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The View from 1900:
WHirled in a Maelstrom of Progress

The Eiffel Tower loomed over the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900. Only eleven years old and scheduled to be taken down in 1909 after its promised lifespan of 20 years expired, the 300 meter (984 foot) tower, the tallest structure ever built by mankind, remained an unmatched icon of technological extravagance. After spending four years dithering about a suitable competing symbol the Exposition’s organizers admitted intellectual defeat. Making a virtue of necessity – an early version of proclaiming a bug a feature – they instead proclaimed that every one of the fair’s 219 hectares (543 acres) was itself a central attraction. They would be festooned with lights. Electric lights. More than the world had ever seen.

Paris had a history of being called the City of Light, as much metaphorically for its status as a home to Enlightenment thinking as in physical tribute to its early use of gas lighting on its famously dim and dangerous streets. Other cities had since caught up along both dimensions, especially with the diamond brilliance of the incandescent light transforming urban centers. Paris was no longer as special as it felt. Fending off competition from all the major capitals of Europe for the honor to host the Fair, Parisians vowed that the Exposition would change the world’s perceptions.

After the Fair’s hurried opening to a still half-built mud grounds, the spring and summer of 1900 saw as many as 60,000 people per hour strolling though the grand entrance at the Porte Binet. Dwarfed by massive baroque architecture, fifty-six ticket offices huddled under a multicolored dome embedded with colored lights and a bare-breasted statue of “La Parisienne.” More Art Nouveau playsets, swathed with “spires and turrets, green cupolas and Oriental domes” that made them seem “like those palaces in the Arabian Nights which vanish at a touch,” lined both banks of the Seine, housing everything from the pavilions of the world’s major nations to a reproduction of a French medieval village to the exhibition halls for art and industry. The 1900 Olympic games found a distant niche in the Parc Vincennes, best reached by the new subway constructed for the occasion.

To get anywhere else visitors traveled along an elevated moving sidewalk, similar in concept to those found in airports today. Not the first such but by far the longest and most utilitarian, the trottoir mobile consisted of two adjacent series of enormous conveyor belts – one at 4 kph (2.5 mph), the speed of a casual stroll, and one at 8 kph (5 mph), a brisk walk – next to a stationary wooden platform. Set seven meters (23 feet) in the air – above an electric train line, in fact – the mobile whisked passengers directly to a eye-level view of the gingerbread fabric of the fair. At night, the view was better: eyes were fixed on the lighting that covered every building like gauzy ivy. “Augustus” wrote in the New York Observer that the “moving sidewalks have upright posts with knobbed tops by which one can steady himself in passing to or from the platforms. There are occasional seats on these platforms, and the circuit of the Exposition can be made with rapidity and ease by this contrivance.” Thomas Edison himself filmed the walkway, showing the ease with which pedestrians, even the women in the street-length skirts of the era, stepped up or down the few centimeters that separated the tracks to get on and off. Making a large circle of the grounds in 26 minutes, the mobile had a maximum capacity of 14,000 and carried 70,000 people on Easter Sunday afternoon. Admirers tried to downplay the reality that miles of giant rollers created a platform that was so “loud and shaky” that it frightened children.

Although the organizers strived to stress design over the crass commercialism of previous Expos, everything new and electric found its way to the Fair. Lumiere and Pathé both showed off their movies. So did an enterprising physician named Doyen, who, to the shocked horror of his staid colleagues, filmed himself performing an operation. Talking pictures debuted with a synchronized cylinder recording of the venerable actor Coquelin declaiming the tirade des nez from the duel scene in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano’s de Bergerac. Coquelin appeared on stage that same summer with Sarah Bernhard in Rostand’s L'Aiglon, but the author didn’t attend. No need to. Newspapers printed photos of him and his family seated comfortably at home, listening to the performance over a special “theater-phone.”

A celebration designed to showcase France’s superiority naturally encouraged Europe’s newspapers to battle over the worthiness of the Fair’s design as well as the sophistication of the art, machinery, and military armaments displayed in the exhibit halls. Average visitors may have oohed and aahed over the endless displays (now-priceless art was displayed by simply filling in a wall from top to bottom) but their memories they always turned back to one unforgettable aspect of the Expo: the electric lights. No one did so in more extravagant prose than Paul Morand, who wrote many years later about his visit to the Fair as an impressionable twelve-year-old.

Suddenly a laugh rings out, strange, crackling, condensed – the laugh of that new-born fairy, Electricity! … They were lavish of light at the Exposition. Electricity runs in lattices of fire over the monumental gate. Gas is forced to abdicate. … At night the searchlights sweep the Champ de Mars, the fountains shimmer in cyclamen tints and fall in showers of green and purple light, orchestrations of liquid fire, a riot of volts and ampères. The Seine is violet, iridescent, blood-red. Electricity is accumulated, condensed, transformed, bottled, drawn into filaments, rolled upon spools, then discharged under water, in fountains, or set free on the house tops or let loose among the trees; it is the scourge and religion of 1900.


Perhaps only the French could personify electricity as a fairy, “la fée éléctricité,” but visitors beheld the image of the Spirit of Electricity in the same fashion as La Parisienne, as statuary. Even the sedate Hachette Guide waxed eloquent on the issue.

