- Historic Sites
What Went Wrong With Disney’s Worlds Fair
With Epcot, Walt Disney turned his formidable skills to building a city where man and technology could live together in perfect harmony. The result is part prophecy, part world’s fair. Here, America’s leading authority on technological history examines this urban experiment in the light of past world’s fairs, and tells why it fails where they succeeded—and why that matters.
December 1983 | Volume 35, Issue 1
Within this various collectivity the center of gravity was to be found in the buildings devoted to transportation, manufacture, and electricity. Here, among the Corliss engines, the dynamos, the machine tools, the locomotives, and turret lathes, one would come in time upon all the instrumentation of the industrial process—much of it doing actual work.
And here also were many indications of how the process itself worked. There were the stages of development in the locomotive from the Stourbridge Lion in 1829 to the newest engine on the New York Central. Along one wall was laid out the linear progression of materials and ideas that Alexander Graham Bell had followed until he arrived at that first telephone he had used to inform Watson he needed him.
The 1893 fair ran for six months; one in four Americans saw it.
The current American performance was therefore ordinarily presented within the context of past activity. It was also put up against what other industrial nations were doing at the time. So there was an opportunity to make comparisons among other processes, procedures, and artifacts. The British, for instance, had an elaborate demonstration of the advances that had been made in ocean liners driven by steam propulsion and the Germans revealed their steady progress in ballistics in their exhibit of rifled cannon—one of which Mr. Krupp thoughtfully offered to Chicago “to protect the port.”
And the current American performance was set within yet another and larger context by a series of week-long colloquiums. The authors Hamlin Garland, Charles Dudley Warner, and Thomas Lounsbury, the leading Chaucerian, argued about the role of literary criticism; the philosopher Josiah Royce discussed Kant; and Frederick Jackson Turner revealed for the first time his concept of the significance of the Frontier in American history. Nikola Tesla lectured on induction motors, and when the great physicist Baron Hermann von Helmholtz appeared at one of the sessions, he received the loudest and longest acclamation given to anyone who attended the exposition.
The fair lasted for six months, and one out of every four Americans came to see it. And what did these fourteen million make of it all? The vast installation had been put together by so many different heads and hands representing so many different skills and attitudes that the range for exploration was almost endless and there were, of course, marked divisions of interest among the multitudes. Farmers tended to look at livestock, housewives to study textiles and dining room suites, factory workers to examine machinery, and small boys to stare at genuine savages.
But there was at the time, and has been ever since, a conviction that the whole added up to a good deal more than, something quite different from, the sum of the parts. It was not so much a fair as a kind of clearinghouse for the study of present attainments and future possibilities where you could reach your own conclusions. As such it was a powerful instrument of public instruction. As one shrewd observer said, “Educational game started like rabbits from every building.”
The lessons were of various kinds. One had to do with aesthetics—those buildings that Theodore Roosevelt said “make the most beautiful architectural exhibit the world has ever seen.” Not everybody thought so, and as in any sound pedagogy, there was a debate that has continued ever since. The prevailing style of the White City was called “freely classical,” which left a good deal of room for what one critic called a “duplication of other modes.” Lewis Mumford argued it was. “a retrogression” from the daring work that John Root and Louis Sullivan had been doing in that same city of Chicago.
But such views, however wise and perceptive, were held by a very small minority. Just by its presence, it was said again and again, the White City excited the “forces making for aesthetic appreciation in America.” It awakened the sense of the possibility of beauty—from wherever derived—in one’s own surroundings. Quite possibly both sides were right, and no one denied the continuing influence of these remarkable structures on the American consciousness.
And there were the lessons in the nature of the physical plant, the state of the country’s industrial development. Father Day sent his son Clarence off to the fair because “it is a great educational opportunity.” The boy should spend time, particularly, in the Transport Pavilion, where he would learn the things he needed to know when, at some future time, he took his father’s place on the boards of several railroads. More generally, it was said that “by daily practical demonstrations it became apparent even to the minds of very ordinary people” how electricity, “the new force,” had been “applied to human service,” how steam machines worked, and how the machines that manufactured things operated.
And then there was at least the opening chapter in the harder lesson of what to do with all the new power available, what kind of larger life to build upon the extraordinary mechanical foundations. In this area Oswald Garrison Villard found that the fair “as an educational institution was a tremendous success.” “Every kind of civic and social endeavor was stimulated by that exhibition,” he concluded.