Amazing Things That Wouldn’t Exist Without World’s Fairs
The Eiffel Tower, Juicy Fruit, and Disney’s "it’s a small world" attraction. What do all of these things have in common? They all exist—and gained popularity—thanks to World’s Fairs. Attendees would trek across continents to be among the first to glimpse the "world of tomorrow." Without social media around, host cities and exhibitors had to pull out all the stops to create buzz.
From cultural touchstones and landmarks to inventions that were lightyears ahead of their time, these amazing things were all introduced at World's Fairs.
Eiffel Tower | Paris, 1889
The Exposition Universelle of 1889 commemorated the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, which launched the French Revolution 100 years earlier. One of those celebratory elements was an architectural centerpiece unlike anything the world had seen. After reviewing 107 proposals, organizers selected the now-iconic Eiffel Tower.
Picturephone by Bell & AT&T | New York, 1964
Thanks to Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts, video conferencing is no longer something out of The Jetsons. But, just like everyone’s favorite Space-Age family, video calling also debuted in the 1960s. At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, visitors could grab some facetime on Bell’s Mod I Picturephone.
Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum | Chicago, 1893
The World’s Columbian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair, was meant to celebrate how far America had come. As a result, upwards of 26 million visitors flocked to Illinois to get a taste of American ingenuity. One of the most enduring inventions? Chewing gum.
Treasure Island | San Francisco, 1939
San Francisco’s 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition celebrated the recent completion of both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. And for organizers there was no better way to celebrate these engineering feats than by constructing an artificial island. Thus, the 400-acre Treasure Island was born.
Ford Mustang | New York, 1964
Henry Ford II unveiled the Mustang at the New York World’s Fair on April 17, 1964. Looking like Disneyland’s Autopia attraction, the accompanying Ford Mustang Magic Ride allowed fair-goers to get behind the wheel of the "working man’s Thunderbird."
Moving Sidewalk | Chicago, 1893
If you’ve ever experienced the relief of pulling yourself and your bags onto a moving walkway while traversing an airport, you can thank the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. French engineer Eugene Henard proposed his electric moving sidewalk for the 1889 Paris Fair. But the idea didn’t get off the ground for a few years.
IMAX Movies | Osaka, 1970
Held in Osaka, Expo ‘70 marked the first time a world’s fair was held in Japan. The fair’s theme was "Progress and Harmony for Mankind." While beautiful structures, such as the Tower of the Sun, embodied the idea of harmony, several exciting technological demonstrations, from early mobile phones to the first-ever IMAX film, capitalized on the progress aspect of the motto.
Statue of Liberty’s Arm and Head | Philadelphia, 1876 & Paris, 1878
Though the Statue of Liberty was never fully assembled for a World’s Fair display, a few key parts of Lady Liberty cropped up in Philadelphia and Paris for fair-goers to view. French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was reportedly inspired by the outcome of the US Civil War.
Elektro the Robot | New York, 1939
Looking like a combination of the Tin Man from Return to Oz (1985) and a hapless Scooby-Doo villain, Elektro was the talk of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Westinghouse’s robot measured in at 7 feet tall and weighed 265 pounds. And, thanks to a record player, it could say around 700 words.
Cracker Jack | Chicago, 1893
Considered the first "junk food" by some food historians, Cracker Jack originated in Chicago. There are two "versions" of the snack’s origin story. One attributes early recipes to a Chicagoan named Charles Frederick Gunther, nicknamed "The Candy Man." Another suggests Frederick William Rueckheim, or "Fritz," sold the delicious popcorn on the streets.
The Crystal Palace | London, 1851
The Great Exhibition of 1851 took place in London’s Hyde Park and became the first in a series of World’s Fairs that would promote culture, industry and progress on an international scale. Organized by Henry Cole and Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, the exhibition attracted folks like Charles Darwin, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. And it was all housed within The Crystal Palace.
Jetpack | New York, 1964
From Boba Fett to James Bond, characters in film, comic books, and sci-fi novels have popularized jetpacks or rocket belts. In fact, the one used by Bond in Thunderball (1965) was developed by Bell Aerosystems. A year before, Bell introduced the "Rocket Belt" to the masses at the New York World’s Fair.
Spray Paint | Chicago, 1893
Francis Davis Millet, the Director of Decoration at the World’s Columbian Exposition, decided to paint the buildings white. However, around 90 percent of the buildings were unpainted just a few days before the opening of the fair. Millet’s solution? Apply the paint using a hose and nozzle.
Telephone | Philadelphia, 1876
The first official world’s fair held in the United States also marked the 100-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The host city, Philadelphia, welcomed around 10 million visitors and gave fair-goers a glimpse of several exciting products: root beer, the Corliss steam engine, Heinz ketchup, and the telephone.