The Palace of Electricity's imposing facade joins the two avenues of pavilions on the Champ de Mars. The facade is composed of nine bays covered with stained glass and delicate translucent ceramic decorations. At the center is a scroll stamped with the unforgettable date: 1900. At night the entire facade is illuminated by 5,000 multicolored incandescent light bulbs, eight monumental lamps of colored glass, and lanterns sparkling on the pinnacles and along the upper ramps. In the evening this openwork frieze a veritable luminous embroidery of light and shifting colors. Crowning the Palace is a chariot drawn by hippogryphs, The Spirit of Electricity, which projects showers of multicolored flames.


The least likely embodiment of the Spirit of Electricity, therefore, would be someone Jean Cocteau called “a fat, ugly, American woman,” undoubtedly using the terms redundantly. Yet even he became won over, referring to her as the only vibrant image he retained from the Expo. It was a triumph of illusion, of artifice, of the paradox of electric light as “cold fire,” transforming the stereotypical he-man bulk of power generation into a symbol of eternal femininity, portrayed by a woman who could not be presented as what she was.

Mary-Louise “Loie” Fuller was born in Chicago in 1862 and suffered through the stereotypical “tights dances” and the other leg-baring art of the female performer in traveling with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show before debuting in Paris on the stage of the Folies-Bergère. Paris might have been plastered with Folies’ posters by the artist PAL, watercolors depicting a languorous slim nude version of Fuller, but these and other drawings were lies to lure in a willingly deceived audience. Fuller defied her advancing age and weight by creating a new form of dance, inventing astounding new techniques in electrical stagecraft to accommodate it.

Loie Fuller hid her body, off-stage as well as on, in yards of fabric, dozens, some claim hundreds of yards of gauzy muslin and silk. Holding the material off the floor by attaching it to long hooked wands of bamboo and aluminum kept aloft with unduplicable arm strength, Fuller swirled the fabric in hypnotic serpentine folds, filling the stage with a visual image that doubled her height and breadth. When that was no longer enough, she added light, projecting colors on her ever-moving screen, diagonal rays from above, the sides, and even underneath the stage through a plate of glass. Mothlike, she sought the light, attempting to merge her body into the rays, tapping her feet artistically with seemingly magical results; the audience couldn’t know that the taps were code for the technicians to change the colored gels on their lights.

Given her own theater on the Rue de Paris, a prime location, she designed every aspect of its exterior and interior to achieve the effect that the other huger, coarser buildings strove to emulate. “At night the white stucco exterior became ablaze with light, shining up from below. Inside, during the day, sunlight streaming though stained-glass windows gave a kaleidoscopic effect. In the evening, a similar effect was created by electric light,” wrote Richard and Martha Ewing Current. Even after her death, Paul Morand could write of the Expo that “The ministries of the Left Bank [were] like gigantic Loie Fullers,” without ever stopping to identify her further. To her contemporaries, Loie Fuller was literally “la fée éléctricité,” far more interesting, important, and influential than the giant masculine dynamos that produced the electricity that enabled the light to caress the imaginary lines of her perfect body every night.

All the more ironic then, that Fuller is forgotten except by historians – the lovelier and often-exposed bodies of Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis quickly replaced her in dance lore – and the lasting and quite false image of the Expo in America and in intellectual circles is that of the dynamo itself.

The words are excerpted out of context from the self-indulgent third-person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, and are quoted all too frequently as symbolic of the new era engulfing the muscle, horse, and steam-driven ages of the past.

[T]o Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring, – scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power, – while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.


Seldom quoted are the lines immediately preceding, a far less worshipful and far more sensible appraisal by someone who did not approach the scientific exhibits with studied incomprehension. Samuel Pierpont Langley was head of the Smithsonian Institution, an astronomer, physicist, and would-be pioneer of aviation, striving to become the first to pilot a heavier-than-air craft under its own power. To Langley, “the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight.”

Langley was 66 that summer in Paris, five years older than Adams, and also showing his age. Both men were bald and white-bearded, plodding determinately from one scientific display to another despite ill health, ignoring the louche attractions of the uncensored performances along the Rue de Paris, contemporaries in despising every aspect of the modern age except for the technology.

Loie Fuller was almost the only American talked about at the Expo. The country had been denied equality with the “first-rank” nations of Europe and finally had squeezed its pavilion into space forced by shrinking Austria and Turkey’s. The U.S. thought that the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had been its coming out party. In 1900 Europe brushed it off, looking to its glorious present, the beautiful and blissfully peaceful belle époque. It acknowledged competition only among what it deemed the first-rank nations of England, Germany, and France rather than parvenu strivers like the newly imperialistic United States. An America dominating the 20th century scientifically, militarily, or aesthetically was as unlikely as an American woman stealing attention from the official displays of French art. It’s equally unlikely that either Adams or Langley would have disagreed.

