Explore Trailblazing History!

Columbian Exposition Electricity Transformed America

Meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival to the New World, the 1893 Columbian Exposition was better known for its grand vision into the future. Also called the Chicago World’s Fair, its organizers tried to outdo the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889. They managed to stun the world with a 690-acre city-within-a-city that showcased 65,000 exhibits. Columbian Exposition electricity transformed night skies across America and would soon shape the future.

Visitors saw a multitude of spectacular new developments including dish washers and a giant ferris wheel. But it was the new-fangled electricity and all the wondrous contraptions it ran that captured their imaginations. Like the Great Exhibit in England 1851, this fair had far reaching impact. More than 27 million people–approximately one in four Americans—visited the fair by its close six months later on Monday, October 30. Since much of the fair was run by AC power, visitors were able to experience the profound changes electricity would soon make in their daily lives.

Famed Journalist, Murat Halstead wrote in Cosmopolitan:

“The Fair, considered as an electrical exposition only, would be well worthy the attention of the world. Look from a distance at night, upon the broad spaces it fills, and the majestic sweep of the searching lights, and it is as if the earth and sky were transformed by the immeasurable wands of colossal magicians. The superb dome of the structure, that is the central glory of the display, is glowing as if bound by wreaths of stars. It is electricity! When the whole casket is illuminated, the cornices of the palaces of the White City are defined with celestial fire. The waters that are at play leap and flash with it. There are borders of lamps around the lagoon.

The Button That Turned On Columbian Exposition Electricity

On May 1, 1893, throngs of people anxiously waited for President Grover Cleveland to press the button that was wired in Washington to electrify the fair. It was similar to those used in most telegraph offices, but this one was gold instead of steel. The dates 1492 – 1893 were painted in silver on the bottom level of the three-tiered pyramid sitting on the ceremonial table. Although only the lightest touch was necessary, President Cleveland brought his fist down with such force he nearly shattered the button.

The touch of that button set the great Allis engine at Machinery Hall in Chicago into motion. In one profound moment, the Columbian Exposition electricity sparked the fair to life, ushering in the electric age. The White City incorporated electricity into every aspect of the fair. It also meant the fair would remain open at night.

Columbian Exposition Electricity Prompted A New Age

Following is an account from The Salt Lake Herald, May 2, 1893:

Cleveland Presses The Golden Key

Opening the World’s Fair

Magical Effects Produced by the Electric Spark as the Key Was Pressed

The Age Of Electricity

Touch of a Button Causes an Inert World to Spring Into Animation

With Great Enthusiasm The Fair Is Declared Open

Chicago, May 1—The electric age was ushered into being in this last decade of the nineteenth century today when President Cleveland, by pressing a button, started the mighty machinery, rushing waters and revolving wheels in the World’s Columbian exposition. No exhibit of the fair that is to attract thousands to the city for the next six months can be more marvelous than the magical effect following the solemn opening of the fair today. Of the multitude of visitors, some estimate the number as high as 200,000, probably not one fully realized the full import of the effect that was to come from the arrangement cleverly devised in opening the exposition.

It was known in a vague way that the president was to press a golden key, and that electric communication with Washington was to start the fair, but no one realized how intricate was this machinery, how infinite the ramifications of that electric spark, until the fountains threw up their geysers seventy feet into the air, and the rumble and hum of the wheels in the manufacturer’s building and the chatter of machinery in all parts of that area of a mile square or more told that story of the final communication of scientific thought in a lifeless mass startled into being on every hand, draped statuary to shed its veil and reveal to the world the artistic labors of the past eighteen months. In a moment all that had been apathy, and inert, and inactive, through the long hours of the morning sprang into animated existence. It thrilled the multitude and crowned the triumph of the exposition.

Columbian Exposition Electricity Powered An Impressive List Of Products And Amusements

People swarmed to Chicago for a glimpse of the future. The Chicago World’s Fair introduced a stunningly long list of new products that remain on shelves to this day. Among them were Juicy Fruit gum, Cracker Jacks, spray paint and Shredded Wheat.

