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The answer says a lot about the place technology now holds in our lives, integrated to such a large extent that its wonders no longer surprise us, and developing so fast that a quadrennial event doesn’t make much sense.


Examining early World’s Fairs from the vantage point of today offers seductive glimpses of steampunk palaces and space-age homepods, but it also points to the event’s other use—spreading the narratives crafted by imperial powers.

Intrigued? Let’s run away to the fair.

Brief history of World’s Fairs

1851: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, held in London’s Hyde Park and housed in a vast greenhouse dubbed the Crystal Palace, is recognized as the first World’s Fair.


1889: The Exposition Universelle is held in Paris, which, seeking to cement its reputation as the cultural capital of the world (and outdo the Brits) builds the world’s tallest temporary structure. The Eiffel Tower is still standing 134 years later.

1893: The World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago celebrates 400 years since Columbus sailed to the Americas, and introduces the idea of “leisure time”—food, fantastical sights, and rides, including the first Ferris Wheel—to the American public.


1939: Broadcast television premiers at the New York World’s Fair, subtitled The Fair of the Future. Four months later, the Second World War breaks out.

1964 and 1967: Big World’s Fairs in New York and Montreal showcase space-race technologies and futuristic design, with the whisper of the Cold War always in the background.


Technology, meet anthropology

From the get-go, World’s Fairs were about impressing audiences with new technology. In 1851, this meant huge steam hammers, hydraulics, printing presses, and an expanding hearse. At the Paris fair, Argentina sought to wow the world (and find new beef markets) via its displays of refrigeration technology. In 1930s New York, television was on display and, in 1964, the first video calls, though they were so expensive they didn’t get widely adopted for another 60-odd years.


Above all, historian Lisa Munro told Quartz, the fairs were didactic events—they were meant to teach attendees, in a form of adult education that only really gained steam in the 1800s, which also saw the first museums, galleries, and zoos become popular. Alongside new tech, the other big message was about culture and, specifically, the cultural superiority of those in power. Early fairs showcased the spoils of empire; later fairs, the newest space tech, as the West raced Russia to the moon. Messages about racial hierarchy abounded. Early American fairs saw affiliations of the very first anthropologists, who directed a flow of visitors past (in order) native peoples, colonized peoples, and then “more advanced” white races. As Munro noted, “junk science” and “scientific racism” were as much a part of the fairs as real scientific and technological discoveries.

Watch this!

Expo ‘67 Doc: World’s Fair in Montreal, Canada (1967) | British Pathé

This kitschy paean to progress presents the 1967 World’s Fair in Montreal, “a throbbing industrial center, where the skyline changes almost daily, and the wide express roads are called boulevards.” Come for the retro diction, stay for the instrumental soundtrack, the pavilions, the “breathtaking mini rail ride” and the sculptures that “amusingly portray present-day way of life.”



“If evenings at the fair were seductive, the nights were ravishing. The lamps that laced every building and walkway produced the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large-scale test of alternating current. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago... For many visitors these nightly illuminations were their first encounter with electricity. Hilda Satt, a girl newly arrived from Poland, went to the fair with her father. ‘As the light was fading in the sky, millions of lights were suddenly flashed on, all at one time,’ she recalled years later. ‘Having seen nothing but kerosene lamps for illumination, this was like getting a sudden vision of Heaven.”


From The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, which details both the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and the serial killer who preyed on its attendees.

Fun Fact

A host of famous foods were “invented” at World’s Fairs, but many of those stories are apocryphal. Were the first ice cream cones fashioned from waffles at the 1904 St. Louis fair to replace cups that had run out? Er, no. Were hamburgers, hot dogs, and iced tea born there? Probably not. But Shredded Wheat did find its market after Chicago in 1893 (despite some early tasters calling it “shredded door mat,” according to author Erik Larson), Cherry Coke premiered in 1982 at the Knoxville fair, and plenty of other foods we now take for granted were popularized at fairs, including “a hybridized version of the pomelo” that we now know as the grapefruit.


By the numbers

495: Number of World’s Fairs held globally since the first official fair in London, 1851.


19: Fairs held in 1881 alone, one of the most popular fair-holding years.

10: Fairs held on the African continent to date: seven in South Africa, and one each in Algeria (1930), Morocco (1915), and Sierra Leone (1865), all before those countries gained independence from their colonizers.


1,000: Number of Filipinos transported to St Louis in 1904 to populate the 47 acre “Philippine Reservation.”

32 million: Number of visitors to Paris’s 1889 fair, one of the most profitable in history.


73 million: Number of visitors to Shanghai’s 2010 fair, a recent success story.

£186,000: Profit from the 6 million visitors to London’s Great Exhibition, equivalent to £32.2 million ($40 million) in today’s money. The fund it established bought a chunk of West London, founded several museums, and is still giving grants to scientists and inventors.


What the World’s Fair did next

As historian Lisa Munro sees it, the heyday of the World’s Fair ended with the Second World War. The world was changed so fundamentally by that event, she said, that even though fairs came back after it and continue to this day, they were never the same again.


Perhaps it was that mutual distrust between nations lingered for decades after the war ended. Perhaps it was because humanity had seen the zenith of technological innovation to date—the atom bomb—wreak such havoc that we could never think of “progress” with unmixed feelings again.

Our relationship with technology has also changed, of course. Arguably television, which premiered at New York’s 1939 fair, took the place of in-person spectacle. By the 1950s and 60s, that technology was both becoming ubiquitous—in the rich world—and was itself a portal to other technologies, a place to witness the spectacle of everything from a modern kitchen to a lunar landing. Once the internet came along, we could even immediately engage with the newest tech as soon as it emerged—think of ChatGPT.


Arguably, if the diplomatic mission of World’s Fairs has been taken over by sporting events like the Olympics, and its tech role by the internet, there’s not much left for fairs to do except propose fixes to climate change and promote world harmony. But if you’re still interested, the 2025 Osaka World’s Fair, set to take place on an artificial island, has a masterplan, and would be happy to have you.

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