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Nikola Tesla and the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago

I have three Master's Degrees (Aeronautical Science, Airpower Art and Science, National Security and Strategic Studies) and I love history.

World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

If you ever get the chance, try to corner Sherman and have him convince Mr. Peabody to set the WABAC machine for Chicago, May 1st, 1893. If you don't know who Sherman is or where he lives, you can find him on Google. Make sure you get to Chicago early enough in the day to see President Cleveland give his opening remarks and press the button that introduces the star of the World's Columbian Exposition: electricity.

The people in the crowd will be all abuzz because they've never seen anything like it. But beware also: the audience for President Cleveland’s speech is so big and so tightly compacted, many will faint and pass out from a combination of heat exhaustion and excitement. On the Midway Plaisance, there's the first moving sidewalk ever built as well as an elevated railway, so you'll be able to get around pretty easily and pretty quickly. At the booths and stands you'll see along the way, you're going to encounter people clamoring to get their first-ever taste of lots of things we see on the shelf at Wal-Mart today: hamburgers, Cracker Jacks, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat and even Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I'm no fan of PBR myself, but somebody must like it, because it's still on store shelves some 127 years later.

Original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair Columbian Expostion

Original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair Columbian Expostion

I don't even need to tell you to visit the Ferris Wheel. You'll see it from a long way off, day or night, and it will draw you in. And you'll definitely see the throngs of people waiting in line to experience the ride. My guess is that you'll be amazed at its impressive 264 foot height and more than 2000 person capacity. If you've ever been to the Eiffel Tower, try to imagine the Chicago Wheel as the American reply to it. Because it was. Popular sentiment of the day was that Mr. George Washington Gale Ferris had definitely one-upped the French, but it’s at least interesting to note that the Eiffel Tower is still standing in Paris on the very spot it was first erected in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle. All that remains today of the world's first Ferris Wheel is a down-sized replica, and it's not even located in the same place as the original.

You also don't want to miss The White City. It's the central feature of the Expo, and comprises 200 newly constructed buildings, designed by leading architects of the day. All of the structures are covered in white stucco and house the Fair’s varied and numerous exhibits. If you visit The White City at night, you'll be able to see that its name has a double meaning. Bright white incandescent illumination—which is not so common in 1893—makes everything all over the City—and the Fair itself—seeable and usable after dark. If you go during the day, I have two recommended stops for you.

The White City, Chicago World's Fair, 1893

The White City, Chicago World's Fair, 1893

First, you just have to stop by the International Exposition building when Nikola Tesla is there. He's got this thing he calls the Egg of Columbus he's showing off and it is really amazing. In case you're not familiar with Columbus's Egg, let me tell you about it before you visit Mr. Tesla's exhibit. I think the contextual milieu is important. See, legend has it that back in the day, Christopher Columbus was sitting around with some of his contemporaries, and one of them said that anybody else who'd been given the benefit of Columbus' same circumstances would also have discovered the New World. In response, Columbus defied his naysayers to make an egg stand on its end. When no one in the group could do it, Columbus took the egg, tapped the end of it to crack and flatten it out a bit, and was able then to make the egg stand up. What a simple thing, Columbus is said to have proclaimed. And now, having seen my example, any of you can do it, too.

Tesla's contraption isn't anywhere near that simple, mind you, but it does make a large copper egg spin very fast and stand up on its end. I think the best part of the demonstration is the audience’s reaction to it. They all think it's magic because there aren't very many folks besides Tesla and Mr. Westinghouse--who also, by the way, were the ones responsible for all the power and lighting at the Fair; they bested General Electric and Thomas Edison, putting forth a bid to supply everything for about half the cost of what GE was wanting for the job--who understand how alternating current and induction motors work. When Tesla hits the switch and the magnetic field starts rotating, there are oohs and ahs and gasps all across the audience.

Pencil Drawing From the 1919 ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTER Explaining How Nikola Tesla's "Egg of Columbus" Worked

Pencil Drawing From the 1919 ELECTRICAL EXPERIMENTER Explaining How Nikola Tesla's "Egg of Columbus" Worked

The second recommendation I have for you is to go and listen to Frederick Jackson Turner speak. If you're an American History buff, you already know about Turner's thesis and how it revolutionized the way historians viewed America's growth and development. Some say it continues even today to shed light on the social, economic and industrial changes in our country caused by westward expansion. What you may not know, however, is that he delivered the full text of his thesis for the first time at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The cool thing is that if you go and listen to him, you'll be among the very few in attendance who grasp the significance of what he's assaying, and how much influence his words will have for many years after. Not many others took notice at the time.

Finally, there are a couple of things I want to warn you about. Mr. Peabody's a pretty enlightened dog, so he will probably clue you in, too, but just in case. If you stay in the Chicago area long enough, you might be there for what they called Colored Day at the Exposition. It was little more than a hat tip to the Negroes, as they called them at the time, and as if to prove it, one of the so-called highlights of the day was free watermelon for any and all black visitors. Frederick Douglass, who was an outspoken advocate for black rights, spoke that day, and lamented what much of White America was calling the "Negro Problem" at the time. If you do go, you might find it odd that Douglass, who was definitely an American—indeed, he was a proud American who had once been a slave in the South—delivers his speech in front of the Haiti building. It was the only venue at which blacks were allowed to speak freely and openly.

The Negro Problem

There is, in fact, no such problem. The real problem has been given a false name. It is called Negro for a purpose. It has substituted Negro for Nation, because the one is despised and hated, and the other is loved and honored. The true problem is a national problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.

