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1.1: Riding on the Futurama

Context: The 1939-40 World's Fair, home to the original Futurama exhibition designed by Norman Bel Geddes.

Published onMar 24, 2021
1.1: Riding on the Futurama

Riding on the Futurama

“I Have Seen the Future”

Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost a matter of movement and circulation. —Interview with Paul Virilio, CTheory (2000).

In 1939, the people of America saw the future. The 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, which had as its opening slogan “The Dawn of a New Day,” was held in New York’s Flushing Meadows, a swampy area in the borough of Queens formerly used as an ash dump. Reborn from long- polluted marshlands and boasting parking for 35,000 cars, the fair attracted over forty-four million visitors in its two- season run before it closed down and many of its displays were scrapped for use in the war effort.

As in previous fairs (notably the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair during which electricity made its public debut), the New York World’s Fair foregrounded a distinctly American combination of technological innovation, futuristic design, and natural beauty in the form of technology pavilions, artistic displays, manicured gardensm, and ebullient fountains. At the fair’s center stood two grand hollow monuments, the Trylon and Perisphere, abstract forms representing a clean, modernistic future. Housed within the Perisphere was a diorama called the Democracity—a utopian city of the future. The technology pavilions featured innovations in telecommunications (Bell Labs’ popular keyboard-driven speech synthesizer known as the “Voder”), lighting (General Electric introduced the fluorescent light), and gimmicky “technologies” such as Westinghouse’s seven-foot-tall humanoid robot, Elektro the Moto-Man. In the first season, before it was changed to respond to the war in Europe, the fair’s official theme was “Building the World of Tomorrow.”

Elektro the Moto-Man. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. 1939. Audio Productions, Inc. for Westinghouse. Prelinger Archives.

Nowhere was this vision of “tomorrow” made more apparent than in the transportation pavilions. By far, the most popular exhibit at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair was General Motors’ “Futurama,” industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’ vision of America’s transportation future. The Futurama consisted of a scale-model America, including a “City of Tomorrow” and a network of interconnecting fourteen-lane superhighways. The ride carried visitors in plush wingback chairs through a 35,000-square-foot diorama featuring the “highways of tomorrow.” These highways carried ten thousand scale-model cars that traveled ceaselessly around the diorama, pulled along by an intricate mechanism of moving chains.

“Concept drawing of Futurama’s lanes of traffic. ”

Futurama’s lanes. Norman Bel Geddes Papers, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image courtesy of the Edith Luytens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

“Transition points and wait-points on Futurama’s freeways.”

Futurama’s lanes. Norman Bel Geddes Papers, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image courtesy of the Edith Luytens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

The Futurama ride exemplifies many popular trends and ideas of the 1930s: the rise of urbanism and the promise of technology, the stitching together of pastoral and urban landscapes, and an optimistic vision of a future world brought about through both infrastructural and economic development.

Geddes planned out the highway of the future in exquisite detail with an eye to its later implementation in the real world. The highway system that Geddes imagined in his meticulous diorama, with its sweeping interchanges and wide, fast-moving lanes, had already been described in considerable detail by government engineers tasked by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1938 to study the feasibility of a system of six transcontinental superhighways. The resulting Bureau of Public Roads report, “Toll Roads and Free Roads” (1939), forecasted an Interstate Highway System much like the one that appears in Geddes’ model. Unlike the Futurama, however, the BPR’s report was generally focused on the legislative and economic obstacles that confronted state and federal governments in making the superhighways a reality: an unjustifiably high cost, the legal challenges of acquiring rights-of-way in urban areas, and the unlikelihood that toll-charges on drivers, who were still too few in number, could recuperate the three-billion-dollar expense. Despite these obstacles, the report still “urge[d] against delay” and advocated for revisions of existing city and state legislation to make land-seizures through eminent domain easier and more affordable (“Toll Roads” 94). This preemptive approach, the report implies, would also serve as an effective tool to combat urban decay through slum clearance.

