History’s Biggest Show (Jul, 1933)

This exposition looks like a blast, I wish they still did things like this.

<< Previous
1 of 6
<< Previous
1 of 6

History’s Biggest Show


By Edwin Teale

AFTER a forty-year journey through space, a reddish ray of starlight has just struck a photo-electric cell and flashed on the lights of a $25,000,000 extravaganza of science, the Century of Progress Exposition at Chicago.

Islands to accommodate the show, were built in the waters of Lake Michigan. Grass and trees and towering buildings cover them and hundreds of thousands of glowing, gas-filled tubes illuminate the great exposition.

Covering 338 acres, the thousands of exhibits compress into the scope of an exposition the drama and wonder of history’s most amazing century of scientific advance. Under your eyes, crude rubber changes into auto tires; casein, extracted from milk, becomes a fountain pen; piles of parts turn into automobiles that speed away under their own power.

You see icicles forming on a red-hot wire and listen to an eight-foot talking tooth. You watch the blood circulate through the veins of a transparent man, read the temperature from a 200-foot thermometer, and see an umbrella made of water. Artificial Northern Lights flare and flicker in rainbow hues; educational pictures appear on curtains of steam, and prehistoric monsters, mechanically reproduced, feed and fight as they did millions of years before human history dawned.

Everywhere there is action. It is the key to the whole thrilling panorama. The exhibits at the Chicago Exposition show processes instead of products. They demonstrate how things are made and give exciting glimpses behind the scenes of science and industry.

Abstruse scientific laws, for instance, are made plain by athletes riding on whirling disks. How twigs grow and flowers are fertilized are shown through elaborate moving mechanisms.

To make possible some of these exhibits, whole new machines had to be invented.

The central building, the great nine-and-a-half-acre Hall of Science, shown at the head of this article, is like a 300-ringed circus, every room containing its fascinating bit of dramatized human knowledge. In the physics section, more than a hundred displays turn textbook principles into action, light, and color.

Here a three-foot raindrop alternately evaporates and condenses from morning until night. Two hundred white billiard balls, clustered in a depression at the center of a huge black table, represent the molecules of water in a raindrop. At the center of the depression, a square block of wood rotates at varying speeds, high speed corresponding to high temperature and low speed to low temperature. As the rate of rotation increases, the balls, struck by the projecting corners, bounce out of the depression and roll over the black table, just as molecules leave a waterdrop when it begins to evaporate. When the block is spinning at top speed, all the balls are jostling over the table and the depression is empty. The raindrop has evaporated. Then the whirling block slows down and the molecules roll back into the depression, condensing once more.

Nearby is shown a bewildering feat of scientific magic. In a glass case, an icicle is slowly forming on a red-hot wire! The explanation is that the air has been practically exhausted from the container. Consequently, when water is fed into the vacuum chamber along the wire, evaporation, and the resulting cooling, is so rapid that the water turns to ice in spite of the heat of the wires.

Another glass chamber reproduces in miniature Piccard’s flight into the stratosphere. Spectators see how the gas within a tiny balloon expands as the air is pumped out of the bell jar until the pressure corresponds to that of the rarefied atmosphere ten miles above the surface of the earth. Then they watch it contract again during the return journey to sea level.

In the main hall, below, they can examine the actual sphere of aluminum in which Piccard rode to his record height and beside it the steel bathysphere in which William Beebe descended 2,200 feet into the ocean off the shore of Bermuda.

AN UMBRELLA of water forms an-other spectacular display which demonstrates the force of surface tension in liquids. Running down the outside of a pipe, water is deflected by a broad-based cone at the bottom into an umbrella-shaped film which breaks into drops at its outer edge. When a little ether is added to the water at the top of the pipe, the tension is broken. Instantly, the umbrella collapses, opening again when the effect of the ether has passed away.

To make the exhibit even more striking, beams of light are shot down through the film so they are invisible until they reach the outer edge. Here they strike the forming drops that gleam and glitter like a border of flashing diamonds. One whole room in the physics section is devoted to rays of various kinds. Just what happens inside a human eye when beams of light strike it, is illustrated graphically by a huge cross-section model. Seven rays, trained upon the shifting lenses and moving retinas of this three-foot model, demonstrate how eyes of normal vision, farsightedness and nearsightedness focus upon the same object.

