originally published April 4, 2013
Every so often, a new technology grabs the public’s attention by the short hairs and doesn’t let go until it has gone mainstream. The iPad caused massive line-ups, earned gazillions in pre-sales, and offered the world an entirely new way to stream pornography. The first portable mp3 players showed us the potential for listening to all our illegally-obtained music on the go, without the fascist constraints of a 74-minute audio CD. And the first time I tried out a car with a back-up camera, I wanted to hit the highway in reverse, just because I could.
But the great innovations seem to space themselves out. We can watch the tech news for leaks, and we can visit the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every January for a look at some of the new innovations in TVs, computers and sex dolls, but in the not-too-distant past, the world would get together and watch the future explode into being. All at once.
Take, for example, the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.
The idea emerged from the murky depths of the Great Depression. A bunch of retired NYPD officers came up with the Fair as a way to lift America up from its economic funk, and attract the world’s attention (and hopefully a lot of its money) into New York. The scientists on board were hoping to flood the fair with the wonder and majesty of modern science, but former police chief Grover Whalen pushed for a heavier focus on technology and new products. The toys would get the people’s attention.
The Fair opened up in the borough of Queens on April 30, 1939, intentionally planned to coincide with the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as the first President, which occurred just over the East River in downtown Manhattan. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the opening speech, which was broadcast on television to about 200 sets around the city by NBC. This officially launched NBC’s (and the world’s) first regularly scheduled television broadcasts.
Albert Einstein spoke about cosmic rays next, which wound up being one of the only appearances of actual science at the Fair. The focus was on technology, and though the initial aim of raising the country out of the Depression had already mostly been accomplished by 1939, the technological debuts at the World’s Fair really paved the way for the future as we know it.
Early press was given to the Westinghouse time capsule. An entirely new alloy called Cupaloy, made from copper, chromium and silver, was fabricated for the capsule’s shell. Its makers claimed the capsule would be impervious to corrosion for 5000 years, so Westinghouse opted to call them on it and set the capsule’s re-opening date for 6939, five millennia in the future. They included samples of wheat, corn, oats, tobacco, and a bunch of other plantables, a fountain pen, an RKO newsreel, a pack of Camels, and a bunch of text on microfilm. How much of that will deteriorate in the next 4926 years, we can only imagine. I’m betting the Camels will be a tad stale, though.
Broadcast TV may have had its start at the ’39 World’s Fair, but why else should we care? Well, for starters, check out the diner of the future.
The White Manna Diner launched America into diner culture, without which Happy Days would have been about a bunch of teenagers hanging out in a parking lot. The building was shipped over to Jersey City, New Jersey, where it still operates.
The Voder was introduced at the Fair as well. This was the first human speech synthesizer controlled by a keyboard. A decade later, this technology would be tweaked and twirled by German scientist Werner Meyer-Eppler to create the Electrolarynx, which allows people whose larynxes have been removed to speak, albeit with a monotone robot voice (much like Ned on South Park). Werner also saw the potential in the Voder to create electronic music, which led to the foundation of the first important studio dedicated to this craft in Cologne in 1953. Innovation was bubbling all over the ’39 Fair.
Air conditioning also made its debut at the World’s Fair. The Chrysler exhibit invited audiences into an air-conditioned theatre to watch a Plymouth get assembled on film. On a prototype 3-D film, of course. And speaking of film, color photography, which had been toyed with in experiments since the 19th century, made a huge splash as a consumer product for the first time.
The View-Master was the big toy debut at the Fair, offering an alternative to the scenic postcard, depicting sights like Carlsbad Caverns or the Grand Canyon. To my surprise, they still make these things. Unfortunately, I’m not surprised to learn that DreamWorks is working on developing a feature film about the View-Master. If Hungry Hungry Hippos is getting a movie, why not the View-Master?
General Electric had recently developed a cheap, easy – some may say ugly – new lighting mechanism with the fluorescent lamp. By 1951, more light was being produced by this technology in the US than by old-school incandescent lamps.
Nycon 1 was launched at the World’s Fair. This was the first World Science Fiction Convention – the precursor to modern-day Comic Cons, though back then there wasn’t quite as much dressing up in Slave Leia costumes.
On the science side, a revolutionary new fabric made of synthetic polymers was introduced as Nylon. It was first used as a toothbrush fiber, but came to re-invent the women’s stocking industry over the next few years. Now it’s used in everything from parachutes to guitar strings.
What else? Futurama was a ride of sorts – it took people on an 18-minute fly-over of a massive model system, depicting the roadways of the future in which America was interconnected through an elaborate freeway system.
IBM showed off their new electric calculator, which ran on punch-cards. Smell-O-Vision, which may still be rebooted as the next big thing for Hollywood blockbusters, made its debut. Firestone Tires, having nothing really innovative to show off, had Calvin Coolidge’s pet pygmy hippo on display. The Jewish Palestine Pavilion showed off an idea for a modern Jewish state, nine years before Israel became a reality. On July 4, 1940, actor Ray Middleton made an appearance as Superman – the first time any actor would don the iconic tights and cape. Speaking of which, DC Comics put out a special issue for the World’s Fair, marking the first time Superman and Batman teamed up together. The World’s Fair invented the friggin’ Justice League.
I don’t know if we’ll ever see such a massive display of future technology in one place again. If we do, I’m betting on at least seven pavilions devoted to sex dolls. Me, I’ll be watching for the flying car.