In contrast to the BPR’s pessimistic study, Geddes’ Futurama ride cleverly bypassed the legislative and political tangles of engineering a transcontinental superhighway—tangles that would ultimately delay the creation of the Interstate Highway System for nearly two decades—and instead presented the American public with a landscape that had already been fully transformed and perfected. The slums were gone, and the highways were already built and paid for in this utopian Tomorrowland. In fact, the popular success of Futurama prompted FDR to invite Geddes to display a model of the diorama at a White House dinner (Rose 11).

Futurama’s highways consisted of four outer lanes with speeds limited to 50 mph. These lanes were bordered by a three-foot divider, with an eighteen-inch barrier between each lane. This was abutted by a green median, then another three-foot divider with two 70-mph lanes separated by another eighteen-inch barrier. Next came another grass median and then a single 100-mph lane.

Geddes’ list of speeds for animated objects, scale of 1 inch:20 feet. Norman Bel Geddes Papers, Harry Ransom Center.

Among Geddes’ papers is a breakdown of the scale used to determine the relative speed of model cars traveling through the Futurama exhibit. In the diorama, the speed and ease of the motorway was designed to be visually juxtaposed to the moving model trains in order to suggest to visitors that traveling by car could be as fast and convenient as traveling by rail. In 1941, Geddes recalled,

A question was raised in regard to the superspeed highways: on that scale it was felt that it would be impossible to create the illusion of speed. It was suggested that a railway train be included, with an amplifier to point out that the train was traveling at 50mph., and the cars whizzing past it. (Prod. Min., 381, 2/14/38) (“Case History” 14)

Likewise, the model cars traveling along the superhighway were shown to be moving at faster speeds relative to cars traveling on older (and by contrast lesser) highways. In his description of the conveyor ride models, Geddes wrote, “Attention is directed to a comparison of the winding, twisting ordinary highways in this heavily-wooded locality, with the direct route of the new Motorway” (“Description” 11).

There were regular breaks in the lane dividers to allow transition from one to another; at “transition points” a lane would appear in the grass strip so the driver could cross from one speed zone to another. In Geddes’ proposed plan, the driver would be “advised by dashboard signal” when he was able to change lanes. If the lanes were crowded the driver was directed to a lane inside the grass strip that would act as a kind of wait-point until the “clear” signal was given. These strips were to be used for accelerating or decelerating. To further ensure safety, cars would be separated by a minimum spacing that was to be maintained by “radio-activated beams sent from the rear of the cars to the instrument panel of the cars following” (Correspondence).

Geddes’ proposed interstate highway system was imagined as the perfect technological fix to provide a safe environment for the burgeoning traffic on American roads.

The Futurama as viewed from the carry-go-round. P. Medicus, New York World's Fair, 1939-40 (Reel 4) (Part II).1939-40. Amateur Film. Prelinger Archives.

The Futurama was a vision of the American landscape as it was imagined to look in 1960, this being the furthest into “the future” that Geddes was willing to speculate. In a revealing conversation with then director of Yale University’s Bureau for Street Traffic Research, Miller McClintock, Geddes explained the logic behind staging the Futurama in the not-so-distant future:

McClin: I foresee that this will be one of the most remarkable exhibits ever made at a World’s Fair.

Geddes: Dineen wants it toned down—brought a little closer to today. The further away it is, the safer it is to do something dramatic like this, and I want you to support me on it. When we talk of a 100-mile lane, that’s not stretching the imagination too much, is it?

McClin: You’ve got to stretch their imagination. But I think you should make it the year 2000 instead of 1960. After all, 1960 is only 20 years away.

Geddes: Oh no, I can’t make it so far ahead, because there won’t be any gasoline cars by then. I’m no Jules Verne. (Geddes and McClintock, “Minutes”)

As visitors exited the pavilion they were given a lapel pin that boldly declared, “I Have Seen the Future.”

“I Have Seen the Future” button given to visitors to the Futurama. Collection of the author.

The Futurama set the stage for a powerful vision of the future of transportation. Geddes’ model of 1960s America was immense, stretching over 35,000 square feet. The diorama was housed in the impressively modern General Motors Pavilion, itself a showcase for futuristic design with its streamlined, unornamented walls and sweeping highway-like entrance. The “Futurama ride” was the highlight of the fair, attracting up to 28,000 people a day over the two-year duration of the exhibit (Corn 49).

Highways and Horizons exhibit guidebook. Futurama. 1940. General Motors. Building Technology Heritage Library.

According to the accompanying guidebook, the diorama consisted of:

a half-million buildings and houses—thousands of miles of multi-lane highways—more than a million trees—rivers, lakes and streams—snow-capped mountains—rich, flowering countryside—industrial centers—college and resort towns—great, towering cities . . . (Futurama Tour Guide)

The Futurama exhibit employed the genre of “the amusement ride,” which was popular in other attractions at the fair: visitors were seated in a “carry-go-round consisting of 552 plush blue mohair chairs that moved slowly around the sides of the diorama as simulated night fell and the sun rose again. In a description of the ride, Geddes outlined the spectator’s experience:

The spectator is seated in a comfortable chair on the conveyor platform and is moved through semi-darkness while a quiet authoritative voice at his shoulder explains what he is about to see.

At the end of this twenty-second period the spectator is suddenly confronted with a breath-taking model of rolling farm country in the springtime. Afternoon sunlight floods the pink and white orchards, the woods, the farms with their plowed fields of alfalfa, barley and wheat. All this is seen, complete in every detail. Cattle graze in green pastures and goats nibble on the rocky ledges. Fresh-leaved trees by the streams reflect themselves in clear water. In the pattern of spring colors the forests tie the whole scheme together. This is the setting at the start of a trip that the visitor will take through varied and spectacular terrain. It will be viewed through a continuous window directly before him and the voice at his shoulder will personally bring to his attention and describe to him the various features and points of interest which he is to see.

As soon as the spectator becomes accustomed to the model and its scale and adjusts himself to the window, he takes in the beauty and completeness of the detail—the houses, barns, highways, a town, its airport, a railroad, and all the minor but characteristic elements which are typical of the country-side, such as filling stations, telephone poles, signal lights, deserted houses. He notices the people and their activity. About the farms men and women are seen in gardens and barnyards. Others are going to the nearby town and golf course. On the outskirts of the town a traveling street carnival is preparing for the crowds that will come later to enjoy its bright pavilions and rides. Actually, the spectator is being transported to an early afternoon in the spring of 1960, and for the entire ride he will live in that future—but a future which retains enough of 1939 to keep it from being fantastic.

. . . As night gives way to early light, the various modern cars can be studied . . . The spectator is now traveling in the soft light of early morning high above mountain foothills. (Geddes, “Description” 1, 10-11)

As this description suggests, the ride was designed to take visitors from afternoon, through night, and into sunrise, signifying a “new dawn.” In this way, the ride would imply that the interstate highway system of 1960 would not only compress space but also time—acceleration through technology.

The tour was narrated by a voice issuing from a speaker box embedded in each pair of chairs; the soundtrack was controlled and coordinated by a centralized machine called “the Polyrhetor.” Near the end of the ride visitors were taken over an intersection featuring elevated sidewalks that overlooked approximately sixty finely detailed GM cars and trucks simulating city traffic flow.

Finally, riders were deposited into a full-scale version of the same street, the GM Intersection, where they were invited into the “Preview of Progress” Auditorium to view an exhibit of GM cars.

The Futurama, the end of the ride. P. Medicus, New York World’s Fair, Reel 4, Part II. 1939. Amateur Film. Prelinger Archives.

The Futurama was part of a larger exhibition offered by General Motors called “Highways and Horizons.” Its purpose was twofold: offer a model of improved highways of the future (thereby clinching the sale of more cars), and spike consumer confidence more broadly in goods, cars, and appliances of the future. The issue of America’s reluctance to be involved in the rapidly escalating war in Europe was temporarily quashed by visions of a grand, utopian future of spectacular superhighways, in eerie parallel to Hitler’s propaganda campaign for the Reichsautobahnen.

To sell its dream of a mechano-utopian future, General Motors enlisted the popular modern narrative of progress, which asserted that “history shows that the progress of civilization has run parallel to advancement in transportation” (Futurama Tour Guide). Even the General Motors Pavilion itself, a giant silver deco-curved complex, featured superhighway-inspired ramps to allow public entrance, a design also used to great effect in the Ford pavilion, where show cars traveled outside on sweeping spiral ramps. Superhighways were clearly intended to be regarded as a symbol of progress, in this case presented as a road leading toward a better, brighter future.

Spiraling ramps of the Ford pavilion. P. Medicus, New York World’s Fair, Reel 4, Part II. 1939. Amateur Film. Prelinger Archives.

Filming the Future

Surviving documentation of the fair provides a treasure-trove of cultural material, ranging from the representation of nations and nation-building (both Poland and Nazi Germany were present in the first summer of the fair but not the second) to the developing power of large manufacturing corporations—notably General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Westinghouse Corporation—and their highly successful advertising strategies for stimulating consumer desire. Numerous documentary films of the fair exist, some taken by amateur filmmakers, and others sponsored by corporations. A noteworthy example is Westinghouse’s The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939, Audio Productions Inc.). This film, which chronicles the adventures of a middle-class family (The Middletons) from middle America (Indiana) as they visit various Westinghouse exhibits at the fair, is a mixture of corporate spin and political propaganda.

All-American Treadway and bohemian Makaroff square off in the battle for Babs. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. 1939. Audio Productions Inc. for Westinghouse. Prelinger Archives.

The film’s plot revolves around a romantic triangle between the Middletons’ college-age daughter, Babs, and the two men vying for her affections. Jim Treadway, an “all-American” engineer working for Westinghouse, is initially spurned by Babs, who prefers the smooth-talking European art professor, Nicholas Makaroff. Treadway clearly stands, in the film, for American corporate capitalism and the promise of American progress through technology. Makaroff, who snidely refers to the Westinghouse Exhibit as a “temple of capitalism,” represents the threat of communism. His bohemian dress and his penchant for peppering conversations with French accentuates Makaroff’s un-Americanness. His interest in abstract art further alienates him from the Middletons’ wholesome middle-class American optimism, represented most clearly through the character of Bud, Babs’ teenage brother. Though Babs is initially enamored by Makaroff’s passionate speeches on Marxism and his esoteric lectures on abstract art, order is eventually restored in the Middleton household when, through an elaborate practical joke, Makaroff is exposed as a hypocritical, cowardly, and all-around ne’er-do-well. This was clearly Westinghouse’s version of capitalism triumphing over the threat of communism.

The film also enlists a kind of pseudo-feminism in the service of its corporate campaign, arguing that social improvement will finally come through more and better consumer products. Observing an electrically powered loom, Makaroff complains, “Machines like this destroy jobs. Think of the number of people who would be working if we didn’t have these power looms.” His comment, conspicuous for its appeal to a vulgar form of Marxism, is summarily dismissed by Treadway: “Yes, I guess every woman in America would be weaving, and every home would be a sweatshop producing clothes for the family.” The message is clear: technology makes progress possible, and with progress comes the end of drudgery, especially for women.

This claim is reinforced in the film through the Westinghouse “Battle of the Centuries” where “Mrs. Drudge” faces off against “Mrs. Modern” in a dishwashing competition.

Mrs Drudge and the war on dirty dishes. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair. 1939. Audio Productions Inc. for Westinghouse. Prelinger Archives.

While the former frantically scours and stacks dishes by hand, the latter casually reads the newspaper while the Westinghouse automatic dishwasher does the work. Later, Grandma cements the connection between new consumer products and women’s liberation: “That’s why I like Electrical Engineers. They signed our Emancipation Proclamation!”

General Motors commissioned its own film for the fair, Leave It to Roll-Oh (1940), featuring a domestic robot designed to showcase how Chevrolet switches and relays work in a modern car.

Showcased at the fair in 1940, the short film begins with a fantasy scenario in which a humanoid robot, Roll-Oh, responds to the whims of a young woman: he answers the door (frightening the delivery man), cleans, and cooks. Though Roll-Oh turns out to be “just a daydream after all,” the film praises Roll-Oh’s “little brother and sister robots, the millions of small mechanical servants that never ask for afternoons off.”