Not far off, among the medical exhibits, is a giant model of a throat. Vocal cords of variable tension demonstrate why one voice is bass and another soprano. Beside it is a monster brain lighting up different areas, which control various functions of the body, when corresponding buttons are pressed by spectators.

Towering eight feet in height is the talking tooth.

A concealed projector behind it traces the processes of decay on the front of the tooth while a voice, coming from records which are synchronized with the projector, gives a lecture explaining each of the half-dozen steps shown. The whole apparatus is automatic, the pressing of a button producing one complete cycle of the show.

Close to the talking tooth is a magic book whose pages, each eight feet high and six feet wide, turn by themselves and carry information about the care of the body.

Next there is a robot with a leather heart and glass-tube arteries demonstrating how red blood is pumped from the heart and blue blood returns to it. The different-colored fluids appear to course back and forth in the same tubes, one color running down and the other color up. In reality, double tubes are employed, the one inside conveying the red liquid and the one outside carrying the blue.

GIVING X-ray eyes to the spectators, another exhibit shows a transparent man, a lifesize model of the human body composed of a glassy, cellulose material. The organs inside are illuminated electrically in rotation while their functions and relationship to one another are explained. In addition, the observer sees the complete skeleton of the figure, the veins and arteries of the circulatory system, and the network of nerves that lie beneath the transparent skin.

The location of the various glands, the arrangement of muscles, and the working of the digestive system are also portrayed so visitors get a clear picture of human anatomy.

ANOTHER robot, in the chemistry section, is even more spectacular. Standing ten feet tall on its steel feet, this 1,500-pound metal man has a skeleton of aluminum castings, steel, brass, and lead weights. It turns its head, moves its lips and extends its four-and-a-half-foot arms in lifelike gestures under the direction of a small electric motor that forms the brain. When the vest of the huge mechanical man is unbuttoned, it reveals a white screen.beneath. By means of a combined speaking mechanism and moving picture projector within the body, the robot gives a twenty-minute lecture upon food chemistry, emphasizing various facts by pointing to its own illuminated digestive organs appearing upon the screen.

One of the most difficult of all the exhibits to prepare was a diorama, or three-dimensional picture combining a painted background and modeled figures, which shows how sulphur is mined by . driving superheated water into the ground and floating the melted mineral to the surface. More than three months of experimental work was required to devise the elaborate arrangement of tubes and cylinders, wires and heaters, which reproduce in miniature the mining operation.

Vivid tongues of whirling flame, liquids that shift colors like a chameleon, and a twenty-five-foot “living” table of the elements are other dramatic displays in the chemistry group. Besides exhibiting specimens of most of the ninety-two chemical elements of the earth, the table displays a ten-foot revolving globe indicating the main sources of the different elements.

Dramatizing the story of the earth and life upon it is a geological Time Clock of the Ages which compresses two billion years of history into the space of four minutes.

LIKE an eight-foot snail’s shell, the face of the clock is formed by a widening spiral along which an illuminated pointer travels, each brilliantly-colored sector of time lighting up at its approach. The principal events upon earth, such as the first appearance of life, are marked by stars. At the center of the clock is a screen, three by two feet, upon which appear, at eight-second intervals, pictures showing conditions on earth at the time indicated by the traveling pointer. Below the screen, a “second hand” ticks off the time, each tick at first representing a lapse of ten million years. Later, when more things are happening on earth, the hand automatically slows down. Man appears just when the final tick of the clock is sounding.

As you move on to other exhibits of the geology group, you watch miniature rivers, canyons, and deltas form under your eyes; you follow the history of petroleum from its formation in the ground to its final emergence from the refinery as gasoline; you see synthetic sand dunes form and slowly march back and forth in the grip of shifting winds.

A machine that makes mountains is another unusual contrivance. Layers of sponge rubber, weighted down with lead shot, represent rock strata in the earth. Screw mechanisms at either end slowly compress the layers to reproduce the folds and thrusts which, on a titanic scale in the earth’s crust, have brought about the Rockies and the Andes.