          Adams makes no mention of Fuller in his book, and there is no way to know if either of the men took in a performance. Surely, though, Langley would have immediately understood Fuller’s aesthetic. Often derided as an inventor, a mere engineer rather than a proper dancer, Fuller and those who sought her out – she worked with Edison on phosphorescent dyes for her fabrics – looked past the suddenly omnipresent means of electricity for the ends, for what wonders they could wrest from the unseen and forgotten dynamos. Chicago saw America screaming its achievements at the world; Paris marked a collective pause in history, a quiet interlude between revolutions of every sort. Small wonder that a woman who barely spoke French could steal the show with artful trickery. (She hid everything – including her lesbian partner of decades, a business heiress who always dressed in men’s suits.) Fuller was the break with the past, the creation of an unexpected future, that all had hoped the Exposition Universelle would symbolize yet otherwise failed to achieve. Like electricity itself, Fuller already existed, had even achieved a measure of fame, but no one understood her import. Coming out of seeming nowhere, feted with words so hyperbolic that no second act was ever possible, doomed to be forgotten after the next miracle of the new, Loie Fuller is the perfect representative of the Future that dangled so tantalizingly at the close of the year 1900.


Looking backward, we can see that the year 1900 marks a radical break in thinking about that capital “F” Future. This isn’t just hindsight, our knowledge that the year saw Max Planck’s announcement of the energy quanta that would transform all physics, and therefore all technology, into classical and modern versions. The last year of the 19th century was spent waiting, waiting for something new and mysterious and wonderful, something that the western world, especially Europeans, felt lacking, increasingly dissatisfied with the failures and inadequacies of their vaunted civilization. The end of the century, the fin de siècle, meant to many a true ending, not a beginning.

“To be fin de siècle … is to languish with one’s century, to decay along with it,” said a French publication in 1886, explaining the then new phrase. A German novelist in 1891 thought that the fin de siècle meant the end of European culture. Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s epitome of decadence, wanted more than the mere end of the century. “I wish it were fin du globe,” Dorian said with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment.”

Americans had no time for sighing. They denounced their world in stinging terms. In 1888 Edward Bellamy performed an early transformation of space into time when he titled his utopian jeremiad Looking Backward: 2000-1887. His hero is a young man so disturbed by the unending noise of the city that he builds an underground chamber just to get enough quiet in which to sleep. He wakes in the Boston of the year 2000, to find that every ill that beset his time has been completely cured. The book was phenomenally popular, behind only Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur in 19th century sales. Over the next decade dozens of additional utopian novels were published in support of or in response or opposition to Looking Backward, and in 1897, the year before his death, Bellamy himself published a sequel, Equality. Several lists of the most influential books of the century put Looking Backward just behind Marx’s Das Kapital.

Understanding the impact of the book requires rewriting a media trope so ingrained into popular culture that it is seldom questioned: that books set in the future are about the future. For decades cynics as well as disappointed optimists have mocked the supposedly failed future visions of prognosticators with cries of “where’s my jetpack?” or “I want my flying car.” All students of good science fiction know that the opposite is true: science fiction in all its varied guises is never about the future: it’s a commentary on the present. Bellamy’s readers understood that implicitly. His world of 2000, a calm, rational, beautiful city ruled by benevolent experts who make the bounty of the American Dream available equally to all, was intended as – and read as – the way the current world of 1888 should be and could be if only people had the wit and desire to make it so. Many had that desire: at least 165 Bellamy Clubs appeared just in 1890 and 1891. They faded away after the devastating Panic of 1893, although the Populist Party incorporated many of their political planks for its short lifetime and the City Beautiful movement expressed similar approval for carving park-like expanses into crowded urban centers.

Utopias could also not overcome a fundamental flaw. Bellamy’s is a social future rather than a technological one. Although he offers a few standard advances – classical (definitely not popular) music piped in to homes, e.g. – the pace of change was part of his litany of ills. He wanted a static world, a modern version of the homogeneous, upper-middle-class small town society he grew up in. The rest of America was just beginning to appreciate the wonders that technology could bestow on them, and a calm and rational society looked narrow and dull compared to the excitement and noise of the very city life that so offended Bellamy. Cities offered everything that small towns of the day did not. Ordinary people who were not lofty thinkers fled to them. Boston would almost double in population between 1880 and 1910.

Bostonians wanted more to show off their city than to decry it. They entered into the competition for the right and privilege to boast their superiority of vision to the rest of America, the race to hold a World’s Fair in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

Public anticipation of the Fair was enormous. Besides Boston, St. Louis, New York, and Chicago competed furiously for the honor of hosting. Newspapers, even more chauvinistic then than today, touted the virtues of their cities in their finest hyperbole while denouncing the competition in terms labeled “vitriolic.” The battle took eight roll calls in Congress.

By the time Chicago won, less than two years remained until Columbus’ anniversary. Chicago had its victory, along with a location that was an empty insect-infested swamp, a site plan without a single building, a total lack of transportation to or inside the fairgrounds, and no conception of what the Fair would actually celebrate. And no money, since Congress kept deciding it had other uses for the sums promised. Chicago persevered, bringing in experts, finding funds, throwing thousands of bodies at the physical labor required. Building the grounds became such a public obsession that the Expo officials found they could charge 25 cents, sometimes even 50 cents – a day’s wage for a laborer – just to allow visitors to stand in the mud and watch the construction. In a further irony, the endless delays at the hands of Congress, no better than the French Sénat at making decisions about money, forced the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing to be celebrated a year late, just when that most crippling recession of the 19th century struck.

