World Columbian Exposition

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World Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

The World Columbian Exposition (also called "The Chicago World's Fair"), a World's fair, was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the New World. Chicago had beaten New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, Missouri for the honor of hosting the fair. During the competition to win the fair, editor Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun dubbed Chicago the "windy city", not for the city's weather, but for the hype of the city's promoters.


Opening ceremony

Opening ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.


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One-third scale replica of The Republic, which once stood in the great basin at the exposition, Chicago, 2004
The exposition was located in Jackson Park and on the Midway Plaisance on 630 acres (2.5 km²) in the neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Woodlawn. The layout of the fairgrounds was created by Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Beaux-Arts architecture of the buildings was under the direction of Daniel Burnham, director of Works for the fair. The Director of the American Academy in Rome, Francis David Millet, directed the painted mural decorations. Indeed, it was a coming-of-age for the arts and architecture of the "American Renaissance". Most of the buildings were based on classical architecture, and the area taken up by the fair around the Court of Honor was known as "The White City". Louis Sullivan's polychrome proto-Modern Transportation Building was an outstanding exception, but his opinion was that the "White City" had set back modern American architecture by forty years.

Early in July, a Wellesley College English teacher named Katharine Lee Bates was a visitor at the fair, and was rather more impressed by it than was Sullivan. In her poem (later a song) America the Beautiful, the phrase, Thine alabaster city's gleam, was inspired by the "White City".

McKim, Mead and White designed the Agriculture building. Of the more than 200 buildings erected for the fair, the only one which still stands in place is the Palace of Fine Arts. From the time the fair closed until 1920, the building housed the Field Columbian Museum (now the relocated Field Museum of Natural History). In 1931 the building re-opened as the Museum of Science and Industry.

The only other significant building that survived the fair was the Norway pavilion, a building now preserved at a Norwegian museum in Wisconsin.

The Fine Arts Building was purposely constructed to last. The other buildings at the fair were all intended to be temporary. Their facades were made not of stone, but of a mixture of plaster and hemp called "staff." Architecture critics derided the structures as "decorated sheds". The "White City," however, so impressed everyone who saw it (at least before air pollution began to darken the facades) that plans were considered to refinish the exteriors in marble or some other material. Sadly, these plans had to be abandoned in July 1894 when much of the fair grounds were destroyed in a fire. (The fire occurred at the height of the Pullman Strike; since the strikers set other fires that very week, it is possible the fire was set by disgruntled Pullman employees.)

Jackson Park was eventually returned to its status as a public park, and the lagoon was reshaped to give it a more natural appearance. The Midway Plaisance, a park-like boulevard which extends west from Jackson Park, forms the southern boundary of the University of Chicago, which was being built as the fair was closing. The U of C's football team were the original "Monsters of the Midway".

The "Sci and I" Museum was fronted by a paved parking lot for many years. In the 1990s, an ambitious project was undertaken, to build an underground garage surfaced by natural grass, thus extending the park around the building.

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Columbian Exposition from stereopticon card photo.

Electricity at the fair

The International Exposition was held in a building which -- for the first time -- was devoted to electrical exhibits. It was an historical moment and the beginning of a revolution, as Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse introduced the public to electrical power by providing alternating current to illuminate the Exposition. The general public observed firsthand the qualities and abilities of alternating current power. All the exhibits were from commercial enterprises. Thomas Edison, Brush, Western Electric, and Westinghouse had exhibits. General Electric Company (backed by Edison and J.P. Morgan) proposed to power the electric fair with direct current at the cost of one million dollars.

Westinghouse, armed with Tesla's alternating current system, proposed to illuminate the exposition for half that price. Tesla's high-frequency high-voltage lighting produced more efficient light with quantitatively less heat. A two-phase induction motor was driven by current from the main generators to power the system. Edison tried to prevent the use of his light bulbs in Tesla's works. Westinghouse's proposal was chosen over the inferior direct current system to power the fair. General Electric banned the use of Edison's lamps in Westinghouse's plan, in retailiation for losing the bid. Westinghouse's company quickly designed a double-stopper lightbulb (sidestepping Edison's patents) and was able to light the fair.

