The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
ROCKET CARS AT THE WORLD'S FAIRS
Part 1 of two articles on faux "rocket cars" of the 1930s. For Part 2, click here.
Futurism came to a peak in the 1930s. The world of 1930 was utterly transformed by technology from the America of a half century, even a quarter century, earlier. The Depression made a major dent in that technological optimism but the forces that worshiped technology and its sibling science fought the pervading gloom by promising that a greater, glitzier, most fantabulous future was but a few years away, accessible to all once the economy returned to boom mode as it surely world.
Those visions of a capital F Future bombarding the average citizen through every media, in popular science magazines, pages of pictures in Sunday newspapers, newsreels, movies, art and fashion. And, symbiotically, all of these carried the word of the grand Fairs that emblemized the decade.
Only a single major fair had been held in America since before World War 1 and that, the 1926 American Sesquicentennial in Philadelphia, was a bust. City promoters looked to Fairs to distract minds from the gloom of everyday existence by making them bigger and gaudier and louder, an escapist fantasy of a better way to live, serving the same purpose as Hollywood musicals but on a larger scale. San Diego, Cleveland, Dallas, and San Francisco served up Fairs during the 1930s, each of them overshadowed by the two gigantic Fairs that bookended the era: the 1933-4 Chicago Century of Progress International Exposition and the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, the first to use that name.
To see the debt the two Fairs owed to technology look no further than their mottos. Chicago's was ""Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts" and New York opened with ""Dawn of a New Day" although "The World of Tomorrow" unofficially encroached on that honor. New York's most famous feature was the Futurama, a ride that soared visitors over the city of tomorrow. They each received a gift as they left, a button that read "I Have Seen the Future." Man adapts, indeed. Few people doubted that the gleaming highways and soaring buildings were anything other than destiny.
The exhibits at the Fairs were often leadenly educational, serious as their subject matter. The dirty secret of major Fairs is that most of the money comes from the amusement parks that accompanied them, spectacles that borrowed from Coney Island and led ultimately to Disneyland and reality television.
Rocket cars, speed and power and danger in a thrilling and often deadly mix, burst out of newspapers and newsreels in the late 1920s. German daredevils like Max Valier strapped rockets onto cars, motorcycles, and boats, sometimes breaking land speed records, sometimes breaking their bones. Spaceships and robots and other tropes of modern science fiction were minor aspects of popular culture, confined to Buck Rogers and the handful of science fiction pulp magazines. Rocket cars manifestly existed, tangible and audible in their roaring majesty. Anybody could build a true rocket car if they wanted to risk their life and if the authorities would let them test it, which bureaucrats became increasingly loathe to do. The sensible ones found that calling a streamlined vehicle a "rocket car" thrilled audiences just as much and was a heck of a lot safer. "Rocket cars" proliferated in the 1930s the way "robots" do today.
Chicago was almost synonymous with World's Fair in America, its 1893 World's Columbian Exposition extravaganza setting records for both attendance and the number of marvels it introduced, back when that was the primary function of a world's fair. The Eiffel Tower, then the tallest man-made construction in history, had overshadowed in every way the 1889 World's Fair it was built for and Chicagoans, bent on knocking New York off its pedestal as America's foremost city, examined a thousand ideas for a topper. George Washington Ferris' giant wheel won out. Over 250 feet tall and capable of sitting more than 2,000 people at a time it made a fortune for the Fair (if not for Ferris, who sued the Fair's management for $750,000 in withheld revenues).
The Century of Progress in the modern Fair's title supposedly referred to the progress made since the incorporation of the Town of Chicago in 1833 but everybody knew that comparisons to the 1893 Exposition were all that counted. Some gigantic ironworks had to tower over the millions of fairgoers. Heinz proposed a 1,000-foot-high pickle. The committee very politely said no and Heinz settled for a booth in the Agricultural Building, presenting "Kitchens from Many Lands." Taken more seriously was an engineer, William L. Hamilton, whose idea was audacious yet practical. The September 1932 issue of Popular Science leaked the winner to a national audience. "Rocket" cars would run between two 600 foot towers, the tallest structures west of New York.
The hype started long before the Fair. The Decatur, IL, Sunday newspaper magazine ran a full page article extolling the local firm that was making the towers - not the ride, just the towers.
The "rocket cars" themselves came out of the Goodyear Zeppelin Corp. (This was four years before the Hindenburg disaster. Zeppelins were still the coolest mode of working transportation, eclipsable by nothing save rocket cars.
In one way the "rocket cars" advanced a step over the earlier constructions; they had a real function other than giving a bird's eye view of the Fair. The second tower sat on Northerly Island, an artificial island east of Chicago in Lake Michigan that housed a children's fair and babysitting service.
Two young architects, Nathaniel Owings and Louis Skidmore, just starting out and not yet world-famous as two-thirds of the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill architectural superfirm, designed the cable structure, longer than anything else in the U.S. except the George Washington Bridge. Cost of the Sky Ride, as it became known to newspaper readers (although it was spelled Skyride officially), was always given at exactly $1,000,000, a sure sign that its real cost was something different. (All numbers in this article come from contemporary newspaper accounts. They don't always agree with one another, official publicity releases vary, and historical sources offer another set, and any of these might purport to be exact or were obviously rounded. As 1930s comic Jack Pearl asked, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?")
Nothing gives a sense of the era more than the names of the twin towers: Amos and Andy, Amos on the west, Andy on the east. The Amos 'n' Andy radio show broadcast out of Chicago and had been set there until the NBC network picked it up and the setting moved to Harlem. A national phenomenon, some popular culture historians claim the show was the most popular program ever. Steelworkers on the project informally dubbed the towers with the nicknames; the top brass made it official and invited Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, Amos and Andy themselves, to the grand opening. The ten double-decker rocket cars each bore the name of an Amos 'n' Andy character like Brother Crawford.
The Sky Ride's aluminum and glass rocket cars could handle 4,800 passengers per hour, up to 36 in a car. Colored steam shot out their tails to simulate rocket exhaust. One reporter compared their speed to a "leisurely walk on the ground," although it was a slightly brisker 5 miles per hour. On Sunday, September 3, the cars carried 51,287 paying customers. A staggering 1,499,209 visitors to the Fair rode the cars in 1939 without any reported injuries. Twice, in August and September, cars got stuck for up to a half hour but were brought back to a tower safely. A white-out snowstorm proved the closest call. In March 1940, that sudden squall blindsided wire inspectors "walking" the cables, feet on one and hands grasping another. No safety equipment in those days. When the storm hit, Hendricksen and Anderson were 200 feet over the water. Observers below lost all sight of them when the snow grew too thick. Two full hours later, the near-frozen men crawled onto the west tower.
The Sky Ride continued for the 1934 season of the Exposition almost unchanged. The Amos and Andy towers allowed visitors to ride to the top for an extra fee - admission was cheap but doing anything more than wandering around literally nickled and dimed fairgoers until their pockets emptied. To entice more traffic, "talking telescopes" that explained the sites in Chicago visible from the 600-foot observation deck - if you anted up yet another quarter.
By then the towers were iconic enough to copy and exploit. A horse named Sky Ride raced at Pimlico in November 1935 and another competed in horse shows in Utah. In late 1933, anticipating the Christmas crush, Bamberger's, the giant department store in Newark that rivaled Macy's and Gimbel's across the Hudson, set up a miniature world's fair viewable from rocket cars on its eighth floor. "Everybody gets a souvenir!" promised the ads.
If you had the money in November 1934 you could have done better than a souvenir: you could have bought the towers themselves. Expo management tried to sell them off with no takers. Eventually they gave up. Almost a ton of thermite knocked the towers over in 1935, witnessed by a crowd of 100,000. The remains were sold off, bit by usable bit, for scrap.
Rocket ride aficionados didn't have long to wait for another chance. The Texas Centennial Exposition, held in 1936 and 1937, advertised a rocket ride as part of its midway. Sadly, it was anticlimactic at best, a low-end amusement ride that whirled the would-be thrillseekers around a giant saucer. Yes, that word was used in 1936, little realizing how powerful flying saucers would become only a decade later.
The supergiant New York World's Fair seemed to promise more. Early in 1938, wireservices circulated a story that Raymond Loewy, one of the most famous industrial designers in America, planned a panoramic show at the Transportation Building that promised visitors wonders and marvels.
All the newspapers reproductions look terrible and the idea is just as murky. The small print in the caption gives a hint of what he envisioned.
As a climax, the rocket port of the future ... will spring into action. From the steamship, passengers will be whisked into a rocket car which, in a brilliant and explosive flash, will seem to travel upward to the illuminated planets in the ceiling.
The final version had most of that, but the so-called "Rocketport" sent attendees to London rather than the stars. It still must have looked cool in color.
And this weird promotional strip confirms that the "ride" took place mostly as Loewy laid out. It also falsely uses the term "rocket car." By any name, it's a rocket ship, just as one would expect to find at a rocket port.
New York did have a rocket car ride that looked more like a rocket car, although it behaved like a rocketship gone loco. The Stratoship ride placed passengers in a "rocket car" balanced by a tank of water and then flipped them over, under, sideways, down until their heads spun.
Miss Kathryn Walsh described her experience in the Quad-City Times.
Foolishly enough, the other night, I trusted myself to the interior of a harmless-looking rocket car called the "Stratoship." The car was bullet-shaped and seemed to pivot on a central tower. I thought the sensation would be that of gliding and hopped in all set for something pleasant. Have you ever been in a plane when the pilot decided to do a bit of stunt flying? If you have, you'll know that it is a shocking experience to find yourself rolling over and over, now feet first now head first, twisting and tossing and altogether shaken up. They tell me the ride is "just something to amuse the "children." To me it was just a bad 10 minutes.
The "children" got it. "Rocket car" rides of every description proliferated after the war. Rockets never get old.
December 10, 2018