In 1892 and 1893, a land of wonder and possibility rose from the grit and smoke of industrial Chicago. They called it the White City, an expanse of pristine lakes, white-graveled walking paths, and gleaming white-stucco architectural structures, one more grand than the other. Some 27.5 million people around the world visited this dream city set upon 600 acres of city parkland, where they tasted a new snack called Cracker Jack and witnessed the first vertical paper file.
Some 27.5 million people around the world visited this dream city set upon 600 acres of city parkland.
The World's Columbian Exposition, a.k.a., Chicago World's Fair of 1893, transformed the nation and placed in the collective psyche an optimism for industrial progress. In addition to newfangled foods and beverages and demonstrations of exotic cultural traditions from countries around the world, the legendary fair opened the eyes of the public to many amazing feats of engineering.
The system of alternating current for lighting was demonstrated on a large scale at the fair. At the time, the Westinghouse Electric Company, the proponent of AC current, and General Electric, the firm behind direct current (DC), were locked in a sometimes bitter debate over which system was more efficient. Both companies bid for the deal to light the fair, with the Westinghouse offer of $399,000 winning the approval of exposition organizers and directors.
George Ferris designed the Ferris Wheel for the fair.
Other notable exhibits of engineering and technology were on full display at the fair. Visitors saw the first-ever all-electric kitchen featuring an automatic dishwasher. Advanced manufacturing equipment was presented, including chocolate-making devices that Milton Hershey purchased and brought back to his factory in Pennsylvania. Rail locomotives were demonstrated, as well as long-distance telephone service … and a 264-foot wheel.
The Big Wheel
In planning the World's Columbian Exposition, organizers and civic leaders sought an attraction that could rival the 1889 Eiffel Tower in awe and power, something big and grand that would assert America's prowess in engineering and construction. Daniel Burnham, the esteemed architect and chief designer of the fair, reached out to the nation's engineers and engineering firms to solicit ideas. Not many good ideas were forwarded, until George Ferris, a 33-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh who ran a steel inspection company, proposed a giant revolving wheel made of steel that would carry fairgoers aloft.
The Ferris Wheel became the emblem of the Chicago World's Fair.
At first rejected due to concerns about safety, the project to design and build the structure was eventually approved. Among his numerous challenges, Ferris had to calculate the forces that would play upon the components of the structure, taking into account multiple variables such as dead load, live load, and other engineering considerations. Ferris's wheel was actually two wheels spaced 30 feet apart on an axle, which was supported by eight 140-foot towers. The giant structure was a complex piece of engineering consisting of 100,000 parts, including struts, rods, sprockets, and a 20,000-pound chain. It had the strength of a railroad bridge.
Thousands rode on Ferris's wheel, which became the emblem of the Chicago World's Fair. In the years following, the Ferris Wheel would be a staple attraction at amusement parks throughout the world, delighting millions.
ASME was in its 13th year of existence when the Chicago World's Fair opened in 1893. That year, the Society issued Standard Method of Conducting Efficiency Tests of Locomotives, one of the earliest efforts of the organization to create uniform technical guidelines for engineered systems. ASME also had a presence at the World's Fair. According to A History of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, from 1880 to 1915, "the Society cooperated in maintaining a headquarters for engineers at the Columbian Exposition ... in the Mines and Mining Buildings." Eckley B. Coxe, a German-speaking mine owner in Pennsylvania and president of ASME in 1893 and 1894, served in an official capacity at the fair, assisting attendees at a large international engineering congress with communication and language translations.
Other prominent ASME members had connections to the fair. Robert W. Hunt, president of the Society in 1891-1892, was among the investors recruited by George Ferris to advance his idea to build the giant wheel. Hunt was involved in specialty testing on various classes of iron and steel products, and supervised the production of miles of train rails during the burgeoning growth period of the American railroad.
Henry R. Worthington, among the very first members of ASME, who served in a committee to formulate rules and operating procedures for the fledging organization, designed and installed the pumps for the elaborate fountains and other waterworks in the fair. Worthington is the namesake for the Henry R. Worthington Medal, which is bestowed for eminent achievement in the field of pumping machinery, systems, and concepts.
The World's Columbian Exposition closed in October 1893. Most of the grand buildings, statues, and attractions of the fair would eventually come down, one after another. What is left is a proud legacy for the city of Chicago, for America–and for engineering.
The history of electricity changed on the evening of May 1, 1893, when the lights went on to open the World’s Columbian Exposition.
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