The first World’s Fair to sprawl over more than a square mile, Chicago strove to prove to hidebound easterners and effete Bostonians the competitive vigor of the booming American Midwest. Architects hoping to dazzle the world with the technological advances of Chicago’s iron-framed skyscrapers and the stripped-down modernism of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright were disappointed when the Fair’s distinguished panel of architects decided to emulate European classicism. (Sullivan later wrote that “The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century.”) Vast buildings that could hold tens of thousands rose out of swampland in record time. Built to be inexpensive and temporary, the White City buildings were covered with an ingenuous plaster mixture called “staff,” which could be molded into any form of architectural gingerbread and painted to create a dazzling white imitation of marble. Sullivan’s forecast proved entirely accurate. World War II would come and go before the ideal image of formal public buildings changed in American cities.

The visiting hordes marveled at the majestic solemnity of the quarter-mile long façade of the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building, then found their attention stolen by the mile-long Midway Plaisance, or “pleasure ground,” with George Ferris’ 260-foot high Wheel and what to them were the other-worldly oddities of camel-drivers from Cairo and reindeer-herders from Lapland. Façades were free: pleasure grounds drained pockets with entrance into individual attractions costing as much as four times the price of entry into the Fair itself. The percentage of the take received as rent more than made up for all the other losses of the Fair.

Feeding the beast offered opportunities at and away from the Expo. Orlando Jay Smith had been a Chicago newspaper publisher when he saw a vast market in the thousands of small newspapers that competed for readers in every hamlet in every state. Desperate for out-of-town news, features, and commentary that would give them an edge on their rivals, the editors and publishers bought “ready-print” news from syndicates like Smith’s American Print Association. The articles – agricultural reports, humor, state and national news, short stories, and columnists on every subject – arrived on preset soft metal sheets that could be dropped right onto the printing presses. These sheets were known as “stereotype plates,” and since their contents appeared in identical form in thousands of papers, the word stereotype quickly developed a secondary meaning of “image perpetuated without change.” The often-worthless blatherings of cheap writers gave these rural papers an aura of unthinking pontification or crude drivel. The well-read could pan stereotypes without bothering to study them individually. The word would soon take on the modern meaning of pre-conceived notions about a group, a meaning that has lasted long after technology consigned stereotype plates to the same fate as buggy whip factories.

In 1893, however, stereotypes could still attract a distinguished group of commentators, if the subject matter were tied to the event of the age. Smith managed to get 74 celebrities to agree to provide short essays on what the world would be like in another 100 years. Few of the names would be familiar today, although the inclusion of Congressman and soon-to-be perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and industrialist/inventor George Westinghouse gives an idea of how illustrious the group would have appeared. Packaged together in groups of four to eight, the essays ran weekly for two months in the run-up to the Fair, concluding just after President Grover Cleveland pressed a golden telegraph key on May 1, 1893 that sent an electrical signal to start the dynamos at the Fair.

Smith gave his writers a long list of starter questions to spur their thinking. Some were ordinary and could date from any time in our history – the state of transportation or medicine or the monetary system. Others give odd insights into the concerns of the late 19th century. Temperance legislation and women’s suffrage were hotly debated issues, as was the endless war between capital and labor, the subject of several questions. The “servant problem” seems less obvious a concern, but it was code to the middle class for the rise of immigrants out of servile positions and into jobs created by technology.

Given the chance to pontificate about any of the great issues of the day, the celebrities responded with essays that are surprisingly mundane and restrained. An admiral predicted that inland canals would be built to aid freight. A lawyer suspected that specialization in legal practices would increase. An editorial writer couldn’t resist an additional opportunity to hype Chicago’s current virtues but restrained himself to the very accurate prediction that the city would hold about 3,000,000 people in a century’s time. Most of the population estimates were uncannily good. New York did indeed have the 8,000,000 called for and more than one correctly and independently prognosticated a U.S. population of 300,000,000. These subdued extrapolations sprang from a understanding of the principle of compounding: a high initial rate of growth can’t be sustained forever. The U.S. may have grown from 3,000,000 in 1793 to 63,000,000 in 1893, as one respondent wrote, but they all understood that a second 21-fold increase would be ludicrous for 1993 and those who predicted it fools. A natural historian, Felix J. Oswald, put the proposition forth with tart precision: “He might as well have inferred that a pine tree on its twentieth birthday would be a mile high, because in its first ten years of existence it had grown from an inch to a height of 12 yards.”

Perhaps because of this awareness, extreme technological advances were kept to a minimum. Westinghouse in fact predicted that railroads would be slower. (Not because the rail system would stagnate but because brakes couldn’t cope with 100 mph trains. It was an oddly conservative position for someone who held 103 patents on the railroad air brake, but aging inventors tend to get defensive of their early inventions.) Only the orator and former president pro tempore of the Senate John J. Ingalls took a thoroughly optimistic view of the future. “Long before 1993, the journey from New York City to San Francisco, across the continent, and from New York City to London, across the sea, will be made between the sunrise and sunset of a summer day. The railway and the steamship will be as obsolete as the stagecoach. And it will be common for the citizen to call for his dirigible balloon as it now is for his buggy or his boots. Electricity will be the motive power, and aluminum or some lighter metal will be the material of the aerial cars, which will navigate the abyss of the sky.”

