Diorama’s tiny cars
The painstakingly detailed cars of the Norman Bel Geddes’ diorama, which traveled on circulating chains throughout General Motors’ Futurama exhibit, were built to several scales. The smallest were single-piece molded plastic cars and trucks approximately an inch in length, which comprised the bulk of the vehicles featured in the landscape views of farms and cities. These cars were molded into several colors and shapes, including small podlike family cars, taxis, trucks, and tractor-trailers molded into two connected parts: streamlined fronts and boxy bodies. Each piece included a small metal clip underneath that attached to the chains running along the highways. The largest and most detailed cars were manufactured of metal and plastic with removable bodies and highly detailed molded and painted passengers, including adults and children of many variations and in several different poses. The taxi cars are typical, measuring 2.5 inches by 5 inches by 7.5 inches.
Pleasure Car from the Futurama exhibit, c.1939. Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers. 2011. Original photograph courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
Conquering Roads was a black and white short film produced by the Jam Handy Organization in 1937 for the Chevrolet Division of General Motors to celebrate the triumphs of highway engineering and to promote further investment in highway improvements. The film opens with a man steering a horse-drawn wagon through a busy modern intersection as the voice-over bursts in, “What’s wrong with this picture? A covered wagon on a modern boulevard is out of place! Old-fashioned transportation on a modern highway.”
Roads, the film tells us, are “as out of date as the covered wagon” while the modern automobile has continued to improve: “Cars have progressed, but many roads have stood still.” Highlighting engineering feats such as suspension bridges, clover-leaf ramps, and railroad overpasses, Conquering Roads sells the idea that improved roads will bring “comfort,” “safety,” “speed,” “economy,” and “freedom” to American drivers.
Conquering Roads. Prod. Jam Handy Organization. Chevrolet Motor Division, General Motors Sales Corporation, 1937. Prelinger Archives.
Wheels of Progress
Wheels of Progress, a silent film produced in 1927 by the United States Department of Agriculture Educational Film Service for the Bureau of Public Roads, is a fascinating example of early educational film aimed at promoting the economic and social benefits of investing in public roads. Interspersed with images of overcrowded urban neighborhoods and bumper-to-bumper traffic on city streets is the film’s message of progress: “As the development of the American highway awaited upon the demands of the motor—so do motor vehicles depend upon roads to perform their highest services on releasing the tremendous forces pent up by undeveloped transport facilities.”
The film focuses on the outward expansion of crowded American cities (“Big business is looking out, not up”) and the challenges of transporting goods using old technologies on bad roads. Juxtaposing older modes of transportation—walking, bicycling, horse and buggy—and the modern automobile, the film promotes, among other advantages, the prospect of living farther from one’s place of employment, in “new suburbs” where there is “[f]resh air and attractive surroundings for the workers.” “What has wrought this change?” we are asked and promptly answered: “Motors . . . Good roads . . . Personal transportation.”
Wheels of Progress. Prod. U.S. Department of Agriculture Educational Film Service. Dir. Edward Kelly and A. C. Rose. Bureau of Public Roads, 1927. Prelinger Archives.
To New Horizons
To New Horizons (1940), produced by the Jam Handy Organization for General Motors, uses the conquering of space as a metaphor for technological development. The film’s opening montage features stock film showing images of the “old horizons” of expansion into the American West and technological development on the frontier before smoothly transitioning into documentation of the Futurama ride. The diorama is depicted in slowly panning shots that sweep smoothly above the exhibit, offering an impressive aerial view that mirrored the experience of ride-goers. The film ends with shots of the popular exhibition building itself, replacing the familiar “the end” with “Without End” to signify that the future is something to strive for indefinitely.
To New Horizons. Prod. Jam Handy Organization. General Motors Corporation Department of Public Relations, 1940. Film. Prelinger Archives.
In 1886 George Westinghouse founded the Westinghouse Electric Company, which was later renamed the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Westinghouse pioneered innovations in engineering, including advances in long-distance and high-voltage power transmission, alternating current, air conditioning, broadcasting, and home appliances. In the 1940s Westinghouse was a major military contractor, researching and developing ground and air radar systems, aviation electronics, and jet propulsion technologies. After World War II, Westinghouse focused on the development of nuclear power, opening its first commercial nuclear power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957. Today, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation is a major manufacturer of nuclear technologies.
Ford Motor Company
The Ford Motor Company was founded by Henry Ford in 1903 after several failed attempts to start his own automotive business. Ford, who began as a steam engine mechanic for Westinghouse and later worked as an engineer for Edison Illuminating Company, built and raced several early motorcar designs. By 1913, in his newly opened Highland Park Plant, Ford had converted the automobile manufacturing process to that of a moving assembly line making possible the mass production of inexpensive cars. By 1920, the Ford Motor Company was producing more than one million cars in a given year. Eventually, during World War I and II, this method of mass production would be enlisted in the manufacturing of ships, planes, and auto- mobiles for the military.
Henry Ford is also credited with “fordism,” a system that combined high wages for workers who mass-produced inexpensive goods. This system, according to Victoria De Grazia, was “designed to spew out standardized, low-cost goods and afford its workers decent enough wages to buy them” (4), thereby creating a consumer econ- omy that worked in a perfect cycle: workers would produce goods in order to gain the purchasing power to buy them, while corporate shareholders siphoned off the profit. While fordism initially brought growth and economic prosperity to a struggling working class of Americans, the long-term effect, as economic growth slowed in the latter half of the twentieth century, was increasing income inequality and an American middle class whose lifestyles were defined by an addiction to consumerism.
De Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through 20th-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.
General Motors was founded in Flint, Michigan in 1908 as a holding company for the Buick brand. GM acquired Oldsmobile later that year, and in 1909 acquired other brands, including Cadillac. The first decades of GM were troubled by economic upheavals caused by collapses in new vehicle sales and unmanageable debt. In 1916 the company’s founder, William Durant, was ousted and replaced by Alfred P. Sloan. With his motto, “a car for every purse and purpose,” Sloan led GM to global dominance. GM was the leader in global sales for seventy-seven consecutive years, until finally overtaken by Toyota in 2008 (Strott).
In 2009, after not earning a profit in five years, General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, making it the second-largest industrial bankruptcy in history after World-Com’s declaration in 2002. Deemed to be a corporation that was “too big to fail,” General Motors received tens of billions of dollars in federal aid through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), making the United States a majority stakeholder in the automotive giant.
Strott, Elizabeth. “Toyota Takes Sales Crown from GM.” MSN Money. January 21, 2009. 1 Oct. 2010.
Despite popular belief, the German autobahn, originally called “Kraftfahrtstraße” or automobile road, was conceived of during the Weimar Republic, and had been under construction since 1929, four years before the National Socialist party took power. The autobahn was the first high-speed, limited access roadway in the world.
The autobahn, not unlike General Motors’ Futurama, imagined a pastoral landscape in which machine and nature abided in peaceful coexistence. As early as 1932, when the Autobahn project was appropriated from HAFABRA (Verein zur Vorbereitung der Autostraße Hansestädte-Frankfurt-Basel, the pre-Nazi highway lobby heavily invested in roading construction) for the purposes of creating a state-owned infrastructure project designed to ease massive unemployment, the Nazi movement was already working to sell the project as a way of bridging the gap between man and nature. Richard Vahrenkamp reports that Hitler’s propagandists used highway landscaping in a bid to win the strongly pro-modernization sector of the German population into the volkisch traditional-folk state ideology:
A pseudo-ideology was adopted in order to reconcile technology and nature. . . . The peculiar idea of “Autowandern,” (road touring) was introduced, that was supposed to combine enjoyment of the landscape with driving through the landscape on the autobahn. (98)
The Nazi volkisch movement, dependent primarily on a manufactured nostalgia for “traditional” culture, thus sought out the technology of highway landscaping as a means of satisfying that nostalgia.
Renamed under Hitler’s regime, the Reichsautobahn was constructed in earnest be- ginning in 1933 when civil engineer and Nazi party member Fritz Todt was appointed to oversee the massive project, part of Hitler’s public works program that would provide jobs for thousands of Germans and would stimulate economic recovery.