In the reproduction of the sand dunes, a fourteen-foot diorama depicts a scene along the southern shore of Lake Michigan between Gary and Michigan City, Ind. Fine grains of a light oxide are employed as sand. In an endless circular tunnel, of which the diorama is part, a hidden fan sends a steady current of air over the sand heaps, piling them into great mounds that move slowly along the shore burying miniature forests and tiny houses which lie in the way. Then the fan is reversed, sending the wind through the tunnel from the opposite direction, and the shifting sand hills march back again across the stage bringing to light once more the buried trees and buildings.

TURNING a mathematical formula into an exciting spectacle may seem impossible, but that is what is done by one exhibit at Chicago. An athlete, standing on a small platform, holds two iron dumbbells extended at arm’s length at either side. An initial shove starts the platform turning almost without friction on its ball bearings. For a few moments, it continues to rotate at the same speed. Then a show of seeming magic starts. The athlete draws the dumbbells in to his chest. The platform speeds up. He extends his arms again. It slows down. He draws the weights slowly in to his body and the platform whirls at a steadily increasing pace. A dozen times, you see this weird performance occur, giving a demonstration of a basic law of mechanics relating to mass, force, and acceleration.

Other moving displays, by means of varicolored streaks of light, weights that fall bumping through mazes of steel pins, and toy ships that steam among the islands of a papier-mache sea, depict graphically other natural principles.

Imagine a pair of brilliant flowers, seven feet high! That is what first attracts your attention when you come to the biology displays. The gladioli blooms form the heart of an animated picture which reaches to the ceiling and illustrates the pollenizing process of plants. As you watch, a large steel ball, representing a grain of pollen, rolls down the face of the picture from the upper male flower and comes to a stop as it touches the pistil of the female. Then a streak of light moves down the pollen tube and shows the path the pollen takes in reaching and fertilizing the ovules. Four illuminated pictures, appearing one after the other to the left of the flower, give magnified views of the fertilized ovule, showing different stages in the development of the seeds. In the meantime, the ball has rolled, as if by magic, back up the face of the picture and is in position to start the show all over again.

THREE electric motors, a magnet on a moving arm, a transparent, revolving box, and an elaborate system of weights and counterweights are required behind the scenes to make this demonstration possible. An electro-magnet moves along a strip of brass behind the steel ball leading it along from flower to flower. A sliding shutter, slowly opening and closing a slit, lighted from behind, produces the illuminated path of the pollen down the tube and a revolving box, having its four transparent sides lighted from within, shows the four stages of seed development. The whole process is automatic, a central commutator controlling the timing of the various units.

Beyond the flowers, six projection outfits, called micro-vivariums, make visible the strange, infinitesimal world which lies in a drop of water. Each apparatus throws a huge disk of light upon a screen and peoples it with the magnified images of microscopic creatures, enlarged thousands of times. You see these monsters of a minute world dart about, forage for food, fight, reproduce.

The impression, as you pass from one disk to another, each showing a different sort of microscopic colony, is that of looking into the tanks of some aquarium filled with most fantastic specimens. Before this remarkable micro-vivarium display could be put into operation, a whole new method of mounting the water drops, to prevent their evaporation under the intense light, and to keep the tiny creatures alive, had to be perfected.

Mirrors, in a nearby exhibit, reflect in a container of liquid an animated drawing of budding yeast cells to demonstrate the process of fermentation. The cells, projected into the fluid instead of upon a screen, appear to bud and multiply within the container, each cell enlarged to giant size.

A twelve-foot cornstalk, showing how plants make food from sunshine; a mechanical twig which puts on a year’s growth of new cells in seventy-five seconds (P.S.M. Apr. ’33, p. 24); and a papier-mache cow that gives real milk (P.S.M., May ’33, p. 33), turn other phases of scientific knowledge into fascinating exhibits of action. Much as Popular Science Monthly pictures the drama of scientific advance from month to month, the whole exposition presents the broad sweep of knowledge gained during a century of spectacular progress.

COVERING one whole wall is an immense plant map of the world, divided into 500 sections. Each represents a special type of vegetation area. These areas light up in units so you can see at a glance the desert, forest, and barren-land sections of the world. The huge map is made of glass, sprayed with aniline dyes and lighted from the rear. Oil paintings show in detail typical scenes in the different vegetation areas, ranging from the tropical jungle to the Arctic tundra, and picture the plants and animals common to each.