The closing essay, however, was given to John Hanson Beadle, a journalist who regularly supplied Smith’s stereotypes with material. As with many journalists of the day, he cynically beheld the pontification of others, and delighted in recording that their oratory fell short of the resulting reality. He titled his essay “All Prophecy is Futile,” and backed that statement with an understanding of history that deserves lasting fame.

Of all these forecasts [examples that he gave, not the preceding essays], one thing may be said with tolerable certainty. Not one of them will be verified in its essential details. All history goes to show that the progress of society has invariably been on lines quite different from those laid down in advance, and generally by reasons of inventions and discoveries which few or none had expected…. The explanation is simple. The prophet is compelled to judge from the forces in operation in his time, and the wisest man cannot possibly foresee the results of the next invention. So far from expecting the railroad and telegraph, Plato and Thomas More could not possibly have comprehended such things if revealed to them by one divinely inspired.


Something changed in the world between the time of writing of these essays and the advent of the 20th century. Part of that change was apparent in the extravaganza that was the Fair. The Fair boasted both the largest building in the world and the largest cheese; the largest number of French wines ever seen in New World and the largest collection of electric light bulbs; the world’s largest telescope and the world’s most powerful gun, a Krupp monster that could shoot a one-ton projectile twenty miles.

The Expo simply overwhelmed superlatives. Hamlin Garland, later a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, is most famous today for a letter he wrote his parents with the exhortation, "Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see this fair.” See it they did. In an era in which even the fastest train between New York and Chicago required a two-day trip, their trip from what just four years before had been the Dakota Territory was an expedition that few destinations could be worthy of. Visitors planned for long stays, both to justify the expense and to see just the smallest fraction of the hundreds of thousands of individual items shipped to the Fair from around the world. (One estimate placed the distance within the grounds needed to be traveled to view every exhibit at 150 miles).

Moreover, for the first time at any Fair, attendees could view these items long into the night. The Fair daily used three times the amount of electricity as the entire city of Chicago. Electrifying cities was barely a decade old, starting with Thomas Edison’s pioneering Pearl Street Station in New York in 1882. Imitators quickly followed. The overwhelming concentration of light bulbs at the Expo awed those from areas where such luxuries were hard to find. That glimpse of a twenty-four hour brightly lighted future impressed many with the possibilities. More decisive proved to be the winner of a battle few remember being fought.

Edison’s generators gave out DC, direct current, advantageous over the short distances, often just blocks, that power networks stretched in the early days. AC, alternating current, could be sent miles without significant loss but required more dangerous transmission lines and more complicated motors. Edison hated it and battled its adherents with all the considerable resources he had to command. To prove that it was too dangerous to be allowed in public, he staged a series of animal electrocutions. America took the wrong lesson away from this. The electric chair became a standard, “humane” means of legal execution.

His arch-rival was George Westinghouse, who had switched from railroads to form Westinghouse Electric. An inventor himself and a fine businessman, he was a better delegator than Edison. He hired a series of young inventors, first an engineer named William Stanley, who would go on to create the first AC lighting system for any town, and later an immigrant from Croatia, Nikola Tesla, who had left Edison in a fury over their divergent views on electricity and Edison’s inability to acknowledge the contributions of others. Tesla’s poly-phase system lay at the heart of all AC. He designed the system for Chicago and later appeared in a show for the International Electrical Congress as gaudy as any on the Midway. Audiences stared as metal eggs danced in mid air like planets and dropped their jaws when 100,000 volts of AC current created electric flames that somehow harmlessly devoured his body.

By the end of the Fair, the unquestionable success and safety of AC swamped Edison’s critiques. The wiring of America, and the world, depended on using AC and its ability to move enormous amounts of power from its concentrated sources. Hydroelectric plants at Niagara Falls created the world’s first electrochemical industries, incidentally turning aluminum, formerly a material so rare and valuable that it was used for the cap of the Washington Monument, into an everyday substance. Transmission lines carried power across states and countries. Electricity went almost overnight from a startling luxury or tool of giant factories to something that every visionary saw as a universal, in every home, hamlet, and hermitage, no matter how remote.

Machinery Hall, officially The Palace of Machine Arts, housed the 100,000 square feet needed for the Fair’s many dynamos in a corner of a much-huger building, along with bread baking, window washing, rock drilling, and weaving machines, all of them in active operation. Described as possibly the noisiest place on earth, even the machine attendants couldn’t stay inside the building for very long and visitors tended to stick their heads in and leave. Langleyesque in its conception, Machinery Hall was perhaps too vivid a reminder of the human costs of modern industrialization.

Instead, visitors to the Fair concentrated mainly on what contrivances electricity brought to them. An elevated electric railway connected the north and south ends. Electric boats sailed Frederick Law Olmstead’s charming lagoon. Most interesting and talked about was the moving walkway.

Built on the shore of Lake Michigan, the Fair had a lakeside pier for those who wanted to boat directly to it and bypass the congestion of Chicago. Sticking a full 1500 feet out from a casino and high-end restaurant, the bare, windswept pier must have seemed a prime candidate for adornment. This is where the world’s first moving sidewalk was built, an ankh-shaped loop of benches on a rolling wooden platform, powered by the ubiquitous electricity. Getting the conveyor-belt to roll was easier than keeping it rolling. The walkway broke down so often that officials eventually gave up fixing it. The Parisians learned from this failure and kept theirs going for a summer. Some inventions had glorious futures. Others could go no further, and outdoor slidewalks had inherent limitations. At their outset, though, no one could tell which were which. Prognosticators have an almost unbroken record of failing to understand this basic truth.