Given its tremendous propaganda potential, the Reichsautobahn provided more than employment opportunities and transportation infrastructure. It served, perhaps more potently, as a symbol of national unity and strength, and seemed to carry with it the promise of technological progress and modernity. Near the end of Hitler’s rule, how- ever, the German autobahn would come to be regarded as an icon of dictatorship.
Vahrenkamp, Richard. The German Autobahn 1920-1945: Hafraba Visions and Mega Projects. Koln: Josef Eul Verlag GmbH, 2010.
Zeller, Thomas. Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-1970. New York: Berghahn Books, 2007.
Strache, Wolf. “Reichsautobahn mit Tankstelle” (The Autobahn with service station and view of the countryside). c. 1936-1939. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Highways and Horizons
The GM “Highways and Horizons” complex, housed in the Fair’s “Transportation Zone,” ambitiously modeled itself as “A Fair within the Fair” (Highways and Horizons pamphlet 9).
While best known for the Futurama ride, the building housed many other displays, including exhibits by familiar GM subsidiaries such as Frigidaire, AC Delco, and the intriguingly named financing wing, the General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC). Not all displays engaged in the expansionist narrative employed by the Futurama ride. The “Casino of Science,” for example, presented technological developments in optics, telecommunications, and thermodynamics as a kind of magic show:
. . . the “stage magicians” in General Motors’ Casino of Science, assisted by scantily attired attractive young ladies, conjured up glass fibres, demonstrated the reproduction of sound via the light beam of a normal pocket torch, or the frying of an egg or the freezing of ice on the same “cooker,” the “Frigo-Therm,” before the eyes of an astonished and enthusiastic public. . . . [in the] House of Magic, the public were surprised by a flying metal carpet, an engine that ran on sunlight, and shadows that moved independently of the object. (Wesemael 533)
But the overarching theme of the “highways of tomorrow” remained, with GM subordinating its other scientific displays in the service of road design and car manufacturing:
. . . progress of tomorrow is based on research of today. Whether that progress be in industry, in the building of automobiles or the building of highways, it begins with research . . . [t]he highways of the future, to be adequate, must be the result of a carefully planned building program. In that all highway authorities agree. And the first step in intelligent highway planning has been, and must continue to be, intelligent research. (pamphlet 16)
Wesemael, Pieter van. Architecture of Instruction and Delight: A Socio-historical Analysis of World Exhibitions as a Didactic Phenomenon. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2001.
General Motors Corp. General Motors Highways and Horizons. 1939. Pamphlet. Open Library.
General Motors. “Aerial view of the GM complex (artist’s rendering).” General Motors Highways and Horizons. 1939. Pamphlet. Open Library.
In designing Futurama’s full-scale model of a 1960s intersection, Geddes sought to create a “representation of a city street crossing to offset any dreamy, impractical concept that the public might carry away from the Futurama” (Memo 1). Moreover, the intersection provided an opportunity for product placement by allowing the “spectator” the “experience of crossing a street in safety without thought of traffic, and of strolling along a beautiful street with inspiring displays of merchandise” (Memo 3). Ironically, the imagined ideal included the absence of cars. Later reflecting on the full-scale reproduction of the intersection, Geddes wrote, “Emerging from the conveyor to the full-sized reproduction of the toy street intersection, the visitors’ outstanding impression was of a civilization which had been cleaned, garnished and ordered. Waste, clutter and ugliness were out of it” (Cosmopolitan article—Publicity file) (“Case History” 43).
Geddes, Norman Bel. “Case History of the GM Intersection.” 1941. Box 19a, folder 381.57. Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
———. Memo re: GM Intersection from Geddes to Mr Brent. 1941. Box 19a, folder 381.55. Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
“Streets of the Future, Pedestrian traffic need never stop, Jan 7, 1948 [photo of Futurama city intersection].” Box 10a, folder 381.25. Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.
The “Polyrhetor,” also known as the “spectator sound system,” was a twenty-ton sound mechanism engineered by Electrical Research Products, Inc. The massive machine delivered multi-voiced guided narration to each of the 552 armchairs carrying visitors through General Motors’ Futurama ride at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. The Polyrhetor contained 150 individual amplifiers, each playing a part of the guided tour through the exhibit. Because magnetic tape was in the early stages of development, the Polyrhetor relied on motion picture film as a medium on which to record the audio guide.
