Amazing Things That Wouldn’t Exist Without World’s Fairs

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jul 24, 2020 8:08:07 PM ET
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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.

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Photo Courtesy: ND/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Known as the tallest structure in the world until 1930, the Eiffel Tower has become synonymous with Paris—and romance. But not everyone loved it at first.

Over 300 Parisian artists ran a manifesto against the tower. They wrote, "[We] protest with all our might… in the name of French taste… in the name of French art and history under threat, against the construction… of the useless and monstrous 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.

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Photo Courtesy: HumanoidHistory/Twitter

After waiting in line, fair-goers could call folks across the country. Sound magical? Well, to take that a step further, those cross-country callers were waiting in Picturephone lines at none other than Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

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A few months later, AT&T rolled out their Picturephone service. For a whopping $16, you could video call friends for three minutes from designated booths. The costly service didn’t pan out, but Stanley Kubrick did feature the Picturephone in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

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.

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William Wrigley Jr. began his entrepreneurial career as a soap seller before hawking baking soda. With each package of baking soda, he included some promotional chewing gum. But, by 1891, it was the gum that hit big.

Thought to be flavored with jackfruit, Juicy Fruit joined the ranks of more traditional flavors, like spearmint. And since that 1893 debut, it’s really stuck around.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

This "Magic Isle" welcomed more than 20 million fair-goers into its "walled city." To construct the island, President Roosevelt approved the use of 3 million of WPA funds. (That’s roughly $55 million by today’s standards!)

And all of that construction didn’t go to waste. Starting in the 1940s, the US Navy set up camp on Treasure Island until 1997. Today, more than 2,000 people live on Treasure Island in converted military housing. What else calls the island home? According to signs, radioactive waste contamination the navy failed to clean up.

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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."

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That same day, the Mustang cropped up in showrooms across the country. Within the first year of production, Ford sold over 400,000 Mustangs for around $2,300 a pop. That same year, the car had its silver screen debut in the James Bond flick Goldfinger (1964).

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The company has a history with World’s Fairs. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Henry Ford set up a Model T assembly line. For three hours a day, workers at the Palace of Transportation would churn out a new car every 10 minutes.

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.

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For a nickel, fair-goers could stand on the moving sidewalk, or enjoy one of its benches. The proposed 4,500 feet of movable sidewalk was meant to ferry steamboat passengers down the long pier. Even though it broke down often, the sidewalk carried 997,785 people—often 6,000 people at once—at six miles per hour.

In 1900, a new version of the moving sidewalk that was over two miles long debuted at the Paris World’s Fair. Despite the inventor’s best intentions, the "wooden serpent" did not end up replacing crowded city sidewalks.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Kevin_Hainline/Twitter

The premiere of the first-ever IMAX film occurred in the Fuji Group pavillion (pictured above). The film in question was the Canadian-produced Tiger Child (1970), which had a 17-minute runtime. According to the movie’s IMDB synopsis, it was "filmed on locations around the world as a travelogue of the human spirit."

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Expo ‘70 remains one of the best-attended expositions in history with just under 65 million attendees.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Arm: FPG/Getty Images; Head: FPG/Getty Images

This inspiration led him to create the famous symbol of freedom and independence. With the help of designer Gustave Eiffel, Bartholdi started construction in Paris. But funds were tight. In the end, newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer helped the sculptor secure funds by printing the names of donors in his paper.

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Though the complete statue was brought to New York in 1886, the torch-bearing arm made an appearance over 10 years earlier at the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. In 1878, the Statue of Liberty’s head was displayed at the Paris World’s Fair.

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.

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One of its favorite phrases? Describing itself as a "smart fellow" with a "fine brain." However, smart the robot claimed to be, Elektro still required voice commands to walk. Nonetheless, it could complete a myriad of important and useful tasks, from inflating balloons to smoking cigarettes.

A few months into the fair, "Elektro the Moto-Man" was joined by its canine companion Sparko, a robotic dog that could sit and bark. These days, the automaton is living out its days at the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Mike Mozart/Flickr

Whatever the case may be, it was the Rueckheim brothers who created what is now the official Cracker Jack recipe. This version debuted at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, but had to be tweaked after the molasses proved too sticky.

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Eventually, the song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" made the popcorn and peanut-based treat synonymous with watching baseball. This stellar publicity actually led the company to change its name to The Cracker Jack Company.

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.

