Electricity all over Chicago. The fair telephone system, for example, was connected to the Chicago Exchange, with special links to police, fire alarm, and telegraph services. The Edison Tower of Light was an 82-foot high tower at the center of the Electricity Building. The tower had been ringed with mirrors and incandescent bulbs which

[Photo of Chicago Exposition]

"sparkled and flashed in changing patterns of color. The shaft was topped by a gilded capital, upon which rested an eight-foot replica of an incandescent light bulb constructed from thirty thousand prisms."

[Marvin, pp. 171-172]

Outside, all the waterways and buildings were lit with more bulbs, and every evening 38 colored arc lights played off waterfalls.

Chicago was the grand birth for the electrical industry. In their 3-volume History of Industrial Power in the United States, Hunter and Bryant wax almost rhapsodic over "a broad range of potential applications of this astonishingly versatile new form of energy, in transportation and communication as well as in lighting." At the opening cermonies, President Glover Cleveland turned the key on the great engine in the Machinery Hall and the Exposition came to life as a veil fell from the golden Statute of the Republic, fountains shot water into the air, and cannons thundered. The fair was the place where many people came into their first contact with this new technology, and the use of

At the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial celebration, The Corliss Steam engine was the biggest yet built. By 1893, there were "acres of steam engines and boilers. 1500 horsepower engines were commonplace." There was an aggregate of 22,000 horsepower of electrical generating capacity, used to power motors all over the fair, not to mention hundreds of thousands of arc and incandescent lights, moving sydewalks, and the Intramural Railway, featuring a 2000 horsepower dynamo.

George Westinghouse was a young engineer who was working hard on a radical form of electricity, alternating current. He got his big break when he won the contract to do lighting for the 1893 fair. Westinghouse put in a full electrical system, with a generating plant, transformers, motors, the works. The success of his efforts in Chicago were so impressive that in the summer of 1993, Alternating Current was choosen for the great Niagra project under construction and Westinghouse got the contract to install the initial 5,000 horsepower generators. [Hunter and Bryant, pp. 248]

One of the keys to the successful use of AC in Chicago was the rotary converter, exhibited by both Westinghouse and General Electric. This device allowed the coupling of old DC systems to the new AC grid. Chicago Edison, for example, was able to start shutting down local DC stations, using AC for long-haul transmission and converting to DC at the local districts. Backwards compatability has remained one of the key attractions for any technology to be successful. [Hughes, p. 210]

At the Fair


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Creators, Random House (New York, 1992). A panoramic sweep of man's creations and creators through history.

Thomas P. Hughes, Electrification of America, Technology and Culture, Vol. 20, No. 1, January, 1979, reprinted in Terry S. Reynolds, ed., The Engineer in America, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, 1991).

Louis C. Hunter and Lynwood Bryant, A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930. Vol 3: The Transmission of Power MIT Press (Cambridge, MA, 1991).

Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electrical Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press (Oxford, 1988). Marvin looks at how we viewed new technology when it was new.

[Unreadable Image]
[About the Fair] [Sponsors] [What's New] [Guestbook] [Toolbox]