“A Selected History of Magnetic Recording.” Friedrich Engel and Peter Hammar. Additional editing by Richard L. Hess. PDF.
“Twenty-Tons-of-Voice. This huge automaton, machined to a precision rivaling the world’s great telescopes, serves as a corps of 150 ‘private guides’ to visitors touring the General Motors’ ‘Highways and Horizons’ exhibit at the New York World’s Fair. In the machine, 150 equally spaced photoelectric cell devices scan a motion picture film at the same time throughout its length. Thus 150 different parts at the same story are told separately but at the same time. Moving cars, in the exhibit, carry spectators past a Model panorama of tomorrow’s highway system. Each of 600 cars, equipped with a loudspeaker of a special type gives visitors a perfectly synchronized description of the treats awaiting the motorist of the future.” GM Heritage Center.
“An engineer slides one of the 150 individual amplifiers into position in its shelf on the Polyrhetor – multi-voiced guide system which forms vital part of General Motors’ exhibit, ‘Highways and Horizons,’ at the World’s Fair in New York. All connections between the amplifier and sound mechanism are made by a bayonet type plug. An adjustment screw in front provides individual volume adjustment.” GM Heritage Center.
The Futurama ride’s carry-go-round or “mobilounge” was “. . . a combination conveyor-elevator-escalator,” designed by Westinghouse Elevator Company, with a piped-in soundtrack generated by the Polyrhetor, created by Electrical Research Products, Inc. The winged easy chairs, upholstered in blue mohair fabric, were six feet high “to suggest a private, traveling opera box.” The chairs’ “wings” were designed to restrict the spectator’s view to the front.
Geddes, Norman Bel. “For Release in Saturday Afternoon and Sunday Papers, April 15-16, 1939.” Apr. 1939. GM Press release draft. Box 19a, Folder 381.311. Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX.
“Now the visitor is seated in a traveling sound-chair.” Futurama. 1940. General Motors. Building Technology Heritage Library.
Toll Roads and Free Roads
“Toll Roads and Free Roads” was a report authored by Bureau of Public Roads chief, Thomas Harris MacDonald and his assistant, Herbert Fairbank. The report, commissioned as part of The Federal Highway Act of 1938, asked the BPR chief to:
. . . investigate and make a report of his findings and recommend feasibility of building, and cost of, superhighways not exceeding three in number, running in a general direction from the eastern to the western portion of the United States, and not exceeding three in number, running from the northern to the southern portion of the United States, including the feasibility of a toll system on such roads. (“Toll Roads and Free Roads” 1)
In the study, the authors estimate that 14,336 miles for six transcontinental superhighways would cost just under three billion dollars. Based on traffic predictions, the report concluded that an Interstate Highway System funded by toll collections was not feasible given the low volume of automobiles that the authors anticipated would travel on coast-to-coast highways.
In the report the authors turn fairly quickly to a discussion of the need not for rural highways but for arterial bypasses to ease congestion for suburban commuters traveling in and out of cities. From there, the authors go on to discuss the “urgent problems, especially certain problems confronting larger cities” (4), by which they seem to mean the challenge of acquiring rights-of-way in decaying urban areas for the purpose of highway construction. One concern stated in the report is that redevelopment projects in “slums” will increase property values, making highway construction in urban areas too costly.
[The motor vehicle] made possible the outward transfer of the homes of citizens with adequate income from the inner city to the suburbs and it now conveys these citizens daily back and forth to their city offices and places of business.