Although the usual scroll of firsts and introductions credited to the Chicago Expo includes everything from the hula to cracker jacks to Edison’s Kinetoscope (angered by Westinghouse getting the electric contract, he spent a half-million on one of the largest exhibits of the Fair), few of these were truly new and nothing new proved to be world-changing except AC power. One of a long line of World’s Fairs that shouted about the future, but were in fact barely capable of keeping up with the present, the Chicago Exposition marks in retrospect marks an end, the end of America’s adolescence.

Americans truly saw the world for the first time at the Fair. The achievements, the history, the color and spectacle of other cultures permeated the grounds, from the dozens of official buildings to the thousands of unbelievably plush and opulent exhibits to the gaudy if often exploitative displays on the Midway. The European powers sent over shiploads of cargo, with Germany filling six separate buildings plus displays elsewhere, but Ceylon, India, Brazil, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Costa Rica also had buildings to themselves. Japan was the first country to apply for space at the Fair, a way to re-ingratiate itself to the world after centuries of isolation. It’s Ho-o-den building, located on an island in the lagoon, was an architectural marvel of serenity combined with gas-lit fairy lamps festooned on lines into woods created there tree by tree. No country evinced greater admiration than the Japanese for their combination of technology and art (a display in the Fine Arts building contrasted beautifully to the academic and outmoded European styles that were thought to be representative). They were the surprise of the Fair at a time when immigration from Japan was prohibited.

The Midway opened on one side with the Streets of Cairo, replete with a bazaar, camels, and tents containing the sword and candle dances. Though Little Egypt never appeared at the Fair, poor imitators did, some who made instantly famous the "hootchy-cootchy" dance (actually a mistranslation of an act who appeared in the Algerian section). Next door an entire Dahomian village engendered racist rumors of cannibalism, especially after their number decreased when some left to return home. The Dahomian women, anticipating generations of similar casual racism in the pages of magazines like National Geographic, were the only ones allowed to be photographed bare-breasted. Visitors who started from the other end of the mile-long strip first encountered the formal Javanese dancers and a mock exploding volcano from what was then still the independent Republic of Hawaii. Unfortunately, the staggering heat of the Chicago summer felled the Laplanders’ reindeer and sent their owners and the Eskimos home early. One later paean to the Fair noted that:

There were people from all different countries, cultures, professions scattered throughout the Midway. A Mexican dandy, a Syrian swordsman, a Bulgarian gentleman, the Samoans, an Egyptian donkey driver, Persian club-swingers, an Irish dairymaid, a businessman from Beirut, a Scottish bagpiper, a group from Fiji, a Xybeck, a Ceylonese.


Exotic was the favored term for these sights, a euphemism that meant alien. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with its unfathomable Martians did not hit print for an additional five years, but the sentiment, though uniquely expressed, caught a spirit already prevalent in the late 19th century. The world had shrunk. Invaders had intruded. There was no escaping them. America, once predicated on escape from foreign shores, had to accept being part of the world rather than a “City Upon a Hill” apart from it.

The sheer expense of visiting the Expo held down the number of locals who could view it. Indeed, more than half the attendance came from abroad, although predominantly from western European countries to whom the exotic displays were as strange as to Dakotans. Organizers threw open the gates on Sundays so that working families, then 90% of the city’s population, could attend at reduced prices on their day off, setting off yet another controversy about propriety. (Bare-breasted sculptures were expected in Paris, but denounced in Chicago.) These visitors created their own class of alienness. Chicago, reports fair historian R. Reid Badger, “was the nation’s largest city for Poles, Croatians, Slovakians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, and Danes.” Nearly 78% of Chicago’s population was either foreign born or the children of foreign born. Chicago’s otherness was typical of large cities, especially in the northeast where more than half the population lived in towns or cities. With immigration at all-time highs Americans had little choice but to see that the city was the future, a prospect that disturbed many despite the beautiful fiction of the White City.

Ironically, the defining moment that articulated all the fears of the middle and upper classes for this historical turning point also occurred at the Expo. Representatives from those groups demanded that uplift, education, and beauty balance the despicably gaudy low culture of the Midway. Intellectual displays were the property of twenty departments run by the World’s Fair Congress Auxiliary. Congresses on religion, architecture, government, labor, women’s issues, philosophy, and more attracted hundreds of thousands over the summer, although this collective attendance would be little more than a good week at the Midway.

At the Historical Congress, the American Historical Association elected Henry Adams as its president, and listened to the papers of leading historians and rising young names. One of the latter was a recent Ph.D. who had studied at Johns Hopkins under Woodrow Wilson. Frederick Jackson Turner had noticed a stunning fact buried in an 1890 report from the Superintendent of the Census. "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports."

Turner’s paper, titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” took the myth of the individualism of the frontier and elevated it to a principle that permeated all aspects of American life. What some now mythologize as American exceptionalism was formed by the frontier, and so was our entrepreneurial nature. The frontier was “a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman.” Yet individuality wasn’t an unalloyed positive, for it “has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit.” The East, representing order, was continually undermined by the West, representing chaos.

