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May 20, 2005

The Fair That Changed America

If Westinghouse hadn’t beaten General Electric in the competition for the contract to provide electricity to the Chicago World’s Fair, we might all be using direct rather than alternating current in our homes and businesses. Properly called The World’s Columbian Exposition, the Fair held in 1892 and 1893 was a nexus of accelerating technical change.  Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is a great book about that fair and the people that made it happen.

But first we have to dispense with the “devil” part.  This non fiction book is also the story of an evil predator who murdered between ten and two hundred people in Chicago during the time the Fair was being built and visited.  Herman W Mudgett aka H. H. Holmes prayed on the stream of young women attracted to Chicago by the Fair, married some of them, killed even more of them in special killing chambers he’d built into his building and sold their skeletons to the skeleton-hungry medical profession.  His story is told well but I’m not sure why it’s in this book.  The story of the Fair, itself, doesn’t need this condiment.  The story of the murders keep popping up in the book like a Michael Jackson episode in the middle of the news of the world.

The parts of the book I like best are the stories of stubborn people who built the fair in less than two years against political, economic and natural odds.  Daniel H. Burnham was the Director of Works.  He was a prominent and well-connected Chicago architect who not only managed the huge egos of the New York architects he brought to “the second city” to help, the bruised egos of the Chicago architects who didn’t want help, and the poor health and imperious demands of Frederick Law Olmsted but was also the grand supervisor of the actual construction.  The gathering strength of labor unions was partially mitigated by growing unemployment which made men desperate for work.  Burnham had jobs to give when almost no one else did.

The previous World’s Fair was the Exposition Universelle in Paris.  It was for this fair that the Eiffel Tower was built.  Until late in the planning process,  Burnham got no plan from American engineers that could outEiffel Eiffel.  There was even some talk of hiring Eiffel himself to build a bigger tower.  After many fruitless tries, George Washington Gale Ferris sold Burnham on his wheel. 

I always assumed that first there were little Ferris Wheels, then medium size ones, and then the great one at the World’s Fair.  Not so.  This was Version 1.0.  “…this wheel would carry thirty-six cars, each about the size of a Pullman, each holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter, and… when filled to capacity the wheel would propel 2,160 people at a time three hundred feet into the sky over Jackson park, a bit higher than the crown of the…(brand new) Statue of Liberty.”  All the math that indicated it would work was done, of course, by hand.  Mrs. Ferris was an Alpha tester; she went on the first revolution.  George apparently couldn’t be there.

Walt Disney’s father Elias helped build this Fair.  Memes or genes led to DisneyLand.

Thomas Edison lost the battle for direct current but he was everywhere in the Electricty Building.  His kinetoscope showed the first motion pictures and his sound recording devices were there as well.  Visitors also saw the first electric chair.

The classic columns of the Fair’s buildings still show up in banks, public buildings, and over-wrought homes around the country. 

Louis Sullivan worked on the Fair but was no admirer of it.  He said: “Thus architecture died in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  The next generation of architects followed Sullivan in reviling Burnham.  This generation included Frank Lloyd Wright who had been fired by Sullivan for taking private commissions but later became his friend and ally.  But, according to this book, Wright may have been partially inspired by the Japanese Temple built on an island in the Fair’s largest lake.

Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit Gum, Shredded Wheat and Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Mix all come from the Fair.

This is the story of people who built a fair which reflected and accelerated the pace of change.  No wonder I like it.

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