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World's Fair 1939: Robots, superhighways and other futuristic inventions

Robots. Superhighways. Television.

Seventy-five years ago, the New York World's Fair introduced a vision of the future that still shapes our imagination today.

The fair opened at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens on April 30, 1939, with the first live television broadcast in the U.S., and visitors were amazed by the array of inventions on display. Its theme of "The World of Tomorrow" played throughout the pavilions and was captured in the architecture. At three and a half miles long, and covering 1,216 acres, according to a Greyhound brochure at the time, it was also immense.

By the time the fair closed on Oct. 31, 1940, tens of millions of people had glimpsed a vision of the future.

Here, then, are highlights of the inventions they might have seen -- and how they compare to today's reality.


Then: Elektro, the
Photo Credit: Courtesy New York Public Library

Then: Elektro, the "moto-man” built by Westinghouse Electric Corp., performed marvels on stage for fairgoers: the 7-foot-tall robot could walk, talk, count on his fingers and even smoke a cigarette. He could say 700 words using a record player and could tell the difference between green and red.
Now: Of course, robots have become ubiquitous in our culture, though few have reached the fame of Elektro. However, the Japanese bot ASIMO might be closing in on wide recognition: A video of it playing soccer with President Barack Obama during his recent Asia trip went viral.
Bonus trivia: The 1939 World's Fair was just the beginning of Elektro's celebrity status. The robot toured the country, wowing crowds along the way, and later appeared in a movie as “Thinko” in 1939’s “Sex Kittens Go To College."

Robot pets

Then: Sparko, the mechanical dog, was Elektro’s pet
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Then: Sparko, the mechanical dog, was Elektro’s pet companion. The pupster could bark, sit and beg. Like his human counterpart, Sparko was a teleautomatra — controlled by nearby operators — so he wasn’t about to go and fetch a bone.
Now: Inventors have continued to dream up robot animals. Some companies have even tried to replace real fur-and-floppy ear versions with synthetic ones. The biggest consumer success was Sony’s AIBO from the 1990s, which was put down in the mid-2000s.

Baby incubators

Then: Live babies in incubators! Dr. Martin Couney

Then: Live babies in incubators! Dr. Martin Couney had already established a sideshow of incubators at Coney Island, but found his largest audience at the 1939 fair. Still a controversial figure in the history of neonatal medicine, his crusade was often criticized as mere midway entertainment.
Now: Of course, the neonatal incubator remains an important tool for safeguarding just-delivered babies by regulating temperature, humidity and oxygen.


Then: General Motors’ Futurama was one of the
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Then: General Motors’ Futurama was one of the most celebrated — and influential — exhibits of the fair. According to author David Hillel Gelernter, “Futurama cared most about roads.” Superhighways would line the country and would “let you work, shop and play miles from home,” Gelertner wrote in “1939: The Lost World of the Fair.” This world of tomorrow would be based on the automobile, but it would be a much safer one where speeds on roads would be controlled to guarantee collisions would be avoided.
Now: Gelertner puts this vision, which largely has come true, in context: by the late 1930s, cars were seen as the most modern form of travel but far from ubiquitous. He says that less than 44 percent of Americans didn’t own a car. What the vision did get wrong: roads that would somehow be controlled and collisions avoided. However, that future may come to pass with driverless cars.


Then: On April 30, 1939, the day that
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Then: On April 30, 1939, the day that New York’s World Fair opened, the American public was introduced to the first U.S. television broadcast as President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech to welcome thousands of attendees. Television sets at the fairgrounds at Flushing Meadows Park carried the live broadcast via the NBC network. Each day after brought new wonders from the magic box that became one of the main attractions of the “World of Tomorrow,” which the fair purported to showcase. No surprise that RCA began selling TV sets shortly after that first broadcast.
Now: TV technology has evolved rapidly over the decades, bringing us to today's flat screens and digital transmissions.

Automatic dishwashers

Then:“The Battle of the Centuries” it was called:
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Then:“The Battle of the Centuries” it was called: a competition between a Westinghouse automatic dishwasher and a homemaker (“Mrs. Drudge”). Can you guess the winner? The dishwasher was cheered as one of the best inventions of the fair and proved in more wondrous to many than Elektro the robot man.
Now: Well, the automatic dishwasher may have wowed New Yorkers in 1939 on stage at the fair but decades later many homes in the city still lack them. Of course, the world promised at the fair was also decidedly suburban — and there’s no lack of electric dishwashers there!


Then: Cellophane was not introduced at the fair,
Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Then: Cellophane was not introduced at the fair, but DuPont featured it as one of its novel innovations in its exhibit which took the theme of "Better Things for Better Living — Through Chemistry." Cellophane was highlighted as a product with myriad new uses, however, including in fashion. DuPont also featured other sensations at its showcase, including nylon stockings.
Now: Cellophane is more likely to be found on food than fashion. However, some designers still believe they are pushing boundaries by incorporating cellophane in their fashion wear. For instance, Maison Martin Margiela has been known to feature the material in dresses as well as shoes.


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