[Postcard from 1893]

At the Chicago World's Fair

Surrounding the grand structures of the formal center of the fair was a teeming amusement park, featuring George Ferris' huge new wheel. The axle for the 1,2000-ton Ferris Wheel was the largest steel forging in the world. Other technologies also had their debut at this world's fair: the postcard and the hamburger were both born in Chicago in 1893.

People started with the Great White City at the center of the fair, but invariably migrated to the Midway Plaisance, a street one mile long and six hundred feet wide. A series of model villages teemed with food and dance, including the notorious Little Egypt (the scandalous "coochie-coochie girl of the Nile") in "The Streets of Cairo." Everything from German beer gardens to Samoan wrestlers were present in this prototypical amusement park. Scott Joplin played his newfangled music and people could sit and enjoy the most modern of libations, the newly carbonated soft drink. [Baldwin,, p. 235]

Corn was everywhere in Chicago. Almost all the State Pavilions featured corn objects. In the definitive Story of Corn, Betty Fussel tells us how "Iowa's palace was 'pompeiian style,' with a grapevine frieze of purple popcorn." Other photos showed "corn draperies, pyramids, corbels, Roman arches, Gothic arches, buttresses, arabesques" and any other architectural motif that could be applied to the great grain. [Fussel, pp. 318-319]

Reid's Yellow Dent was "the corn that changed the face of the American continent" and was crowned the grand prize winner in Chicago. This was the first of the hybrid corns that swept the American midwest. [Fussel, p. 71]

Another technology that came into it's own in Chicago is time. Standardized time is an invention of the modern era. The railroads needed to coordinate among their stations (and among each other lest two trains sharing a stretch of track shared it too closely). In 1883, the Naval Observatory agreed to telegraph standard railway time, a great boon for Western Union, which happened to own the Self-Winding Clock Company. At the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, Western Union built a network of 200 clocks, all regulated from their central pavilion, topped with a 150-foot clock tower. [O'Malley, pp. 153-154]

Electric powered streetcars hauled people to the Exposition, trains of 4 cars jammed full of people inside, on the roof, and hanging off the sides. [Cudaky, p. 4] Visitors came from all over the world, but they also came from all over Chicago and Illinois. The fair brought farmers, school children, and residents from small towns all over the midwest to Chicago to learn about culture and technology and to entertain themselves. [Cronon, p. 344]

One group that came in droves to Chicago were the world's engineers. An engineering congress was created in association with the Columbian Exposition. At the time, engineering wasn't really considered a real profession, and there was considerable tension between the working engineers who wanted to build things and the corporate employers who wanted to build big businesses. In fact, throughout the next 100 years, technology deployment would be marked by vacillation between the societies that represent technology, such as the Institute of Radio Engineers at the turn of the last century or the IETF at the turn of this one, and the groups that represented engineering as a business. [Layton, p. 45]

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Neil Baldwin, Edison: Inventing the Century, Hyperion (New York, 1995). Very good biography of Thomas Edison.

William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Norton (New York, 1991). The story of Chicago's growth from the

Brain J. Cudaky, Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America, Fordham University Press (New York, 1990).

Betty Fussel, The Story of Corn Knopf (New York, 1992). The ultimate story of corn. What more can we say? A fascinating look at the grain that changed the world.

Edwin T. Layton, Jr., The Revolt of the Engineers John Hopkins (Baltimore, 1986). Looks at the politics of the engineering societies. Must reading for anybody involved in Internet standardization who wants to understand why committees proliferate when there is still real work to do.

Michael O'Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time Penguin Books (New York: 1990).

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