It was 1900 when Henry Adams, historian and scion of a family which produced two American presidents, walked the Gallery of Machines at Paris' Great Exposition and stopped to brood before a working exhibit of a dynamo. In his landmark "Education", Adams wrote of his meeting with technology and of its potential. Here, within the dynamo, he said, was the power of "infinite costless energy." In an age when gas powered lights frequently caused injury and death, Adams was witness to the promise of a safer, cleaner future.

Sixty-five years later I (a scion of a more modest immigrant family) strode wide-eyed through the exhibits of the 1964-1965 World's Fair in New York. There, the promises of the future were laid out before me and other baby boomers in Plexiglass and stainless steel. Pavilion after pavilion promised a future of computer-guided cars speeding down electric highways, moving sidewalks, picture telephones, and people living and working on the moon.

Less than twenty years later, the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair laid bare a harsh reality. Those moving sidewalks and electric highways this eight-year-old was promised needed energy. Two oil embargoes and the resulting gasoline shortages in the seventies had left the country shaken. A commodity we thought would always be in abundance had suddenly dried up, forcing America to ration gasoline, something we had only done during wartime. The stainless-steel image of the future had somehow tarnished. Those who bothered to visit the Knoxville Fair saw exhibits geared towards energy conservation, the quest for non-polluting sources of power, and ways to reverse the damage of our vicarious past. Sounds pretty grim. Not even the shiny SunSphere*, with its 360 panes of 24-karat gold covered glass (at a cost of $1,000 each) could lighten the mood. Though the intent was noble, the exposition was a financial failure.

Edouoard Lockroy, the French Minister of Commerce and chief proponent of the Paris exposition which gave us the Eiffel Tower, said "A universal exposition is a totalization, a summing up: the human spirit stops laboring for a minute and contemplates the road traversed, like a traveler who turns back to look at the slope he has already climbed. It is a moment of rest, in which our thoughts come together, our strength renewed."

The planners for Knoxville contemplated, looked back at the slope already climbed and produced not a celebration, but an admonition. No wonder people stayed home. Two years later New Orleans' World's Fair (with its theme of Transportation) suffered the same fate. Having just emerged from the malaise brought on by an energy crisis, moving sidewalks were definitely out of the question and it is not surprising the public was not moved to visit. The 1984 exposition left New Orleans millions of dollars in the red. Two years later Vancouver’s 1986 Expo, also with a transportation theme, lost $311 million. Although the year-long bacchanal is credited with revitalizing a moribund part of Vancouver, exposition enthusiasm was waning across the globe.

In 1992, for example, the Italian government signaled its intention to bid for a World’s Fair to be placed in Venice. Residents there, fearing an ecological disaster befalling the already endangered city if thousands of fair-bound tourists converged there in a short time span, said Non ci penso proprio! Vienna, Manila and the Australian Gold Coast are among those who also said “Not a chance” to hosting a World’s Fair. Some cited similar environmental concerns, others the potential for financial failure.

Underlying the reticence of all those cities may be the fact that we are all just a bit jaded when it comes to technology. Exhibits at World's Fairs used to dazzle fairgoers with promises of the future. The sight of an automatic dishwasher, microwave or clothes dryer used to evoke wistful looks from burdened homemakers. Today, most already own such devices. Cell phones, computers, and high definition televisions are ubiquitous. What is there to inspire a modern-day Henry Adams to imagine the potential of science and technology, when you can watch movies on your telephone?

Anonymous
  • Very interesting article. I always wanted to attend an expo. I am surprised there is no mention of the 1893 Chicago World's Expo that was powered & lit-up by the genius Nikola Tesla & George Westinghouse. 

  • Thoughtful piece David.  I think the world's appetite for expensive 'pink elephant' projects will only be satisfied in regimes where the people have little say about the costs to the taxpayer.  Sadly, I think the World's Fair and the Olympics are now in this category.