The White City

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Another reason the White City was so reassuring to Adams and others anxious about urban changes was that its architecture, like the public buildings in the Utopian city of Edward Bellamy’s widely read novel Looking Backward , was traditional and familiar—what almost everyone thought a great city should look like. Yet while the emphasis was on formal order and ancient grandeur on the outside, on display inside the crowded main pavilions were the newest inventions of the day. This was the dawning of the electric age, and in the Electricity Building on the Court of Honor could be seen the work of the “wizards” who were inventing the future. There were electric kitchens and calculating machines, electric brushes for relieving headaches, electric chairs for “humane” executions, and what sightseers considered two of the marvels of the age by two of its technological heroes, Elisha Gray’s teleautograph for transmitting facsimile writing or drawings by telegraph—Victorian America’s fax machine—and Thomas A. Edison’s Kinetoscope, a peepshow device for viewing motion pictures on celluloid film (that April Edison had opened the world’s first nickelodeon in Manhattan). Fairgoers could see demonstrations of long-distance calls over Bell Telephone lines, and as they walked about the building, they were treated to live orchestra music transmitted over wires from New York and broadcast through a “mammoth telephone” suspended from the roof.

In Burnham’s chaste city, tradition and change, order and innovation, were in perfect harmony, suggesting to people that they could enjoy all the benefits and conveniences of the coming technological age without changing their settled values and habits. Edison had invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879, but to many fairgoers from farms and small towns electricity remained a mysterious, even frightening, force. By giving the uninitiated a chance to examine the new electrical devices up close and in action, the fair demystified electricity and helped create a greater demand for it, soothing fears, all the while, that ungoverned science was rushing mankind toward ruin, as Henry Adams argued after visiting the hall that housed the low-humming dynamos that provided electric current for the fair. “I used to be afraid that the government was all a goin’ to pieces and that my fighting for Uncle Sam at Gettysburg was of no use,” says a prairie farmer in one of the dozens of novels inspired by the fair, “but I ain’t any more afraid of the world bustin’ up. People that made the machinery that I’ve seen ... have too much sense.”

Sightseers who stayed on the grounds into the evening received an unforgettable display of the “splendors” of electricity in the nighttime illumination of the Court of Honor. The symmetrical outlines of the ghostly palaces were “etched in fire against the blackness of the night,” as one writer described it, while giant searchlights swept the basin and settled on the electric fountains, which shot up illuminated jets of colored water. A fireworks display lit the sky over the Peristyle, and electric boats strung with lines of lights streaked across the waters of the lagoon like swarms of fireflies.

The crowds that lined the banks of the lagoons and canals on these summer evenings were seeing more than an entertainment. The show transported them to the Electric City of the approaching age, where a “blaze of lights” would banish the “fearful mysteries of the darkness,” one writer predicted, giving back the city’s streets to decent folk. In the coming years electricity would run America’s factories and trains and heat its houses and businesses, said an engineer interviewed at the fair, clearing the air in its cities of grime and smoke.

This prophet was a thirty-four-year-old bridge designer from Pittsburgh named George Washington Gale Ferris. His big steel wheel on the Midway Plaisance, the exposition’s commercially run entertainment strip, was the fair’s only rival in popular appeal to the nighttime illumination, and a foretaste of how technology would usher in a new industry of mass entertainment.

Ferris got the inspiration for his invention from Daniel Burnham’s challenge to the American engineers to create something that would outdo the Eiffel Tower, the chief exhibit at the Paris world’s fair of 1889. Plans came in for towers higher than Eiffel’s and even for a range of man-made mountains, but Ferris was the only engineer to submit something new and technically audacious, a proposal, as someone at the time described it, to put Eiffel’s observatory on a pivot and set in motion. He built his wheel in five months with his own money and assembled it in Jackson Park in June. When the 140-foot-high towers were anchored in concrete, the forty-five-ton axle—the largest piece of steel forged up to that time—was lifted into the sockets of the towers and acrobatic construction workers pieced together the spider web of steel rods that held the wheel in perfect tension. When the 250-foot-diameter wheel was finished, it was ringed with three thousand electric bulbs.