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No. 1238:

Today, America celebrates her coming of age. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition was America's fourth major world's fair (depending on just how one counts.) We were young and strong -- at peace and feeling our oats. It was time to honor four centuries since Columbus's voyage.

England had begun the cycle of world's fairs with her Crystal Palace in 1851. In 1876 we celebrated our first hundred years as a nation with the Philadelphia Fair. That one drew the largest gate up to that time -- eight million people. But the 1889 Paris exhibition, with the Eiffel Tower as its centerpiece, attracted 32 million. World fairs had turned into a very big deal.

Now it was our turn to create the "fair to end all fairs." Congress backed the idea and American cities vied for the honor. In 1890, Congress anointed Chicago as the city with the best rail access, the most space, and the will to do the job.

The organizers went to landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York's Central Park. He picked a swampy 600-acre tract along Lake Michigan and set about to create a system of canals and lagoons -- a midwestern Venice.

The budget was around half a billion in today's dollars. Add the exhibit money spent by 65,000 private, national, and international groups, and the 1893 fair was a vast enterprise. Architects, sculptors, and steelworkers converged on it. The original Ferris wheel, whose size has yet to be matched, rose alongside it.

Yet the old photos don't show the coming 20th century. The architecture still looks like imperial Europe. The electrical hall is filled with telegraphs and telephones, electric railways, elevators, and lighting. But there's no hint of radio -- no realization that small portable electric motors will soon change the American home and workplace. The transportation building displays bicycles, railways and steamships, but no automobiles. The most popular exhibit is a display of farm windmills. The fair summarizes our condition in 1893. It doesn't predict the future.

The one real glimpse of the 20th century is almost accidental. The women's building was designed by 21-year-old MIT graduate Sophia Hayden. It's filled with women's accomplishments in science, health care, literature, invention, and art. This exhibit started out to showcase the women's clubs of America. But it emerges instead as the very heart of the now-unstoppable suffrage movement.

The fair drew 21 million people to the then-distant city of Chicago. By displaying the diverse forces that'd made us, it drew us together and helped shape a national identity. It reminded us of what we wanted to be. No wonder poet Katherine Lee Bates visited the fair and then went home to write America the Beautiful. The startling thing about that was her phrase, "Thine alabaster cities gleam." For that line described the pavilions of the fair -- far more accurately than any existing American city!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Bolotin, N., and Laing, C., The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: The World's Columbian Exposition. Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1992.


I am grateful to Tom McConn for providing the source for this episode and for his ideas on how to tell the story.