expo events, the Hanover location was fraught with problems. No one wanted to pay the exorbitant ticket price to attend. It was also the first Expo that didn’t create new architecture and sites, but instead relied on pre-existing buildings, which removed some of the luster and excitement of discovery from the proceedings. Still, it is here that a major milestone was reached in the automobile industry.
Since inception, the automobile industry had been held back by dependence on foreign oil, which presented its own set of geopolitical and environmental issues. It was BMW that first thought to free the industry from the tyranny of oil dependence, with the introduction of the first hydrogen-powered clean-energy car at Hanover’s Expo. As you might realize, this innovation caused seismic changes in the automobile industry, urging more manufacturers to create their own clean-energy vehicles once they saw the market demand for the alternative. Although it marked the first foray into clean energy cars, it was certainly not the last.
2015 – Milan, Italy
While hundreds of thousands of life-changing inventions passed through the hallowed halls of World Expos over the years, there were few topics that dealt with one of humanity’s greatest ongoing crises: hunger. Food scarcity, overpopulation, loss of resources, and the agricultural dominance of multinational corporations all contributed to global hunger, and Milan’s Expo focused on the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” in order to solve the problem. Gorgeous greenhouses were constructed so that visitors could get a better sense of the earth’s principal biomes, and one exhibit called “The Hive” even gave guests a perspective on what it was like to be a bee. There was even a giant garbage sculpture that explicitly showed the perils of food waste. Another exhibition area demonstrated the food cycle of each notion from production to consumption, while others dealt with the idea of the circular economy, sustainable agriculture, and more.
The Supermarket of the Future
Countries that applied to be part of Milan’s Expo were asked to present solutions to hunger and food insecurity through their exhibitions. Guests of “The Supermarket of the Future,” which was tucked behind Spain and Mexico’s pavilions, were invited to discover how technology could be applied at each step of the food chain. Developed by Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab at M.I.T., this futuristic grocery market provided an interactive experience, where you could pick up a product and see a display that highlighted its carbon footprint, where it was sourced, and its health information. It also showed visitors a best-case scenario of how food will be produced, distributed, and consumed in the future in a way that is more autonomous, people-centered (rather than corporation-centered), and sustainable.