While the radio world was moving quickly in the 1930s with the stunning success of Armstrong's FM invention, David Sarnoff had staked RCA's future on the new-fangled medium of television. He scheduled his first program to coincide with the opening of the 1939 New York World's Fair.

RCA built their pavilion on the Avenue of Progress. Only a few hundred people around the city had sets, but that didn't stop Sarnoff from putting a camera on the Avenue of Patriots. On April 20, 1939, Sarnoff stood in front of the camera, talking to just a few people, and proclaimed "now, we add radio sight to sound." [Lewis, p. 275]

Like many inventions, the television was only partly the creation of the RCA Corporation. Though Sarnoff did the PR blitz, he built on the work of many inventors. One of the more interesting ones was Philo T. Farnsworth. Read about him in The Farnsworth Chronicles, a fascinating account of his life based on the personal archives of his widow.

Just as Baron Haussman crowned his achievements with the Universal Exposition of 1867 in Paris, Robert Moses wanted to crown his own achievements with the 1964 New York World's Fair. The fair left huge debts behind, but it also left Shea Stadium and "the hollow fretwork of the Unisphere, with its abandoned dedication to man's aspiration towards Peace through mutual understanding." [Moorhouse, p. 297]

The 1964 World's Fair in New York also featured the future, but it was in somehow different. There was not a brave new future to show. The AT&T Video Phone and a few new cars, but it was not like a whole generation of technology was about to spring out into society.

The era of the Great Exhibitions started in 1851 at the Crystal Palace and ended in 1939 at the New York World's Fair. During those 86 years, the world saw an industrial come into being. The fairs are people went to understand what this new world would be and how it would affect their lives.

The world's fairs of the industrial era played a crucial role in cushioning the shock of technical change. The fairs were a place where engineers could meet to advance the state of their art: rising to the challenge of the mammoth expositions by inventing new buildings and towers, power plants and Ferris Wheels. The fairs left a lasting impression on the landscape in the form of their Eiffel Towers, but they also left lasting impressions in the minds of their visitors. The fairs truly were the icons and markers of the beginning of the industrial age.

Back to World Expositions


Donald J. Bush, The Streamlined Decade Braziller (New York, 1975). The birth of planes, trains, and automobiles in the 1950s.

David Gelernter, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, Free Press (New York, 1995). Wonderful book about the New York fair written by a prominent computer scientist.

Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air, HarperCollins (New York, 1991). The story of radio's early days.

Geoffry Moorhouse, Imperial City: The Rise and Rise of New York Spectre (London, 1989).

Sharon Zukin, Landscapes of Power: From Detroit to Disney World University of California Press (Berkeley, 1991), p. 225