“Hundreds of little robots.” Leave It to Roll-Oh. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for Chevrolet Corporation, a Division of General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

The film moves from highlights of domestic “thinking machines” like toasters, coffee makers, and the “fido-feeder” electric dog bowl to the “phantom crew of intelligent robots” living in our automobiles, forging an unmistakable link between automobiles and America’s future. Ending rather ominously with an army of tiny Roll-Ohs marching toward the screen, the film’s narrator bombastically announces, “Every day in our homes and offices, as well as in our motorcars, hundreds of these little robots are doing more things for us than we realize, taking care of the routine tasks, and leaving us free to live and work and play in greater ease and comfort and safety.”

The Futurama exhibit itself was officially documented in the GM-sponsored film, To New Horizons (1940). In To New Horizons the diorama is depicted in slowly panning shots that sweep smoothly above the exhibit—an impressive aerial view that mirrored the experience of ride-goers.

The pioneering spirit of America. To New Horizons. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

The film itself is a masterpiece of propaganda. In a montage of stock images, the film announces the coming of the world of tomorrow.

To New Horizons begins with stirring music and black-and-white footage of the ocean as the camera pans slowly onto the shore. Showing gradual changes in living, transportation, and the availability of commercial goods, this opening montage establishes “progress” as a desirable historical development. “New Horizons,” the narrator proclaims. “In a restless search for new opportunities, the mystery and promise of distant horizons have always called men forward . . . [O]ld horizons open the way to new horizons.” Key in this montage scene are images of roads and highways, segueing from small paths to bridges to roadways, and finally giving way to highways, accompanied by an excerpt from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” This mixture of road metaphor and progress narrative—“New horizons: roads for men to go places!”—is compounded with the implicit narrative of manifest destiny. The film goes on to showcase the Futurama, showing close-ups of the diorama in action, and ending 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 toward indefinitely.

Wheels of Progess. 1927. US Bureau of Public Roads, Department of Agriculture Educational Film Service. Prelinger Archives.

Narratives of “progress” are enlisted in the argument for new roads. Conquering Roads. 1937. Handy (Jam) Organization for Chevrolet Corporation, a division of General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

Other industrial films of the era commonly feature this same destiny narrative, transitioning from horse paths to rutted roads to smooth highways. An earlier film produced for the Bureau of Public Roads, Wheels of Progress (1927), showed a transition taking place in the landscape as automotive vehicles had become more widely available, shifting the idea of expansion and exploration from the American West to the condition of the roads themselves. Similarly, Chevrolet’s Conquering Roads (1937) suggests that just as wagons no longer work in an automotive world, so too roads must adapt to the increasing power and sophistication of cars.

As these earlier films suggest, by the time the Futurama ride was introduced at the fair, the idea of highways as part of the technological (rather than geographical) expansion of the nation was well grounded. To New Horizons builds on this narrative, showing how technological improvements are paralleled with the metaphorical movement “forward” into the future; the narrator suggests that travel is indicated in time as well as space:

The accelerating rate of man’s progress in all fields of endeavor has paralleled closely our progress in the freedom of movement from place to place. New things to do, and new ways to do them; telephone, electric lights, automobiles, aircraft—all are symbols of better living. New places to go, and new means of getting there.

As roadways are shown in montage we see images of covered wagons moving across the landscape followed by pictures of a woman first pumping water from a well, then calling children in to a rural schoolhouse, then baking bread in an old stove. Pioneer images shift into “progress” images as the woman gets a better stove, running hot water, a new lamp, and a phonograph. This sequence suggests that, just as Americans traversed the unexplored landscape to conquer space so scientists are helping to reveal “new horizons” in the form of consumer products and modern conveniences.

“.Accelerating progress.” To New Horizons. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

To New Horizons’ narration extends the highway metaphor still further to encompass scientific and capitalist expansion:

The highways of social and commercial development are widening without end or limit except the imagination, vision of men who do new things. Today, engineers are always leading us higher, widening the trails, while our men of science are broadening all our mental avenues with new activities.

These mental avenues are signified by point-of-view shots from a car as it moves up the side of a mountain, taking in a viewscape of a controlled wilderness on the outside and a groomed highway ahead. Nature, the scene suggests, is best experienced from the interior of a car.

As the black and white montage ends, however, the narrator suggests that time, not space, is the new frontier:

Our greatest drives in providing more things for more people have been made at a time when the influence of new geographical frontiers was about over. Mentally and physically, we are progressing toward new horizons.

As these words are spoken, the film moves away from its stock city-and-highway footage, coming to rest on the latest new horizon: the GM Pavilion at the World’s Fair and the fair’s concrete symbol, the massive white Trylon and Perisphere. These abstract sculptures of a sphere and elongated pyramid suggest that it is time to abstract our thoughts as well, looking with our imaginations into the “new horizons” of the future. At the same time, the film changes from black and white to Technicolor, signifying the move from the present into a more glorious and colorful future. Queues of people are shown milling around outside the pavilion, waiting to “travel into the future” they have been promised.

The second part of the film, which we will examine more closely in the Chronotope thread of this chapter (1.2), closely documents Geddes’ diorama, using a camera sweeping over the scale model and zooming in for close-ups to replicate the experience of the Futurama visitors as they passed through the “ride” portion of the exhibit. Chief among these scenes are the “highways of tomorrow” featuring the Futurama diorama’s tiny cars—lovingly crafted, bulbous, streamlined, and brightly colored—unlike the bland black cars that filled the parking lots outside the fair.

Pleasure Car models, yellow and silver; GM logo taxi; miniature cars. c. 1939. Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers. 2011. Original photographs courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

Parking lot at the fair. Amateur film taken by R.W. Wathen in 1939. Prelinger Archives.

The magnificent overpasses and sweeping curves of the Futurama, which, the film announces, represent “highway engineering at its most spectacular,” act as monuments to the conquest of space and stand in for more general scientific and social change that awaited Americans in the future:

This 1960 drama of transportation progress is but a symbol of future progress in every activity, made possible by constant striving toward new and better horizons.

The film’s final animations of highways and the streamlined abstract curves so prevalent in graphic design of the time suggest a continuous movement toward the future, motivated by the metaphor of the superhighway.

Final animated film segment. To New Horizons. 1940. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Image Credit

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Conquering Roads

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.

Film Credit

Conquering Roads. Prod. Jam Handy Organization. Chevrolet Motor Division, General Motors Sales Corporation, 1937. Prelinger Archives.  

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.”

Image Credit

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Image Credit

To New Horizons. Prod. Jam Handy Organization. General Motors Corporation Department of Public Relations, 1940. Film. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Westinghouse Corporation

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

De Grazia, Victoria. Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance Through 20th-Century Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2005.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

General Motors

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.

Further Reading

Strott, Elizabeth. “Toyota Takes Sales Crown from GM.” MSN Money. January 21, 2009. 1 Oct. 2010.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


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.

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Image Credit

General Motors. “Aerial view of the GM complex (artist’s rendering).” General Motors Highways and Horizons. 1939. Pamphlet. Open Library.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

GM Intersection

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).

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

“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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


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.

Further Reading

“A Selected History of Magnetic Recording.” Friedrich Engel and Peter Hammar. Additional editing by Richard L. Hess. PDF.

Image Credits

“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. 

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


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.

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

“Now the visitor is seated in a traveling sound-chair.” Futurama. 1940. General Motors. Building Technology Heritage Library.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

Geddes, Norman Bel. Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940.

Image Credit

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

Gottscho, Samuel H. “World’s Fair. Trylon & Perisphere II.” 1939. Library of Congress.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Flushing Meadows 

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)

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

The queue for the Futurama. P. Medicus. New York World's Fair, 1939-40 (Reel 4) (Part II).1939-40. Amateur Film. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

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.

Further Reading

Corn, Joseph J. and Brian Horrigan. Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Image Credit

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.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:


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.

Further Reading

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.

Image Credit

Williams, Thomas W. (January 1940) I. At the New York World's Fair. "Our Exhibits at Two Fairs". Bell Telephone Quarterly XIX (1): 65. Prelinger Library.