The World's Fair: Innovation before TV and Internet

In the 1930s, new technology reassured a wary public that better days were ahead. There was broad excitement toward the World's Fair, now being memorialized in New York City.
Written by David Worthington, Contributor
Radio was the primary medium for news during the 1930's, so live demos of new innovations were more commonplace.

The Great Depression often dominates dialog about the 1930's, which are not renowned as a time of great innovation. But that was when mass production first met democratization of industrial design, and novel new technology reassured a wary public that better days were ahead. There was broad excitement toward the World's Fair, which is now being memorialized as an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.

New York's fair was built on land reclaimed from an ash dump. People visited in droves from congested urban areas to examine new ideas for city planning, radically new designs for automobiles, and due to broadening electrification via the Works Progress Administration, seeing how home appliances could make their lives easier, said local curator Jessica Lautin. The attraction was so great that the duly employed, who were enjoying the nascent perk of paid vacation, spent their family vacations at the fair despite the commercial nature of it all.

The fair was also not without its critics. American writer E.B. White demurred about the virtues of how it presented science and questioned why manufacturers had to be the center of it all, Lautin said. He was, however, enthralled by making a long distance call at the AT&T exhibit, which he called a "gay spot." Regardless, manufacturers were the big draw, led by General Motors and Westinghouse's modern marvels.

The General Motors pavilion drew around 25 million vistors who often waited over two hours to ride around a 35,000 square foot mock up of "Futurama," the metropolis of 1960. GM imagined seven lane highways and glass-walled skyscrapers at a time before the interstate, Lautin noted. "It was a sales pitch like none other for an automobile-centered society, and one of the most popular of exhibitions at the time," she added.

The rise of the automobile and highway system that had such a dramatic effect on those living around it - not to mention the U.S. landscape -  it's among the most important transformation of 20th century, Lautin said. Here's how the ride, which promised "new horizons" funded by "road taxes," envisioned the world:

Some innovations didn't immediately become part of reality; indeed, we are still waiting for robot servants. "Electro" the walking, talking, smoking robot was the centerpiece of the Westinghouse pavilion. It mesmerized people, and the robot is among the most memorable attractions for museum visitors seeing the exhibition today, Lautin said. "The fairs were forward looking, and many innovations became part of every day reality that we still take part in, but it also predicted the future as we think of it today. Electro continues to be part of the understanding of what is to be and not just what came to be." See the original Electro below.

Electro the robot

Other innovations were more immediately practical such as newfangled all-electric kitchens, which were a huge attraction at the time. Westinghouse gave live demonstrations on the virtues of the washing machine, which was primarily targeted toward women, Lautin said. Westinghouse contrasted "Mrs. Modern" with "Mrs. Drudge" to show a housewife how she could be tending to other household tasks rather than standing over the sink and cleaning dishes by hand (it was a very different time back then). Here's the wonder of nylon below.

People were under the impression that technology would make life better and more leisurely 

It's important to understand how in awe people would have been of those developments, Lautin said. TV debuted at NYC World's Fair when people didn't have the "same kind of platforms and sources of media that we have today to learn about things in an instant," she added. The World's Fair was how people found out about industrial innovations. "Corporations created exhibits that were like amusement parks to some extent. People were not jaded in the same way they are today by newness and the techniques corporations had employed."

Those techniques can be timeless. Apple founder Steve Jobs's live product keynotes drew massive virtual audiences. I can't help but recall the long lines outside of Apple stores after the introduction of the iPhone, another milestone in industrial design. It's nearly 100 years after the fair, and people are still enthralled by innovations in technology. Maybe we're not too unlike the people who lived during the 1930's.

(Image credits: Children walking down Constitution Mall toward Trylon and Perisphere, 1939 Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection; Elektro at the Westinghouse Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939 Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection; Nylon exhibition at the DuPont Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939 Museum of the City of New York, Wurts Bros. Collection)

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