A history of the event that brings the world together for a united cause.
The World’s Fairs have inspired people all around the globe by articulating the possibilities of tomorrow and the aspirations of the eras. In retrospect, they offer a glimpse into a period frozen in time based on what fascinating innovations were just hatched or merely on the brink of discovery.
With a principal goal to entertain along with showcasing the latest in good design, the Fairs’ amusement and pavilion zones have progressed over time. As the latest and greatest entertainment possibilities arise, so has the need to connect to attendees in new and interactive ways.
World Fairs are also known as International Expositions or World Expos. And during them, an abundance of exciting inventions have been revealed to the public — from movies to the Ferris wheel to ice cream cones, cotton candy, hot dogs, television, picture postcards and more. Belgian waffles are even rumored to have taken off after their 1962 World Fair debut in Seattle and subsequent arrival at the 1964 Fair in Queens, New York.
We take a look at the history of the World’s Fairs, where they’ve been and where they’re going today.
In 1933, the World’s Expo was held in Chicago with the theme Independence Among Industry and Scientific Research. The Expo showcased multiple discoveries, but it offered a large space to aviation, which soon became the largest exhibition ever organized in this field.
- Attendees: +38 million
- Participating nations: 21
The 1935 World Expo held in Brussels, focused on transport, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of being the first European state to create a national rail network.
- Attendees: 20 million
- Participating nations: 35
In 1937, the Expo was held in Paris with a concentration on Arts and Technics in Modern Life, just on the brink of WWII. Its most famous exhibit was Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” which was built specifically for the event and a direct reference to the German air force attack on the Basque town. It has become a collective reminder of the horrors of war.
- Attendees: 31 million
- Participating nations: 45
Most notable was the Expo’s Festival of Peace, which was held in 1949 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The event generated an opportunity for the Haitian government to draw international attention to Haiti and to foster its tourism industry.
- Attendees: 250,000
- Participating nations: 1
In 1958, the Expo was held again in Brussels, this time marking a turning point in the history of Expos and challenged the unconditional celebration of technological progress that was at the heart of past Fairs. Its theme, A World View: A New Humanism, placed humanity at the core.
- Attendees: +41 million
- Participating nations: 39
Held in Seattle in 1962, the Fair had a focus on Man in the Space Age and was designed to emphasize the contributions of science and research to the American way of life.
- Attendees: 9 million
- Participating nations: 49
In 1967, the Fair stayed with the human society topic and homed in on Man and His World in Montreal, Canada, borrowed from the book “The Planet of Mankind” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It addressed universal problems of humanity.
- Attendees: +50 million
- Participating nations: 62
Most notable in the 70s would be the Osaka, Japan, World Expo, in 1970, with its theme of Progress and Harmony for Mankind. It paid homage to technological progress.
- Attendees: +64 million
- Participating nations: 78
There used to be a steady focus on progress or the space age or things of that matter, but now the topics lean toward environmental issues. Take 2015, for example, with Milan’s theme: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, focusing on ending hunger and developing food sustainability.
- Attendees: 21.5 million
- Participating nations: 145
Next Up: Beijing
Next up on the list: 2019 Beijing with the theme Live Green, Live Better. According to the BIE, “‘Live Green’ refers to gardening and how it can encourage people to respect and protect nature. This, in turn, supports the establishment of a green, low-carbon and environmentally friendly attitude. ‘Live Better’ looks to society, with the aim of accelerating research and education in a way that promotes ecological conservation, horticultural development and environmental protection.”
After that, it’s on to Dubai in 2020 with the topic: Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.
Incredible Inventions Revealed at World Fairs
With industrial, scientific and cultural items on display to enormous audiences, the list of “firsts” is vast and wide.
- London, 1851 – Colt revolver
- Dublin, 1853 – The elevator
- Paris, 1855 – The sewing machine
- London, 1862 – The calculating machine
- Paris, 1878 – Outdoor electric lighting
- Paris, 1889 – The Eiffel Tower and the gas-powered automobile
- Chicago, 1893 – The Ferris wheel, moving walkways and zippers
- Paris, 1900 – Motion pictures
- St. Louis, 1904 – Controlled flight, wireless telegraph and ice-cream cones
- San Francisco, 1915 – Kodachrome photos, stunt flying
- New York, 1939 – The television
- San Francisco, 1939 – Atomic energy: model of a cyclotron
- New York, 1964 – Computer technology, fax machines and jetpacks
- Seville, 1992 – Large-scale outdoor air conditioning
Some critics have denounced the Fairs as extravagant and extraneous in the 21st century. Others have argued that by shifting the focus away from the outdated theme of “technological utopianism” and leaning toward a more social and environmental approach, Fairs will continue to add value and be a worthwhile destination.
All Statistics from the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE).