What's on your nightstand these days? If you're looking for inspiration, consider “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America” by Erik Larson. This fascinating book provides a historical account of Chicago's 1893 world's fair, the World's Columbian Exposition, so named to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America. The engineers tasked with building the fair — 200 buildings within one square mile — faced an impossibly short deadline and a host of setbacks along the way. Cracker Jack was born during the Exposition and it was the first time many of the 27.5 million visitors (from a U.S. population of 65 million) had seen incandescent light — 200,000 electric lights every night of the six-month run.
During construction, Thomas Edison suggested using incandescent bulbs instead of arc lights, due to their softer light. Edison also encouraged the use of dc power, standard at the time. A battle then ensued over the rights to illuminate the fair. General Electric Co., founded with J.P. Morgan's takeover of Edison's company, proposed a direct current system to light the exposition. However, Westinghouse Electric Co., using patents acquired from Nikola Tesla, made a bid for a system using alternating current. General Electric first proposed to do the job for $1.8 million. The bid was rejected as “extortionate.” GE came back with a bid of $554,000, but was bested by Westinghouse, whose ac system was cheaper and more efficient at $399,000. Fair leaders went with ac power, changing the history of electricity.
Another of the fair's challenges was to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” as the previous world's fair had taken place in Paris and debuted the world's tallest building — La Tour Eiffel — at 1,063 ft. Several tower designs were submitted to the fair committee, including an offer from Gustave Eiffel himself, but none were very exciting. Finally, after being rejected (and honed) three times, the winning design that bested Eiffel was finally accepted: In a letter to a friend, the victorious 33-year-old Pittsburgh engineer writes, “I have on hand a great project for the World's Fair in Chicago. I am going to build a vertically revolving wheel 250' in dia.” You guessed it: The engineer was George Washington Gale Ferris. He didn't mention that the wheel would carry 36 cars and propel 2,160 people at a time 300 feet into the sky.
The next official world exposition will take place in Milan, Italy, in 2015. Perhaps a design you're perfecting today will be displayed in the USA pavilion.