Probably the most elaborate single exhibit of the exposition is the world’s largest diorama, a ninety-foot combination of models and paintings which tells the story of the generation, transmission, and uses of electricity. Rushing mountain streams spin the turbines of diminutive power stations, high-tension lines, built to scale, lead across the countryside to model towns and cities, where, on a twenty-four-hour cycle, the hundred and one uses of electric current are illustrated in miniature.

Revolving tubes of glass, lighted from within and having nine different-colored sides, produce the lighting effects which run from sunrise through the day to darkness. A complete cycle takes place every three minutes. For five months, nearly a hundred men worked in a studio preparing this single diorama.

SIMILAR plastic pictures, on a less elaborate scale, show Benjamin Franklin drawing electricity from the clouds, prehistoric monsters feeding amid the earliest forms of vegetation, natives cultivating pineapples and tapping rubber trees, and a miniature blast furnace converting raw ore into steel.

Everywhere you find information dramatized, processes shown in action, facts and information revealed in thrilling exhibits. The exposition is an encyclopedia brought to life.

A whole orange grove has been transported bodily from Florida, a redwood tree has come from California, and a twelve-foot waterfall, flanked by live birch, fir, and spruce trees from Michigan, reproduces in every detail a scene in the northern woods.

A glass automobile and a glass refrigerator enable you to see the mechanisms operating inside, and an infinite variety of products ranging from tooth paste to soft drinks take form and are bottled, canned, or placed in tubes while you watch. More than a score of large American corporations have taken space at the exposition to show in action the processes by which their products are manufactured.

Overhead, the rocketlike cars of the million-dollar Sky-Ride, shoot between their 625-foot towers of steel. Amphibians shuttle back and forth; observation balloons hover in the air and passenger-carrying blimps cruise above Byrd’s Antarctic ship, anchored in the lagoon; the gold-roofed Lama Temple of Jehol, brought from the Orient in 28,000 separate pieces, and the Enchanted Island with its Magic Mountain are other wonders on display. In this Land of Make-Believe, children find a coaster wagon thirty-five feet long, a marble six feet in diameter, a Tin Woodman of Oz twenty feet tall, a fence made of wooden elephants, and an enormous sailor whose arms revolve with the wind.

IN THE great Pageant of Transportation, you see depicted the dramatic advance from the ox cart and the Clermont to the modern automobile and the latest greyhound of the sea. “The World a Million Years Ago” (P.S.M. June ’32, p. 16) shows you monsters of the past in their natural surroundings. The architectural exhibits carry you from the rude log cabins of Fort Dearborn and Lincoln’s day to the most modern dwellings—and beyond to a projected House of the Future.

Daring innovations in architecture form a striking feature of the buildings which house the exhibits. There are windowless walls, sky-hung roofs, metal structures that expand and contract with heat and cold. Dramatic effects are achieved through illumination by cascading colored lights. By night, the fairground becomes an immense rainbow of glowing tubes and varicolored bulbs, surrounded by miles of “mist-light fountains,” billowing clouds of vapor illuminated in colors from within.

In fact, to take care of the water needs of the exposition, a water plant of 300,000,000 gallons capacity will operate twenty-four hours a day. Ten miles of water mains form an underground network and there are five miles of storm sewers to take care of emergencies. Facilities for a city of a million inhabitants are required for the visitors at the Century of Progress.

When the star ray which opened the exposition left Arcturus on its forty-year journey to the earth, the Chicago fair of 1893 was in progress. Among the exhibits, there was no . automobile, no airplane, no radio. The final forty years of the 1833-1933 century, alone, cover practically the whole history of applied electricity, all of the wonders of the airplane, the movies, the radio, and other laboratory miracles which have become part of everyday life. In invention and scientific discovery, the century just past was the most fertile of all history.

It is the dramatized pageant of this advance which you see presented at the world’s greatest spectacle now running at Chicago.

1 comment
  1. Stannous says: February 2, 200710:10 pm

    They still do- I went to Expo 86 in Vancouver, (theme: transportation) and it was filled with historical and futuristic stuff.
    Unfortunately, the last few fairs have been in Asia. A bit hard to get to.

Submit comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.