Something had to explain the disruptions caused by the ever-greater acceleration of change. The loss of perceived individualism made a good scapegoat. The opposite of individualistic culture, which could now be mythologized with flaws removed, was mass culture. The crowds at the Chicago Fair, the growth of the city of Chicago itself, the unprecedented numbers of immigrants from areas new to the U.S., the shift from a small-town America to an urban America, all became evidence of a new mass culture that could be celebrated or deplored but never ignored. Stereotypes brought mass culture to thousands of small towns desperate to connect with the image of sophistication promulgated by the big city newspapers. A national vision began to supersede a multitude of local visions. Even the technologies that received their first national notice at the Fair were intended for the masses. Electric railroads and moving walkways made sense only in the most crowded urban environments.

Bigness was a virtue all to itself. The 1890s were the era of the Trust, monopolies concocted by businessmen who preached the creed of Social Darwinism. Trusts were formed in virtually every industry in America, as codified in their names: United States Steel, Standard Oil, Consolidated Tobacco, National Biscuit Company, Amalgamated Copper, International Mercantile Marine, and American Smelting and Refining. An astounding 318 industries had been organized into trusts by 1904, virtually eliminating competition and threatening to keep outside inventors in thrall. National monopolies demanded mass national markets; the amount of capital required to control a product from digging out the raw materials through manufacturing to distribution was too great to be affordable on a local scale. The size of trusts also allowed mass purchasing of politicians to avoid anti-trust laws. Avoiding competition that would cause prices to drop was worth every dollar spent to quash it. Turner may have railed against the spoils system, but he was a bit too early to spot a trend that by 1900 would make the earlier corruption penny-ante.

Those who saw in modern times the death of their beloved history and culture, a vocal segment of the population who never seem to diminish in number or proportion, seized upon Turner’s paper as a distillation of all that was negative in change. Almost every reference to the paper agreed with Turner’s conclusion that “the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

If the frontier was gone and if the frontier was needed, the logical conclusion was that a new frontier must be found. Turner had caught the cusp. His premises and therefore his conclusions may have been picked over by later writers and found to be narrow and misapplied, but for perhaps the first time a historian made history. Every booster, huckster, promoter, inventor, writer, journalist, politician, and forward-thinking man-of-the-world intuitively understood that opportunity beckoned. If a new frontier were needed, one would appear. In fact, two. The metaphorical future of Time, expressed as an extravagant, advanced, and totally novel world-to-be, and the physical future of Space, presented by legions of science fiction writers as the impossible-to-exhaust expanse in which the most rugged individualists could embody every positive aspect of Turner’s vision of the frontier as a “new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons.”


The 20th Century loomed. With every tick of the clock, its advent tantalized more and more. The arguments over the proper date and when to celebrate were as heated as the more recent ones over the coming of the millennium. In his history of fins de siècle, Century’s End, Hillel Schwartz wrote that “The debate raged from Capetown, South Africa, to Palencia, Spain; from the official Bureau des Longitudes in Paris to the unofficial, irreverent pages of Alfred Jarry’s Almanach illustré du Pere Ubu (XXe Siècle); from Switzerland and the private declaration in favor of 1901 by the physicist Léon Walras to Scotland and the public declaration in favor of 1900 by the physicist Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.”

 Astronomers, mathematicians, civil engineers, scientists, and official chronologers moved in lockstep, he noted. All agreed that a century comprised one hundred full years, and that a new century must therefore begin on a date ending with a one. The populist side was stated by Mark Sullivan in volume 1 of Our Times, entitled plainly The Turn of the Century, a story he began in 1900. “January 1, 1900, appeals to the human imagination, seems to the eye, and sounds to the ear, more like the beginning of a century than does January 1, 1901.” Satirized in Punch cartoons, argued in letter to the editors columns, debated by learned societies, the dates controversy caused no one more aggravation than those in government, who had to decide when to organize the showiest and costliest celebration of their lifetimes.

Perhaps because learned figures and their expressive beards carried more weight in times when the vast majority of the population never finished even high school, perhaps because the generations of unseatbelted children breathlessly hanging over the front bench seats of cars waiting for the odometer to roll over its zeroes had yet to be born, the scientifically correct year won out almost everywhere. A few cities and counties held their festivities on December 31, 1899. The Vatican proclaimed a Jubilee of 1900 and a second celebration in 1901. The rest of the world waited for 1901.

The end of century milestone concentrated attention on that societal milestone like a 30th or 50th birthday does for an individual, mixing reflection and anticipation with an inevitable dollop of anxiety. Just as there is seldom a memorable event occurring on those birthdays that justifies the attention we pay to them, many of the seminal events that shaped the thinking of the commentators lay far enough in the past for them to have permeated the culture. The very notion of progress into a better future can be laid at the feet of Charles Darwin. When he coalesced the previously amorphous understanding of evolution into a universal that his acolyte Herbert Spencer dubbed “survival of the fittest,” all history reversed its direction. No more would humanity see itself as the dull and diminished remains of a time apotheosized as the “Golden Age” by the Greeks and “Eden” in the Judeo-Christian ethic. After Darwin, the deluge. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Everyone who had a mind to change, changed it.” From then on, the argument was almost invariably whether humanity had already reached the pinnacle of progress or was continuing to scale it, with many of the self-satisfied making the compromise that they themselves, western Europeans and their descendants, were at nature’s peak but could use technology to transform the world around them.