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Drawing from his experience with greenhouses, the architect set glass into cast iron frames. Once completed, the marvel of engineering measured in at 128 feet tall and provided 990,000 square feet of room for exhibitors. In total, 6 million fair-goers visited the palace.

After the exhibition, The Crystal Palace was moved to another neighborhood. Though it was destroyed by a fire in 1936, its legacy lives on. Many credit the palace with being the inspiration for modern glass skyscrapers.

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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.

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In the 1950s, Bell designed early versions of this rocket pack for the US Army. The rocket’s propulsion was caused by a nifty combination of superheated water vapour and nitrogen gas. Despite successful tests, the army wasn’t thrilled with the Rocket Belt’s limited fuel storage. And the 21-second flight time wasn’t too impressive either.

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At the fair, performer Robert Courter donned a protective outfit and regularly flew past the Unisphere. In 1966, an episode of Walt’s Disney’s Wonderful World of Color showed footage of a man flying over Disneyland thanks to a jetpack.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: C.D. Arnold/Wikimedia

Nixing the brush, especially on such a grand stage, led many to credit Millet for inventing "spray painting." However, some folks believe otherwise. Allegedly, Chicago-based painter Joseph Binks developed the process a bit earlier while whitewashing buildings.

Nonetheless, spray painting saved the day. The sparkling white of the buildings led the press to popularize the fair’s infamous nickname "The White City."

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection/Library of Congress/Wikipedia

If you were most excited by root beer, that’s fair. Same here. But, apart from the steam engine, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone probably had the most significant impact. (Probably.) Bell was the first to receive a US patent for the instrument in 1876.

That same year, he demonstrated the telephone for audiences at the fair. Bell spoke into the transmitter and Emperor Pedro (Dom Pedro II of Brazil) held the receiver. Upon hearing Bell’s voice, the emperor famously remarked, "My God, it talks!"

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Soon enough, the telephone became the talk of the exposition.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Archive Photos/Getty Images

The fair, known commonly as the Century 21 Exposition, was conceived as a way to celebrate the American west. But Boeing had put Seattle on the map as a hub for aerospace development. Not to mention, the country was in the thick of both the Cold War and the Space Race. Needless to say, science, space travel and the future became the focus.

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To celebrate these themes, Ford developed a simulated space flight attraction, and Ray Bradbury and The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling appeared on science fiction panels. Alweg even built a monorail for the fair, which still runs between downtown and Seattle Center.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Though AA birds and flowers had been used a year earlier in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, President Lincoln presented a more complex challenge.

In order to create something lifelike, Disney Imagineers based the sculpts of the figure’s head off of a life-mask of the president (circa 1860). An accurate latex face mold could then be placed over the figure’s mechanical frame. Using a combination of voltage cues and analog movements performed on armatures, Imagineers programed pre-recorded movements and sounds onto a master tape for the figure to enact.

Other Disney attractions at the fair, which featured AA figures, included Ford’s Magic Skyway, "it’s a small world" by Pepsi-Cola/UNICEF, and the General Electric-sponsored Carousel of Progress.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: The New York Times via Wikimedia Commons

Wanting to outdo Paris’s Eiffel Tower, engineer George Washington Ferris Jr. proposed a massive, rotating wheel. One that would hold over 2,000 passengers in carriages, giving them a bird’s-eye view of the fair.

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The Chicago Tribune wrote that the country’s engineers "shook their heads and said the wheel wouldn’t revolve." Of course, the joke’s on them. The wheel did turn. And people loved it. Today, the Ferris Wheel is synonymous with midways, fairs, and carnivals.

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.

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The beer was officially renamed Pabst Blue Ribbon as an ode to its win. Since bottles were often embossed, PBRs were decorated with blue silk ribbons. By 1900, PBR reportedly used one million feet of ribbon each year.

After Prohibition ended, Pabst tested out something completely new—the can. Once this caught on, the blue ribbon became a permanent part of the beer’s label.

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.

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Unlike other machines that relied on scrubbers, Cochrane’s dishwasher was the first to utilize water pressure. This invention won her the "best mechanical construction, durability and adaptation to its line of work." (AKA the wordiest award in history.)

Hotels and restaurants became interested in the machine, so Cochrane partnered with a manufacturer to satisfy the growing demand. That manufacturer later became known as KitchenAid.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

In order to convince skeptical fair-goers that television wasn’t some trick, RCA developed a transparent TV set. Folks could see all of the internal components. And, as if that weren’t convincing enough, visitors had the opportunity to see themselves on TV. How swell!

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Decades later, at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, RCA introduced fair-goers to color TV. Again, visitors could see themselves on television, hues and all. No glorious technicolor required.

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.

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Though "palaces" were built to house different industries, the Palace of Fine Arts is the only building that remains in its original location to this day. Originally, it housed over 11,000 works of art, from paintings to tapestries, while sculptures and murals filled the rotunda.

Today, the Palace of Fine Arts contains a theater space, an exhibition hall, and even several elaborate escape rooms.

Fun fact: the fair got its name because it was meant to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal. Fair-goers could look down at a five-acre working model of the Panama Canal Zone from the safety of an elevated track.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: William J. Morton via Wikimedia Commons

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by a German scientist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who soon took an X-ray of his wife’s hand. Thomas Edison and assistant Clarence Dally caught word of the breakthrough and developed their own X-ray machine.

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Dally brought a rudimentary version of the machine to the World’s Fair in 1901, but never demonstrated it due to President McKinley’s assassination. Nearly 10 years after the discovery of X-rays, the machine was finally shown to the public in St. Louis.

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.

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The fair marks the first recorded instance of coins being "rolled" and pressed with a design. Elongated Rolling Machines proved to be an inexpensive, fun way for visitors to craft a pocket-sized souvenir. Reportedly, over 24 designs were pressed into pennies at the fair.

Today, most tourist attractions, from the Grand Canyon to your local aquarium, offer hand-cranked pressed penny machines. The 1893 exposition also saw the debut of collectible stamps and commemorative coins.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Ron Case/Keystone/Getty Images

At 335 feet tall, the tower is composed of nine stainless steel-clad spheres. These spheres are connected in a way that’s mimetic of a unit cell of a magnified iron crystal. The topmost orb is home to a restaurant that provides panoramic views of the surrounding city.

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Meant to represent world peace and progress, the Atomium welcomed over 41 million guests.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Al Freni/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

When it finally hit shelves three years later in the summer of 1985, Cherry Coke became the third type of cola in Coke’s family. (The others? Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, of course.) The soda launched around the same time as the highly controversial "New Coke," which changed up the beloved recipe.

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Cherry Coke marked the first flavor variant, but its success led to the creation of the popular Vanilla Coke, as well as the use of lime, raspberry, and lemon syrups.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Chicago History Museum/iStock by Getty Images

Westinghouse came in at a lower price and won the bid. At the fair’s opening, President Cleveland pushed a button, turning on nearly 100,000 lamps. This win put AC on the map when upwards of 27 million people saw the "City of Light" illuminated at night.

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Initially, Westinghouse was going to use GE bulbs—but Edison held a grudge and wouldn’t sell them. This led Westinghouse to invent a double-stopper light bulb. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

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.

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Initially, Judson thought his invention would help folks save time lacing up their shoes every day. Instead, they could pull the clasp closed along a "guide" of eyes and hooks. Though shoes seemed like the most practical application for the zipper, Judson posited that bags, gloves, and corsets could benefit from this handy idea.

After debuting the invention at the fair, Judson founded the Universal Fastener Company. Though the zipper didn’t see much success during Judson’s lifetime, it eventually took off in 1918 when a company designing apparel for the US Navy put in a huge order.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: David Ramos/Getty Images

The fountain’s 3,620 jets shoot around 700 gallons of water—every. second. That’s a lot of H2O. And while the fountain is no Eiffel Tower or Ferris Wheel, the highest water spout still measures in at an impressive 170 feet high.

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Though it was damaged during the Spanish Civil War, the illuminated fountain continues to impress visitors to this day.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star via Getty Images

In 1982, the public finally got the chance to test out these touchscreens at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. A whopping 33 televisions equipped with Elographics’ transparent, touch sensitive panels debuted at the show, amazing fair-goers.

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In 1983, Hewlett-Packard launched the first commercial touchscreen computer.

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.

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Photo Courtesy: WeirdlandTales/Twitter

An underwater hotel may sound far-fetched at first, but GM posited that future flooding would render 70% of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable. Though the model GM created looks like an apartment straight out of BioShock’s underwater city of Rapture, the concept of a hotel beneath the seas isn’t just reserved for sci-fi anymore.

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For $50,000 a night, guests can venture more than 16 feet below sea-level, where a two-story villa lies submerged in the Indian Ocean. Unlike GM’s hotel, The Muraka in the Maldives is now accepting reservations.