The Five Best Ideas to Come From the Columbian Exposition

To celebrate Ideas Week and the forthcoming Chicago Humanities Festival, a look back at five advances from the 1893 World’s Fair: the fax machine, the Hoochie Coochie Man, and more.

Worlds Fair Columbian Exposition

 

Ideas Week, modeled by serial entrepreneur Brad Keywell after TED and the Aspen Institute, kicks off tonight with a “megatalk” featuring last month’s cover subject, Mayor Emanuel. It’s immediately followed by the eclectic, considerably longer Chicago Humanities Festival. And Keywell is wearing his Second City syndrome on his sleeve:

The Aspen Institute, the Renaissance Weekend, TED—these conferences are about bumping into somebody, then sharing what it is that you’re passionate about. That’s the magic that we’re trying to create in Chicago. Right now, in the city, in the Midwest, there’s just unfortunately not a pinnacle or a focal point around innovation.

That attitude is basically why the Columbian Exposition came to Chicago:

In spite—and in part because—of it all, Chicago looked “barbaric” to the elite of Eastern cities and to many middle-class city and town dwellers nation-wide. In creating its World’s Fair, Chicago’s business community sought both to display the triumphs of commerce and industry, but to demonstrate to the “world” that it did in fact have its “house in order.”

Which made me curious which ideas from Ideas Week will stick around, and which ones from the Columbian Exposition were the most world-changing. My picks:

5. The fax machine. Well, not exactly: the Telautograph, invented by Highland Park’s own Elisha Gray, made its debut at the World’s Fair. But basically, it’s a fax machine:

The telautograph is an invention, an electrical contrivance, which enables a man to sit down to an instrument in one place and transmit, among other things, a written message in his own handwriting, to some one many miles distant. The message does not travel through a pneumatic tube; it is transmitted over a wire.

[snip]

The young man, in response to a request to write something appropriate to the occasion, took up his pencil and wrote on the paper of the transmitter: “There is a new young man in town.”

Word by word the sentence made its appearance on the paper of the receiver at his left; it was a facsimile of the original message.

He has his defenders, but Elisha Gray has essentially lost the historical battle for inventor of the telephone; inventor of the fax machine is a decent consolation prize. He also kind of invented the synthesizer.

4. The Hoochie Coochie Man. Of a fashion:

The exposition’s press agent, Sol Bloom, had played our [hoochie-coochie] melody at a press showing for “Little Egypt,” a dancer who was one of the exposition’s premier attractions, along with John Philip Sousa and Wild Bill Cody. Subsequently the tune was copyrighted under various names, including Dance of the Midway, Coochi-Coochi Polka, Danse de Ventre, and The Streets of Cairo.

Later, of course, this would leave an impression on American music, through Muddy Waters and the song about the place in France where the naked ladies dance (or any of an infinite number of variations).

3. The City Beautiful. In short, aesthetic urban planning:

Historians as well as contemporary observers have acknowledged that the spectacle of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, held in 1893, provided an important aesthetic model for many City Beautiful plans. The exposition’s Court of Honor, an assemblage of ornate buildings clustered around an open court, inspired City Beautiful interest in carefully juxtaposed groupings of classically inspired buildings. Daniel Burnham and his advisers themselves declared that “the origin of the plan of Chicago can be traced directly to the World’s Columbian exposition. The World’s Fair of 1893 was the beginning, in our day and in this country of the orderly arrangement of extensive public grounds and buildings.”

2. AC Beats DC. And Tesla beats Edison:

The most impressive exhibit of all, the one that really changed the course of technology, was a display that practically no one saw: the massive Westinghouse machinery that powered the entire fair, hidden in the bowels of the Hall of Machinery. The Westinghouse generating plant for the fair was the largest AC central station then in existence, and the first large polyphase system ever built in the United States. It was the first truly universal AC system, able to power incandescent lights, arc lamps, and other DC applications through use of a rotary converter….

The fair would prove to be an important victory for Westinghouse and a turning point in the public’s perception of alternating current. In the year following the fair, more than half of all new electrical devices ordered in the United States ran on alternating current, largely due to Westinghouse’s success and the superior performance of Tesla’s induction motor at the exhibition.

1. The invention of the movie theater. What? We all have our priorities.

 

Photograph: Library of Congress

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