Also included in the list were products powered by electricity that would redefine American lives. Among them were Fax machines, telephones, an electric railway, neon lights, bed warmers, fans, radiators, and a cure-all electric belt.

The Columbian Exposition electricity building featured a fully electric kitchen complete with a small range, hot plate, broiler, kettle and saucepan.

The Westinghouse space reserved a section in the building for Nikola Tesla. His exhibit featured many of his early AC devices. Among them were motors, armatures, and generators, phosphorescent signs, fluorescent lamps and neon lamps. He also displayed vacuum tubes illuminated by means of wireless transmission, his rotating egg of Columbus and sheets of crackling light created by high-frequency discharges between two insulated plates.

The Ferris Wheel was a favorite amusement powered by electricity. George Washington Gale Ferris carried more than 1.5 million riders to the dizzying height of a 24-story building where they could view three states at once. The first giant Ferris wheel had steep highs and lows. The Midway Plaisance was open for fun well into the night thanks to AC electric lighting.

Columbian Exposition Electricity Also Moved A Sidewalk

One of the fair’s favorite attractions was a 4,500-foot moving sidewalk with benches for its passengers. It only cost a nickel. The sidewalk was designed primarily to carry passengers who arrived by steamboats. It was capable of moving up to 6,000 people at a time, up to six miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the moving sidewalk opened late and breakdowns were common. Even so, from the day it opened in July to the close of the Exposition in October, the sidewalk carried nearly one million people.

Columbian Exposition Electricity Was The End Of A Bitter War of Currents

Of course, Tesla’s presence was felt in more than just his display. His work in AC power systems touched virtually every part of the fair. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Edison and J.P. Morgan (DC power) bitterly battled Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse (AC power.) Westinghouse’s company deliberately presented a low bid to win the contract to supply power to the Chicago world’s fair.

Edison was so miffed he refused to let them use his patented light bulbs. Not to be defeated, Westinghouse configured a more efficient double-stopper light bulb. Edison tried to sue him for a patent violation prior to the fair, but lost. As a side note, Westinghouse’s new bulbs did not last long, so a team of people was necessary to continually replace bulbs during the fair.

Westinghouse’s bet paid off as the successful implementation of AC across the fair was publicized worldwide. His 12,000-horsepower AC polyphase generators powered the fair effectively and safely. Even skeptics like Lord Kelvin had to recognize the superiority of AC, which had been greatly advanced by Tesla. By the end of the fair, the AC had basically won the war.

Westinghouse and Tesla Continued Their Winning Streak At Niagara Falls

In 1893 Westinghouse Electric designed a large AC system for Niagara Falls. It was activated on August 26, 1895.  Niagara Falls was the final victory of Tesla’s Polyphase Alternating Current (AC) Electricity, which is today lighting the entire globe.

On November 15th 1896, the City of Buffalo joined the power grid being generated from Niagara Falls, approximately 26 miles away. It became the first long distance transmission of steady supplies of clean, carbon-free hydroelectricity for commercial purposes.

Thanks in part to the success of Columbian Exposition electricity, AC power became the standard for most of America. Eventually it powered most of the world. J.P. Morgan later manipulated patents and companies to become the biggest winner of all.

Racing Nellie Bly
Victorian Secrets From Footnotes In History
Know The Past To Invent The Future


2 Responses

  1. I read in A Wandering Showman, the autobiography of David Lano (1874-1957) at the bottom of page 70, of a then-new “Electric Wonder Belt”. It was about 1889. No description was made of the item. The story makes me believe that these belts were a scam taking advantage of people now living in our new electric world.
    Do you have information about this. Thank you

    1. Hello Susan, I have read about several different electric belts for all types of purposes and saw some in ads from the time. Let me dive into this further and I’ll try to update a post. Thanks so much for the suggestion and for visiting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *