A History of the World's Fair

A Showcase of Marvels

World's Fairs are large public exhibitions for new technologies and cultural achievements in the fields of art and design. Popular around the world for more than 150 years, different universal, international, and specialized World's Fairs are still held throughout the world today. Here is a list of some of the more memorable technological inventions to make their premiere at a World's Fair.


RCA Introduces the Tube

RCA's TV in 1939
Credit: Library of Congress

The original television set developed by RCA debuted at the New York Expo in 1939. Try to imagine a world where television has not yet been invented, and you might be able to conceive of just how confusing this device was for people who saw it at the World's Fair for the first time. RCA had to explain the device to the dealers working at the fair with brochures handed out before the Expo started. And one of the many TRK-12 sets on display used a transparent case so that all the inner workings of the device were on display, making sure audiences knew they were not being tricked. Cameras at the exhibition recorded audience members, showing them on television, and RCA employees even handed out miniature cards certifying that individuals had been on television.

Indoor Electricity

A Bright Idea

Years before the premiere of television, the 1904 World's Fair at Forest Park in St. Louis showcased an invention that was a clear forerunner to all other electrical gadgets. It was, of course, Thomas Edison's design for a light bulb, which was used at the Fair to light all of the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition. Edison himself attended the fair to make sure that all of the electrical arrangements were handled according at the aptly-named "Palace of Electricity." And besides the light bulb, other indoor electrical marvels were on display, including a "fast food" electric broiler, and a telephone. All things we take for granted today, these were astonishing feats of technology at the time.

Space Needle

The 605-foot Lightning Rod

The Space Needle is a structure that was originally built for exhibition at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle, and is the brainchild of chairman Edward E. Carlson. At the time, it was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River, although it has since been surpassed by several other buildings, including the Willis Tower in Chicago and the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. Still, at the time, the Space Needle was incredibly popular, drawing in more than 2 million visitors during the course of the Fair. The Space Needle has a rotating restaurant at the top, and is also built to withstand 200-mph winds. And what makes it even safer is that Seattle never has 200-mph winds.

Ferris Wheel

Save Ferris

Today, we don't think of a Ferris Wheel as a particularly exciting way to pass the time. They just can't compare to the more thrilling roller-coasters and carnival rides that have been developed in the last century. But in 1893, when the first Ferris Wheel was constructed for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, this invention of George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., made quite an impression on those in attendance. At the time, the Ferris Wheel was considered an absolute feat of modern engineering, and the construction of the thing was estimated at $600,000, so you just imagine how much a similar enterprise would cost today!

Even though the Columbian Exposition opened in in May of 1893, the Ferris Wheel was not ready to be tested until June. Several courageous volunteers tested the safety of the wheel in the first half of that month, with the grand opening occurring on June 21, 1893. Luckily, nothing went wrong, and the Wheel continued serving eager Fair-goers until the conclusion of the event in November 1893. The Ferris Wheel proved so popular that the George Washington Gale Ferris and his company were able to make a tidy profit in excess of $300,000. Again, a pretty good sum at the time, and not necessarily bad by today's standards, either.

The Telegraphone

It's an Answering Machine

This unique gadget was introduced at the 1900 World's Fair in Paris by Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen, who held a patent on the strange device. It was the world's first means of magnetic audio recording, with sounds captured by steel wires. The telegraphone was able to record sound directly from telephone lines, a capability lacking in the previously-invented phonograph machines of the time. As such, the telegraphone allowed for remote dictation, essentially make it useful as an answering machine. Hailed as exciting and useful at the time, this device never really took off commercially. Not too, surprising, since most people still hate using voice mail even today.

Cotton Candy

Candy is Technology, Too

In a move that would keep dentists in business for another 100 years, cotton candy was introduced to the world at the 1904 Expo in St. Louis. Made from finely-granulated sugar, which is then spun into threads when heated (you've probably seen this in action), cotton candy was invented by William Morrison and John C. Wharton. The two men made a pretty penny off cotton candy at the Expo, selling more than 65,000 boxes of the stuff for a quarter a pop. But the spun pink sugar threads were not the only sweet concoction to make its first appearance at the Expo. Believe it or not, the St. Louis Expo also marked the first appearance of Dr. Pepper soda and the ice cream cone. 

What Will Be Next?

Expos to Come

Different World's Fairs and Expositions are still held all across the world. Today, they focus on cultural exchange, branding of regions or nations, and presenting new inventions. So what inventions will show up next? It is hard to say for sure, but if you have any guesses, be sure to leave them in the comments. One thing we know for sure, though, is that there will probably not be a new version of the telegraphone appearing at a World's Fair any time soon.