The former homes of the transferred population have descended by stages to lower and lower income groups, and some of them (each year an increasing number, and generally those nearest the center of the city) have now run the entire gamut. Almost untenable, occupied by the humblest citizens, they fringe the business district, and form the city’s slums—a blight near its very core! Each year a few of these once prouder tenements, weakened by want of repair, tumble into piles of bricks, not infrequently taking a human life in their fall. Each year a few of them make way for parking lots—unsightly indexes to needed facilities of higher density! Each year the city “takes over” a few of them for unpaid taxes. And now—the Federal Government is beginning to acquire them in batches in connection with its slum clearance projects. Heralds of a better future though they are, these acquisitions comprise one of the reasons for avoidance of delay in dealing with the problem of transcity highway connections and express highways. (94)
As this passage suggests, the 1939 BPR report was already prefiguring the push, on the part of federal highway engineers, to acquire rights-of-way in depressed urban areas through eminent domain legislation, thus linking slum clearance and highway construction projects into a single plan. Insofar as the “humblest citizens” who occupied these “untenable” homes in city centers were, increasingly, minorities, race was an implicit factor in highway building campaigns from the very beginning.
U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. Toll Roads And Free Roads.: Message From the President of the United States Transmitting a Letter From the Secretary of Agriculture, Concurred In by the Secretary of War, Enclosing a Report of the Bureau of Public Roads, United States Department of Agriculture, On the Feasibility of a System of Transcontinental Toll Roads And a Master Plan for Free Highway Development. Washington: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1939. Hathi Trust.
Bureau of Public Roads
The Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) was established as part of the United States De- partment of Agriculture in 1893. It initially went by the name of the Office of Road Inquiry, and in 1905 was called the Office of Public Roads. It became the Bureau of Public Roads with the passing of the Agriculture Appropriation Act in 1919. The primary purpose of the BPR was to promote, plan, and implement highway engineering projects, including roads leading into America’s National Parks.
Although the building of the Interstate Highway System was not authorized by the federal government until 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the history of the Interstate extends as far back as The Federal Highway Act of 1938, which included a directive to Thomas Harris MacDonald, the chief of the Bureau of Public Roads, to:
investigate and make a report of his findings and recommend feasibility of building, and cost of, superhighways not exceeding three in number, running in a general direction from the eastern to the western portion of the United States, and not exceeding three in number, running from the northern to the southern portion of the United States, including the feasibility of a toll system on such roads. (“Toll Roads and Free Roads” 1; see glossary term)
The current federal agency, the Federal Highway Administration, replaced the BPR in 1967.
Mertz, Lee. “Origins of the Interstate.” U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. 15 Sept. 2010. FHWA.
U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. Toll Roads And Free Roads.: Message From the President of the United States Transmitting a Letter From the Secretary of Agriculture, Concurred In by the Secretary of War, Enclosing a Report of the Bureau of Public Roads, United States Department of Agriculture, On the Feasibility of a System of Transcontinental Toll Roads And a Master Plan for Free Highway Development. Washington: U.S. Govt. print. off., 1939.
U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. “Highway History.” 15 Sept. 2010. FHWA.
Norman Bel Geddes
Born in Adrian, Michigan in 1893 and raised in New Philadelphia, Ohio, Norman Bel Geddes (pictured here kneeling to inspect a new car) was a well-known industrial designer whose futuristic concepts, including designs for theatrical sets, radios, furniture, automobiles, and airplanes, were heavily influenced by Art Deco style.
Though some of his ideas seem fanciful in retrospect, such as his plan that cars would be equipped with radio transmitters to safely disperse traffic on busy interstate highways, Geddes was considered visionary in his time. He is perhaps best remembered for his design of the General Motors pavilion at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair for which he designed the “Futurama,” a futuristic model of America as he imagined it could look in 1960. Geddes’ imaginative highway designs, featured in the Futurama exhibit and in his book Magic Motorways (1940), anticipated the Interstate Highway System that was eventually authorized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 under the Federal Aid Highway Act. Geddes died in 1958.
Geddes, Norman Bel. Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940.
U.S. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. “Detroit, Michigan. Norman Bel Geddes and Nash-Kelvinator corporation officials inspecting a marked-up model of a new car.” 1939. Arthur S. Siegel, photographer. Library of Congress.
Trylon and Perisphere
Two central symbols of the progress promised by the organizers of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair were the massive sculptural features, Trylon and Perisphere, which formed the fair’s thematic center. The 700-foot-tall Trylon spire and the Perisphere, measuring 180 feet in diameter, were fashioned from steel frames and gypsum board. They were later dismantled, their materials purposed in the war effort. The massive structures, visible to visitors for miles, were designed by Wallace Harrison (who would go on to design the United Nations Headquarters in New York) and Jacques Andre Fouilhoux.
