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The History Of World's Fairs

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The History Of World's Fairs

History

The History Of World's Fairs

The History Of World's Fairs

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As the Shanghai World Expo kicks off, we take a look back at the lasting legacy of past world's fairs. Many products we use every day gained their fame at the fairs: escalators, televisions, Campbell's soup. Robert Siegel talks to Montana State University history professor Robert Rydell, who's written extensively on the expos of the early 20th century.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The opening this month of the world's fair in Shanghai started us thinking and remembering.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Meet me in St. Louis, Louis, meet me at the fair.

(Soundbite of song, "It's a Small World After All")

Unidentified People: (Singing) It's a small world after all.

SIEGEL: Songs that we owe to world's fairs, Chicago in 1893, St. Louis in 1904 and New York in 1964. Apart from annoying tunes, what else have world's fairs given us? When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the 1939 New York World's Fair, he described that event as a tribute to technology and innovation.

Former President FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: Yes, our wagon is still hitched to a star.

SIEGEL: Well, historian Robert Rydell of Montana State University has studied world's fairs and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT RYDELL (History Professor, Montana State University): It's nice to be here.

SIEGEL: And what are some technological innovations that have been unveiled at world's fairs?

Mr. RYDELL: Oh, there are so many, Robert. We can start with a Ferris Wheel at Chicago in 1893. We can talk about infant incubators at a fair in Buffalo in 1901. We can move forward in the 1930s to talking about Etch-a-Sketches, View-Masters, RCA television, certainly popularized at that fair.

We can walk through the fair in the 1960s, the '64-'65 New York fair with the Bell telephone picture phone. World's fairs have been terrifically important for advancing the cause of technological innovation.

SIEGEL: Flash forward to Shanghai this year. We live in times when even satellite television is old technology compared to the Internet. Who needs a world's fair, and what could possibly be seen in Shanghai that a thousand times more people can't learn about online?

Mr. RYDELL: Well, that's a very good question. I would say, first of all, I think many Americans believe world's fairs no longer exist. And Shanghai is proof positive to the contrary. There will be anywhere from 75 to 100 million people who actually go to this fair in Shanghai.

Its theme is building better cities for tomorrow, better cities, better lives. And there will be some extraordinary exhibits dedicated to building technologies, to deploying nanotechnology for environmental cleanup.

There is something about experiencing these fairs that you don't get from the Internet. You can certainly look at photographs, but it's a difference between watching your favorite baseball team on TV and actually being in the stadium. The experience, in many ways, is just so overwhelming, and that's what a lot of people, I think, forget about these things.

SIEGEL: But it has a medium. The world's fair, the idea of the exposition of the fair, it's almost medieval in origin. It's one of the oldest ways you would show off goods and products to other peoples.

Mr. RYDELL: It does have an ancient lineage, but what happens in the 19th century with the Crystal Palace in 1851 in London is that this medium is reinvented so that it becomes something more than a trade show. These expositions were as much about education, they were as much about conveying values, shaping blueprints for the future as they were about the promotion of goods.

SIEGEL: But among the technological advances that you cited, ended in the 1960s with the picture phone...

Mr. RYDELL: Right.

SIEGEL: ...which finally something like it has come about with, you know, with the Internet and companies like Skype. But since that time, do we really count on a world's fair to show us something new and fascinating?

Mr. RYDELL: I think what we count on the world's fair to do probably has less to do with specific technologies than it does with overall design. So, what we would see or what people can discover at the Shanghai exposition is a way people are imagining a city, what a city might look like. In 1893, it's the white city. Think of the great beaux arts architecture of so many of the public buildings that date from the early 20th century. You look to world's fairs, I think, for the bigger picture, and that's what makes them so interesting.

SIEGEL: Professor Rydell, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. RYDELL: Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: That's historian Robert Rydell of Montana State University. He's a scholar of world's fairs.

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