The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was a celebration of firsts. One of the first ever nighttime football games was played there, the first Ferris Wheel was erected there, it was the first ever fair with an amusement park, but more than anything else it is known as the birthplace of widespread electricity, hence giving it the name: The White City.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the White City. But while Rome was built up over centuries, the 600-acre city that was the Colombian Exposition of 1893 went up in record time: just 2 years. There were 65,000 different exhibits spread out over 63 million square feet. And even though it opened one year late for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s historic journey across the Atlantic, the results were well worth the wait.
As far as buildings went, none were as impressive as the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building. It was the main exhibit space at the fair and at the time the largest building in the world. The building itself measured 1687 by 787 feet. That’s over 5 football fields long, and more than two wide.
What was so amazing about the structure however was not just its size, but what was inside. There was a 135-foot clock tower. Tiffany Company’s diamond exhibit boasted of more than 10,000 pieces.
Frank Baum himself, author of the Wizard of Oz, says his Emerald City was inspired by the White City. The Colombian Exposition was the fair to end all fairs. There was never anything like it before, nor has there been since. More than 27 million people (1 in 4 Americans) visited the fair. A total of 46 countries participated, and at a cost of $22 million it was the most expensive exposition ever. It is estimated that the labor costs alone today would be in the billions.
The goal from the outset for Americans was to top the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 where the Eiffel Tower had been unveiled. Standing 264 feet tall, the Ferris Wheel by George Ferris was not as tall as the Eiffel Tower, but it was just as impressive. In fact, it was George C. Tilyou himself who said he was so impressed by it, it inspired him to create America’s very first major amusement park, Steeplechase Park in Coney Island.
The first ever fax machine made its public debut at the fair. That’s right, known as the telautograph, the machine invented by Elisha Gray could convert handwriting into electrical impulses and send the reproduced images long distances.
Also making its debut at the fair was the first ever moving sidewalk. There were replicas of viking ships and even the Nina, the Pina, and the Santa Maria.
It was at the attraction known as the “Street in Cairo” where most Americans were first exposed to the art of bell dancing. It was so popular in fact that it became Americanized, known as the Hootchy-Kootchy.
In fact, now a modern-day staple in the American lexicon, “The Midway,” was born at the fair as well. The Midway Plaissance, the entertaining and sometimes lurid carnival-like atmosphere that extended one mile over lake Michigan, although quite the opposite of the much vaunted White City, was the most popular attraction at the fair. While just a small part of the fair, it brought in what today would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Electricity makes its grand debut
Again, while electricity was not brand new by 1893, it was at the fair where most Americans came to experience it for the first time. General Electric made the first bid to power the fair, but it was Westinghouse who came in at the last minute with its innovative Alternating Current, A/C, and won the contract.
Westinghouse not only supplied the power for the whole fair itself, it was an exhibitor there as well. Exhibits by the utility giant included a switchboard, polyphase generators, step-up transformers, transmission line, step-down transformers, commercial size induction motors and synchronous motors, and rotary direct current converters.
Westinghouse also played host to the inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla, a rival to Thomas Edison who once worked for the famous American inventor, was not just an inventor but an electrical and mechanical engineer. It was Tesla’s A/C induction motor that paved the way for alternating current against direct current in what was known as the war of the currents.
In all, the White City itself was powered by more than 100,000 incandescent lamps and 12, one-thousand horsepower AC polyphase generators. It was a preview of things to come, and the final victory for alternating current against its direct current rival. In fact, it was the success of the White City itself which landed Westinghouse the new Niagara Falls power station contract just two years later.
Unfortunately, since the expo was back in 1893, we have no great video of the fair itself. But if you are a member of Amazon Prime you can watch Expo – Magic of the White City, an amazing documentary that goes into detail all the great engineering feats of the Colombian Exposition of 1893.
We did however find this wonderful recreation made by UCLA Berkley of what the 1893 Worlds fair grounds looked like.
…original content by PPE