Housed within the Perisphere (the sculptural form that would later inspire Disney’s Epcot Center) was the “Democracity,” a diorama conceived of by industrial de- signer Henry Dreyfuss, depicting a utopian city of the future. Unlike General Mo- tors’ Futurama exhibit, which set its sights on the world of 1960, Democracity depicted the far-off world of 2039. In this carefully planned community of tomorrow, the fair’s guide book told visitors, could be found a “perfectly integrated, futuristic metropolis pulsing with life and rhythm and music” (Guide Book 37). Slums and slag heaps would disappear, replaced by clean, hydro-electric power, and beautifully architected skyscrapers. Industrial, commercial, and residential areas would be perfectly planned and evenly dispersed across a vast countryside. It was, in short, a vision of suburbia.
Bush, Donald J. The Streamlined Decade. New York: George Braziller, 1975.
Cotter, Bill. 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. Images of America. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.
Darton, Eric. Divided We Stand: A Biography of New York City’s World Trade Center. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair, 1939. New York: Exposition Publications, 1939.
Gottscho, Samuel H. “World’s Fair. Trylon & Perisphere II.” 1939. Library of Congress.
Flushing Meadows Park, also known as Corona Park, is located in Queens Borough, New York City. The 1255-acre municipal park is the second largest in New York City. The park was created in 1939 to serve as the staging grounds of the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, and later as the site of the 1964-1965 World’s Fair.
The site, cleared under the authority of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, was previously occupied by the Brooklyn Ash Removal Company, which transformed the site, according to Moses, from a “beautiful tidal basin” into a foul-smelling industrial ash heap known as the Corona Ash Dumps. This infamous “valley of ashes” was characterized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and remains a potent symbol of moral and social decay in the industrial age:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke, and finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. (27)
The Fair’s official guide book offers a celebratory description of the massive reclamation project:
The mountains were leveled and the bogs filled in with almost six million cubic yards of ashes. Over the marshes thus filled in, hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of top soil were deposited and leveled. The creation of Fountain Lake and Willow Lake and the reshaping of the course of Flushing River necessitated the excavation of almost a million cubic yards of meadow mat, much of which was chemically processed to form the necessary top soil for landscaping. A massive tide gate and dam were built to regulate water levels of the Fair-created lakes and the lagoon and to control the tide waters of Flushing Bay.
By the end of March 1937, far ahead of schedule, the contractors had worked a miracle. The area was leveled, filled and graded, ready for construction and planting. When the fair closes, the entire site will become one of the greatest municipal parks in the world—a park fifty percent larger than Manhattan’s famous Central Park. On the preparation of the site which the Fair Corporation will turn to the City, the Fair has expended more than twelve million dollars in hidden improvements beneath your feet. The story of the reclamation of the site and the building of the Fair on it, is a romantic saga of modern engineering. (Guide Book 23-24)
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Macmillan, 1992.
Moses, Robert. The Saga of Flushing Meadow: The Valley of Ashes. Self-published booklet. Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, 1966.
Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair, 1939. New York: Exposition Publications, 1939.
Samuel, Lawrence R. The End of Innocence: The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. New York: Syracuse UP, 2007.
Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation. “The ‘valley of ashes’ made famous in the novel The Great Gatsby.” 1924. New York Bureau of Engineering. Photograph. NYPL Digital Gallery. Wikimedia Commons.
1939-1940 New York World’s Fair
The 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair was the largest ever of the World’s Fairs. It promised to show visitors “the world of tomorrow,” a theme that, according to historian Robert Rydell, would become a “structuring metaphor for twentieth-century American culture” (966). The Fair’s official guide book boldly declared,
The eyes of the Fair are on the future—not in the sense of peering into the unknown and predicting the shape of things a century hence—but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow. To its millions of visitors the Fair says: “Here are the materials, ideas and forces at work in our world. Here are the best tools that are available to you; they are the tools with which you and your fellow men can build the World of Tomorrow. You are the builders; we have done our best to persuade you that these tools will result in a better World of Tomorrow; yours is the choice.” (Guide Book 36)
Unlike previous fairs, such as the 1933-1934 “Century of Progress” exposition in Chicago, which celebrated the ways science and technology had already transformed the world, the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair looked unflinchingly ahead, even as more sinister threats lurked in the dark corners of the future. The 1939-1940 fair, writes historian Lawrence R. Samuel, “looked forward rather than backward, a declaration of future possibilities versus a celebration of past achievements. As the event approached, it was clear that the fair was assigned the mighty purpose of reinventing the possibilities of tomorrow” (47).
