The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was a paean to America. In many ways it is where the future came from. It had just about everything that makes up modern day America including political intrigue, technology battles, financial chicanery, a political assassination and for good measure, a serial killer plying his trade on an unsuspecting public.
The fair was meant to be a celebration of the Columbus expedition of discovery in 1492. Ok so they were off by a year. (Please change your mnemonic to “Columbus sailed the deep blue sea, in fourteen hundred and ninety three.”) The “Columbian” exhibition featured amazing architecture (much of it by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted) that gave Chicago the reputation as the “White City” due to the color of many of it’s buildings. Henry Demarest Lloyd said the architecture revealed to the great mass of Americans “possibilities of social beauty, utility and harmony of which they had not been able even to dream.” Even the Lincoln Memorial can trace its lineage to the neoclassical architecture for which the fair was known.
So many firsts started at the fair including the midway, Shredded Wheat and of course the star attraction designed to be even more compelling than the Eiffel tower had been at the previous world’s fair, namely the “Wheel” built by the renowned engineer George Ferris. The “Ferris Wheel” was truly a marvel as it reached a height of 264 feet and had 36 cars, (each of which could carry 60 people.) And even more incredible, they didn’t need no stinkin’ OSHA people to help them make a (mostly) safe ride.
On the technology front, two of the giants of American science both asked the fair to adopt their technology, as both knew the winner would reap a marketing bonanza. Thomas Edison was, of course, pushing for the fair to use his DC (Direct Current) system of providing light and power, while Nicola Tesla was advocating that his new A/C (Alternating Current) be used. In a bit of a surprise, the A/C system of Tesla was picked. This one decision paved the way for a safe and efficient electrification of America. (Direct current would have been a disaster for years.)
Many famous people attended the fair. Among them was the lawyer Clarence Darrow who would later argue for evolution in the famous the Scopes Monkey trial. He might have met Frank Baum who was inspired to write about the Emerald City from the great architecture of the day. See top picture. There was also a young musician named Scott Joplin who made “ragtime” a whole new style of music. Even Buffalo Bill was there (but forced to set up his attraction outside the fair grounds.) The place was literally teeming with famous people from America’s past and America’s future. And among the non-famous was a worker named Elias, an Irish Canadian, who was so impressed by the idea of a park where people could come to be entertained that he passed along this love of all things new and amazing to his boys … Roy and Walt. Disneyland was the result.
But of all that happened at the great 1893 fair, perhaps the most amazing thing was that one of the first serial killers in American history plied his bloody trade on and around the fairgrounds. He built a custom medical building where he could torture, kill and then cremate his victims (usually young women) all with the pretense of being a respected Doctor … one Henry H. Holmes. The whole thing played out as a sick side story to one of the great events in American history.
So why am I telling you about all this? Bruhaahaaaaaaa … I have tricked you into reading a book review. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson came out a few years ago, but is still a fantastic read. The dark elves gave this 6 out of 5 stars. (I wonder why). I will give it a mere 5 out of 5 stars. It is a fantastic story, steeped in Americana and replete with dubious behavior of all kinds. If you haven’t already read this book, get it and quickly turn to page 1. The great Chicago Fair of 1893 is where new and amazing was truly born.