— Frederick Douglass, 25 August 1893, Chicago World's Fair

"Celebrating 400 Years"

The last thing that might surprise you at the World's Columbian Exposition is the overall theme of the event. Along with new technology, new commodities and the always-present-at-World's-Fairs-push for peace and cooperation among nations, America—and indeed the rest of the world—was celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival to the New World. It's unlikely that an event of this magnitude today would generate enough popular support to bear the name of the great Navigator. Indigenous populations’ objections and common sense would likely hold sway instead.

Whatever else you do, though, make sure you go see Tesla's Egg. And try not to get too wrapped up in the irony. It only seems simple now because we're 127 years removed.

Watch a Replica of the Demo That Awed the Crowd in 1893

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 greg cain


Ann Carr from SW England on June 05, 2020:

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You're welcome!

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 05, 2020:

Thanks, Liz. I had a good time putting it together!

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 05, 2020:

Yes, Ann, and the thing I go on and on about I learned from a prof many years ago: "Good writing is rewriting." It is so true.

Thanks also for your continued encouragement and support. Very much appreciated.

Liz Westwood from UK on June 03, 2020:

This is an interesting trip back in time.

Ann Carr from SW England on June 03, 2020:

I'm always banging on about proof-reading but no matter how many times we do it, errors can slip through. One reason is that we read what we think is there! For that reason, I proof read immediately after finishing the draft, then I leave it for a few hours, then I revisit the next day. I often find errors each time but also there have still been ones I've missed. Getting someone else to read it too is another option of course.

The bottom line is that we know what you wanted to write so it doesn't spoil the overall effect. I think you have style and a good command of language and grammar - all so important.

Keep up the interesting variety of hubs which you produce!


greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

Flourish - yes, I thought it was quite interesting. If the world has changed since 1893, it has also stayed the same in some ways. The pace of technological advances has outstripped societal advances in some ways. I'm hoping we can all do better moving forward. Frederick Douglass' words about living up to the Constitution definitely strike a chord that resonates with me.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

Thank you, Road Monkey, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

Sha Sha - I guess if you're dating yourself, I'm dating myself, too. I liked all those cartoons. I loved Underdog, too: "Where oh where has my Underdog gone...where oh where can he be?"

Sweet Polly screaming for "Help, help!" and then Underdog saving the day is a nice memory. Same for the whole of the Rocky and Bullwinkle hour. Man, Saturday mornings were made for watching great cartoons!

Anyway, the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 was not the first such expo. It appears that London's in 1851 holds that distinction. By the time Chicago hosted, there'd already been five of these:

London - 1851

New York - 1853

London - 1862

Philadelphia - 1876

Paris - 1889

I'd have to do more homework to make a more complete listing, but it is at least clear that the Chicago expo was not the first.

The impact of the Seattle event is still evident in the needle that is the signature icon of the city. Cool that you were there, but you would have been just a pup, so understandable that you don't remember much. I think, though, that the Seattle fair demonstrates nicely how much lasting impact one of these things has on an area. Seattle thrived and the city's population exploded after that fair passed through town back in the day.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

Ann - I do not mind at all. In fact, I appreciate very much the point out. I have looked and looked at this, skipped over that part 1,000 times I'm sure. Anyway, I think that's part of why some of us are here...I'd like to get better at the craft, record some of my thoughts for posterity, learn something along the way, share.

I changed my bio for this article, too, since you've suggested at least twice that I might do so. Thanks, Ann. Very much appreciated.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

John - welcome, and thank you for checking it out. It was a fascinating period.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

Thanks, Eric. It was an interesting World's Fair, as were all of them, I suppose. But lots going on. As you said, both Turner and Douglass in one piece...

My interest here started with Tesla and his work, but it was just like going to the fair: "Ooh, look over here. Ooh! Look over there!" Anyway, thanks for giving it a read.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 03, 2020:

Hey Bill - thanks for stopping by and checking it out. Yes, I agree completely. Rocky, Bullwinkle, Dudley, so many others...great stuff. If they still made them that way, took time to make them that way, I'd still watch cartoons. Well, besides the Simpsons that is. I still watch the Simpsons. Can't help myself. ;)

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 03, 2020:

Go figure! Frederick Douglass’ quote was interesting too.

RoadMonkey on June 01, 2020:

That was fascinating. Thank you very much, very interesting.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 01, 2020:

Box, I enjoyed this trip back into time with you and Mr. Peabody. What a unique way of bringing history to life! You've got quite the imagination, my friend.

I remember Rocky and Bullwinkle well. I guess I'm dating myself, huh?

I wasn't aware the World's Fair went back this far. I was at the Seattle World's Fair when we were stationed in Tacoma. I remember walking up to the gates, but not much more than that.

Was the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 the first?

Ann Carr from SW England on June 01, 2020:

This is so interesting. Your presentation, taking us back to that date, worked so well rather than just relating the history - it brought it alive and that's no mean feat. So many issues then which are pertinent now. This definitely takes you to the realms of a writer (where I think you were already) so you can drop the term 'hack'!

Btw: a little typo in the second para, last line: 'shelves shelf'...'. Hope you don't mind me pointing it out!

Wish I'd been at that expo but then I kinda was; well done!


John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on June 01, 2020:

I remember Sherman and Mr Peabody too. This was such an interesting article. Thank you for taking us back to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Greg. A great read.

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 01, 2020:

This is grreat. Thank you. I don't know what I liked the best about this exposition. Maybe the time period with it's nuances. Turner and Frederick in one place - so cool.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 01, 2020:

I know Sherman well. It was part of the best cartoon show on television, and I will still watch reruns of Rocky from time to time. :)

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