The fair was divided into seven “zones”: Amusement, Government, Transportation, Food, Communications and Business Systems, Community Interests, Science and Public Health, Production and Distribution, and Science and Education (Guide Book 40). The Amusement zone included sideshow-like exhibits such as the “Arctic Girl’s Tomb of Ice,” the “Midget Auto Race,” and “Frank Buck’s Jungleland” (Guide Book 46, 54, 59). The Communications and Business Systems zone included the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) Building, which housed gimmicky devices such as Bell Lab’s speech synthesizer “Voder,” the “Voice Mirror” which allowed a visitor to hear the sound of his or her own “telephone voice,” and Aetna Insurance Company’s “Reactometer,” a driving simulator that measured the speed at which a motorist could react to road hazards (Guide Book 81, 86). Of the pavilions, though, the one that received the most attention was General Motors’ Futurama, which featured an American landscape of 1960 transformed by a vast network of highways.
Official Guide Book of the New York World’s Fair, 1939. New York: Exposition Publications, 1939.
Rydell, Robert W. “Selling the World of Tomorrow: New York’s 1939 World’s Fair.” The Journal of American History Vol. 77, No. 3 (Dec. 1990): 966-70.
Samuel, Lawrence R. Future: A Recent History. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.
The queue for the Futurama. P. Medicus. New York World's Fair, 1939-40 (Reel 4) (Part II).1939-40. Amateur Film. Prelinger Archives.
Elektro the Moto-Man
Elektro, a seven-foot-tall, 265-pound, humanoid robot with a “very fine brain” was built for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and delighted audiences at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. He reappeared at the fair in 1940, accompanied by his robotic dog, Sparko. Made from a steel frame and covered in a gold-colored aluminum shell, Elektro could perform twenty-six tasks, including walking on command, talking, moving his head, arms, and fingers, counting, detecting color, and saluting. He was most adept at smoking cigarettes, and later, when smoking became less appealing, inflating balloons. His performances, however, were more illusion than reality as much of his electronic circuitry was located backstage. Like the Polyrhetor, the twenty-ton sound device that provided seamless voice-over narration to visitors of General Motors’ Futurama, Elektro presented the appearance of a futuristic mobile “moto-man” by hiding the robot’s cumbersome mechanical tethers conveniently out of sight.
After being restored by Jack Weeks, whose father was an original engineer of the robot, Elektro was put on display at the Mansfield Memorial Museum in Ohio.
Corn, Joseph J. and Brian Horrigan. Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.
Elektro the Moto-Man addresses the crowd. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. 1939. Audio Productions, Inc. for Westinghouse. Prelinger Archives.
Voder was a speech synthesizer produced in the 1930s by Homer Dudley at Bell Telephone Laboratories, the research and development arm of American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). Voder synthesized speech by breaking down speech into constitutive sounds—a mixture of tones and fricatives—and reproducing them electronically.
Voder’s operator, a woman technician who trained on the machine for a year or longer, was responsible for working a keyboard of component sounds and a foot pedal that modulated tone, inflection, and volume in order to convert a sequence of sounds into speech. Vannevar Bush made special note of the machine in “As We May Think,” his seminal 1945 article on the future of information retrieval:
At a recent World’s Fair a machine called a Voder was shown. A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech. No human vocal chords entered into the procedure at any point; the keys simply combined some electrically produced vibrations and passed these on to a loud-speaker.
Bode, Harald. “History of Electronic Sound Modification.” Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 32.10 (Oct. 1984): 730-739.
Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic Magazine, July 1945.
Flanagan, James L. Speech Analysis, Synthesis and Perception. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1965.
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