The Westinghouse Company displayed several polyphase systems. The exhibits included a switchboard, polyphase generators, step-up transformers, transmission line, step-down transformers, commercial size induction motors and synchronous motors, and rotary direct current converters (including an operational railway motor). The working scaled system allowed the public a view of a system of polyphase power which could be transmitted over long distances, and be utilized, including the supply of direct current. Meters and other auxiliary devices were also present.

Tesla displayed his phosphorescent lighting, powered without wires by high-frequency fields. Tesla displayed the first practical phosphorescent lamps (a precursor to fluorescent lamps). Tesla's lighting inventions exposed to high-frequency currents would bring the gases to incandescence. Tesla also displayed the first neon lights. His innovations in this type of light emission were not regularly patented.

Also among the exhibits was Tesla's demonstration, most notably the "Egg of Columbus". This device explains the principles of the rotating magnetic field and his induction motor. The Egg of Columbus consisted of a polyphase field coil underneath a plate with a copper egg positioned over the top. When the sequence of coils were energized, the magnetic field arrangement inductively created a rotation on the egg and made it stand up on end (appearing to resist gravity). On August 25, Elisha Gray introduced Tesla for a delivery of a lecture on mechanical and electrical oscillators. Tesla explained his work for efficiently increasing the work at high frequency of reciprocation. As Electrical Congress members listened, Tesla delineated mechanisms which could produce oscillations of constant periods irrespective of the pressure applied and irrespective of frictional losses and loads. He continued to explain the working mean of the production of constant period electric currents (not resorting to spark gaps or breaks), and how to produce these with mechanisms which are reliable.

The successful demonstration of alternating current lighting at the Exposition dispelled doubts about the usefulness of the polyphase alternating current system developed by Westinghouse and Tesla.

White City
White City

Other notable attractions

The World Columbian Exposition was the first world's fair with an area for amusements which was strictly separated from the exhibition halls. This area, concentrated on Midway Plaisance, included carnival rides - among them the first Ferris Wheel, built by George Ferris. This wheel was 250 feet high and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 60 people. One of the cars carried a band which played whenever the wheel was in motion. Nearby, Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show performed, perpetuating the images of the American frontier which had just officially been declared closed. At the same time, historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave academic lectures reflecting on the end of the same frontier. Another popular Midway attraction was the "Street in Cairo", which included the popular exotic dancer known as Little Egypt.

The Electrotachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz, which used a Geissler Tube to project the illusion of moving images was demonstrated.

Louis Comfort Tiffany made his reputation with a stunning chapel he designed and built for the Exposition. This chapel has been carefully reconstructed in recent years, and can now be seen in excellent condition at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.

Forty-six nations participated in the fair, including Haiti, which selected Frederick Douglass to be its coordinator. The Exposition drew nearly 26 million visitors, and left a remembered vision that can be recognized even in the "Emerald City" of L. Frank Baum.

Three days before the fair was scheduled to close, Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated by a disgruntled office seeker, putting a damper on the fair's closing ceremonies.

Famous firsts at the fair

Additional Reading

  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe. "The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art and Industry, As Viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893". Bounty, New York. 1894.
  • Dybwad, G. L., and Joy V. Bliss, "Annotated Bibliography: World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893". Book Stops Here, 1992. ISBN 0963161202
  • Appelbaum, Stanley (1980). The Chicago World's Fair of 1893. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. ISBN 048623990X.
  • Burg, David F. (1976). Chicago's White City of 1893. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813101409.
  • Larson, Erik (2003) The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Crown; ISBN 0609608444. Readable, dramatic nonfiction account intertwines the stories of architect Daniel H. Burnham and the building of the Fair with that of serial killer H. H. Holmes.

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