Space Needle | Seattle, 1962
In 1962, Seattle held a world’s fair and, like any good host city, it needed a centerpiece. The Space Needle, now the most iconic feature of the city’s skyline, was built in the Seattle Center and drew over 2.3 million visitors. During the fair, an estimated 20,000 people used the tower’s elevators each day.
Disney’s Humanoid Audio Animatronics Figures | New York, 1964
Nearly a decade after Disneyland’s opening, Walt Disney was looking to expand his operations to the East Coast and test out some new technology. Perhaps the most impressive development was that of the Audio-Animatronics (AA) figure used in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction.
Ferris Wheel | Chicago, 1893
Built for the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Ferris Wheel was the tallest structure at the fair. Visitors who tried it out were thrilled: not only was it a great way to see the fair from above, but it was also an amusement ride. But the centerpiece had a rocky start.
Pabst Blue Ribbon | Chicago, 1893
What we now know as the hipster and/or dive beer of choice debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Introduced at the fair as Pabst’s Best Select, it allegedly won a top prize, "America’s Best," though many debate if such an award was actually handed out. Nonetheless, the brewer Captain Frederick Pabst capitalized on his success at the fair.
Dishwasher | Chicago, 1893
Yet another lasting product debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition: the dishwasher. Though other machines, known as "dish soakers" had been created, they weren’t very effective. Josephine Cochrane, a socialite who hated to see how hand-washing chipped her dishes, invented the first commercially successful dishwasher in 1886.
Broadcast Television | New York, 1939
Though President Franklin D. Roosevelt is known for his fireside chats over the airwaves, he also participated in a significant moment in television history. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, FDR kicked off the opening ceremonies. With a little help from RCA, the president was featured in the first US television broadcast.
Palace of Fine Arts | San Francisco, 1915
In 1906, a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco. The fires that followed swept the streets, adding to the destruction. But the city was determined to rise from the ashes. That’s why the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition presented a unique opportunity. San Francisco could rebuild—and show off on a world stage, leaving the tragedy behind.
X-ray Machine | St. Louis, 1904
Informally known as the St. Louis World’s Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. With 1,200 acres, 1,500 buildings, and 75 miles of streets and paths connecting the exhibition spaces, it was the largest World’s Fair yet. And the 19 million visitors experienced several wonders, including electric street cars, an early fax machine, a personal automobile, and the X-ray machine.
Souvenir Pressed Pennies | Chicago, 1893
While many of the products and inventions showcased at the World’s Columbian Exposition made lasting impacts on culture, cuisine, and technology, others proved enduring for different reasons. Example A: the pressed, or elongated, penny.
The Atomium | Brussels, 1958
Expo ‘58 marked the first time since 1935 that Brussels hosted a world’s fair. Many of the buildings and sites from the 1935 show were reused, but, like all fairs, this one needed a centerpiece. Cue the Atomium.
Cherry Coke | Knoxville, 1982
For decades, diners and soda fountains mixed their own, unofficial cherry-flavored Cokes. And, though it took quite some time, Coca-Cola finally got onboard and introduced an official version. Flavored with cherry syrup, the cola was initially marketed at Knoxville, Tennessee’s International Energy Exposition as Cherry Coke. Later, it became Coca-Cola Cherry.
Electric Streetlights | Chicago, 1893
In 1882, Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) electricity powered a street in New York. It seemed like Edison was on top of the newly-forming industry. Until Nikola Tesla invented an alternating current (AC) transformer the following year. Eager to become the standard in providing power, both General Electric (Edison and backer JP Morgan) and Westinghouse (Tesla) bid for the opportunity to light the streets of the Chicago World’s Fair.
The Zipper | Chicago, 1893
Though many inventors created variations of what became known as the zipper, Whitcomb Judson caught the public’s eye by displaying it at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Initially patented as the "chain-lock fastener" or "clasp lock," the zipper marked just one of Judson’s 30 patents.
The Magic Fountain of Montjuïc | Barcelona, 1929
In 1929, Barcelona hosted a World’s Fair—and the city wanted a splashy centerpiece. Instead of building another observation tower, the organizers behind this fair went for the "wow" factor, resulting in the The Magic Fountain of Montjuïc. Around 3,000 workers were needed to construct the architectural wonder.
Touch Screens | Knoxville, 1982
Though touchscreens are ubiquitous these days, their creation didn’t become a serious undertaking—outside of futuristic sci-fi depictions—until the 1970s. Infrared touchpanels picked up some steam in the science community when they became part of the design of the University of Illinois’s educational computers.
Underwater Hotel by General Motors | New York, 1964
General Motors folks were wary of climate change even in the 1960s. For the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the company created an entire area of the fair dedicated to the future. They dubbed this site "Progressland." An attraction—not unlike Disney’s Carousel of Progress—showcased the company’s predictions for the future.