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Written by Michael E Dehn

Founder and CEO of Metro Pulse a continually running enterprise since May 1980.

January 27, 2024

7 Fascinating Facts From the History of the World’s Fair

  • 1964 WORLD’S FAIR VIEW

The first world’s fair, known as the Great Exhibition, took place in London in 1851. Held in the Crystal Palace — a massive exhibition hall made of glass and iron — the fair displayed marvels of industry and science as well as works of craftsmanship and art from around the world. Since then, more than 100 world’s fairs have been held in over 20 countries, and countless inventions have made their debut at these massive events, from the telephone to cotton candy. Though the world’s fair has declined in popularity in the United States, it remains popular throughout much of the rest of the world. Here are seven highlights from the history of these fascinating exhibitions.

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Photo credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

One Fair Sparked a Frenzy for Plastic Pickles

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (named in honor of Christopher Columbus) was ripe with opportunity for food sellers. But H.J. Heinz — an American purveyor of pickles and ketchup — was frustrated with his booth placement. While the main floor showcased food exhibits from Germany, Great Britain, Mexico, and other nations, Heinz was stuck on the second floor where there was little foot traffic. He devised a marketing plan that promised a free prize to anyone who visited his booth: a small green plastic pickle pin. The pins were a massive hit; the crowds that flocked to his booth were so large that the floor reportedly sagged around the display. By the end of the exhibition, Heinz had given away more than 1 million pickle pins, paving the way for his brand to become a household name.

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Related:5 Inventions That Came Out of the Great Depression

Photo credit: Library of Congress/ Corbis Historical via Getty Images

Baby Incubators Started as a Carnival Attraction

The baby incubator — a lifesaving device in which premature or sick infants can develop — was invented in the 19th century by French obstetrician Stéphane Tarnier, who got the idea after seeing baby chicks being incubated at a zoo. The invention was widely adopted decades later, thanks to the work of two men, Pierre Budin and Martin Couney. Determined to popularize the groundbreaking technology, Budin and Couney displayed six incubators complete with real premature babies at the 1896 Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin, in an exhibit they dubbed “Child Hatchery.” The exhibit was so popular that Couney went on to set up a permanent exhibit in an unlikely location: the Coney Island amusement park in New York. For the next four decades, Couney managed a neonatal intensive care unit that saved thousands of babies while doubling as a carnival attraction. Despite not being a licensed doctor, Couney is now widely credited with the adoption of the baby incubator into mainstream medicine.

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Photo credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

Thomas Edison’s New X-Ray Machine Was Almost Used When President McKinley Was Shot

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition was held in Buffalo, New York, and showcased many cutting-edge advancements in science and technology. But it was also the site of tragedy. While greeting the public at the fair, U.S. President William McKinley was shot twice by an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz. The first bullet only grazed McKinley, but the second bullet hit him in the stomach, and the medical team could not locate it. As fate would have it, one of Thomas Edison’s new X-ray machines was on display at the fair. Edison had an assistant bring a machine to the house where McKinley was staying, but the medical team decided the President’s condition was too unstable to undergo the X-ray procedure, and the device was never used. McKinley passed away a week later, leading some to wonder whether Edison’s invention might have saved his life.

Photo credit: Chicago History Museum/ Archive Photos via Getty Images

Chicago Almost Became Home to a Bigger Eiffel Tower, But Got a Ferris Wheel Instead

Four years after the Eiffel Tower was built for the Paris International Exposition of 1889, a Chicago committee started to plan its own world’s fair, soliciting ideas from U.S. architects that would “out-Eiffel, Eiffel.” Proposals included a 1,500-foot tower made of logs and what would have been the first bungee tower. The architect of the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel, even offered to build a larger version of his namesake landmark. Instead, the Chicago committee opted for something unique: the world’s first Ferris wheel, built by and named for George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. At 250 feet in diameter, and sitting atop 140-foot-tall towers, the Ferris wheel took riders higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty. While the original Ferris wheel in Chicago has since been replaced by the Centennial Wheel, visitors from around the world continue to enjoy the architectural legacy of the world’s fair at Navy Pier.

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Photo credit: Science History Images/ Alamy Stock Photo

A World’s Fair Helped a Woman Inventor Launch the Modern Dishwasher

In 1883, an American socialite named Josephine Cochrane grew frustrated with the tedious task of washing the fine china she used to entertain guests. She vowed, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself.” In 1886, Cochrane received a patent for her dishwashing machine, which could wash and dry up to 240 dishes in two minutes with its innovative use of water pressure. However, Cochrane struggled to sell her invention due to the high cost of manufacture, as well as the sexism of the time; potential investors wanted Cochrane to resign and turn over control of her company to men. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago gave her the platform she needed — after publicly demonstrating her machine, Cochrane was awarded the event’s highest prize, for “best mechanical construction, durability, and adaptation to its line of work.” Orders from restaurants and hotels throughout the region skyrocketed, paving the way for the modern dishwasher.

Photo credit: BTEU/TEKNISKA/ Alamy Stock Photo

Video Chatting Was Initially a Flop

It’s easy to assume that video chatting is a recent invention that came along with the advent of the internet. But video chat technology has a history going back more than half a century. The public’s first contact with video chat was at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, where Bell Labs debuted a “picturephone” that enabled fairgoers to make video calls with strangers across the country at California’s Disneyland. Long lines formed and Bell Labs (along with its parent company, AT&T) believed the technology would be a commercial hit, with executives projecting that a million picturephone sets would be sold by 1980. Alas, the device failed to take off, largely due to the high price tag. Bell Labs attempted to roll out various iterations of the picturephone in the following decades, but it wasn’t until the advent of the internet that video chat finally took off.

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Photo credit: Dina Belenko/ Shutterstock

A Snake Oil Salesman Was a Showstopper

Today, the term “snake oil” signifies fraudulent goods and deceptive marketing, and it all started with a man named Clark Stanley, nicknamed “the Rattlesnake King.” Stanley introduced a “snake oil” product to the American public at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, claiming to have learned about it from Hopi medicine men. As part of a dramatic live demonstration, he cut open a rattlesnake and submerged it in boiling water, skimming off the fat that rose to the surface to create “Stanley’s Snake Oil.” Spectators were wowed, and Stanley’s product became an immediate hit. But while the oil from certain snakes, such as Chinese water snakes, does have medicinal properties, oil from most snakes native to the U.S. does not. What’s more, Stanley’s product was later found by the FDA to not contain any snake oil at all, but rather beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine, forever making snake oil synonymous with fraud

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