On the Origin of Species appeared earlier than people tend to remember, in 1859. The Civil War blunted the immediate discussion of Darwin in America, but proved to be as transformative. Slavery served as a national neurosis before the war. Removing that cancer, as painful as all surgical operations were in that era, freed the U.S., at least the North, to concentrate on its own industrial revolution. The demands of a wartime economy drove northern factories into a frenzy that echoes the riches created by the needs of World War II, a government demand-driven economy that finally pulled the U.S. permanently out of the Depression. As with WWII America, the happenstance that the winner, in this case the North, was virtually untouched by wartime devastation played a critical role in its post-war dominance. Over three quarters of a million immigrants arrived in the North during the war years, a deliberate emigration into a country in total war that has no precedent or follow-up. Many of them were young men, who gladly enlisted in the Grand Army of the Republic after accepting the stupendous $300 payment offered by those Northerners who wanted to avoid the draft and could afford to buy a replacement. Possibly uniquely in the history of warfare, the North ended the war in 1865 with a larger pool of eligible young men for cannon fodder than it had at its beginning, a pool that could immediately be taken up by the factories run by numerous successful men who dodged a war that at other times and places would have destroyed a generation.

The Civil War accelerated not just industrialization but transportation. The transcontinental railroad actually started construction during the war, and the celebrated driving of the final stake in 1869 was instead a beginning that soon saw three more through lines competing. Creating a bound nation out of fragmented pieces, the railroads hastened the spread of the growing population across the continent, dominating what was once considered to be an unconquerable wilderness in a mere 20 years, leading to that 1890 announcement of the end of the frontier. Railroads also brought the masses from small towns to the cities, where the effects of these major breaks with a rural and individualistic past were all too evident.

Pent-up change is omnipresent in the myriads of column inches that newspapers and magazines devoted to predictions of the new century during the last days of December 1900 and well into the next year. As the New York World printed on Dec. 29, 1900, “When the last week of the year is also the last week of the century and when anticipation is free to extend itself along the limitless vista of the coming 100 years, we all become, instinctively and irresistibly, 20th century prophets. Nobody is thinking of anything else now.” While that statement is hyperbole – neither the World nor any of the other newspapers bothered to ask the millions in the lower classes trying to get through a freezing winter what they thought about the future or anything else – the editors of every major newspaper and magazine exploited the public anticipation of the new century with endless articles, interviews, polls, and special sections. Ironically, few of the special sections survived the century, even in microfilm files. Much of our knowledge of their contents comes from comments about them in other publications, shadows and excerpts no more tangible than the tantalizing references to and lines from lost Greek plays. The individual pieces that survive are testimony to the pace of change in those years, a period that, in Paul Morand’s line, was “whirled in a maelstrom of progress.”

 “Locomotion in the air [will be] as common as bicycle riding is now,” wrote Alfred E. Henschel in the New York Herald. Yale professor Henry Davies had lofty thoughts for the San Francisco Examiner: “I look for a nobler man living in a nobler environment, a man two inches taller, living longer, gentler in mind and manners, in every way an improvement over the past.” A French artist, Carolus Duran, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “The majority of people will go from hideously malconformed to beautiful. … Another hundred years and no imperfect being will be allowed to reproduce itself and inflict upon society a spreading perpetuation of his taints.” Also French, Elie Mechnikoff similarly forecast to the New York World that, “In a hundred years, the average of life will be raised to sixty years, and & centenarians will be plentiful and hearty along the shady broad streets of the next century.” This was in an age in which one-third of all industrial workers were dead or incapacitated by age fifty.

They were quite serious about the future. Uncle Richard, the children’s columnist at the Chicago Tribune, probably wasn’t. Probably. “It would not be a good idea to wish to be a bad boy in [2000]. The teachers in the schools will have wonderful instruments on their desks that will record the name of every boy that whispers and all the teacher will have to do to bring swift punishment to the malefactor will be to press a certain button on the desk, and a current of electricity will shoot through the victim, and make him think he is a human pincushion.”

A few women were asked their views. Most were hopeful. “Twenty years ago, when I first entered the ranks of New York journalists, I knew of but one other woman who was engaged in the same sort of work. Now I should say there are as many women engaged in all branches of journalism as there are men. This will lead the statistician to reckon that in 100 years men will be wielding the sword or the pickaxe, while women will hold the pen,” Jeanette L. Gilder wrote in the Herald. But when asked by the New York World “What is the chief danger that confronts us in the new century?” women’s answers were as bleak and bizarre as the men’s. The English novelist Ouida warned against tyranny and Lady Battersea “hurry.” Others, however, named “over-excitement,” “the glorification of sordidness,” and “the results of universal education.” Men equaled them by citing “self-advertising vanity,” “the spread of insanity,” “greed,” “hooliganism,” “hypocrisy,” and “newspapers.”

The Milwaukee Sentinel provided a midwestern view by commissioning a series of articles by leading thinkers. They were of the optimistic variety. “A race will eventually spring up free from inherited defects, and by following the hygienic laws of nature, a people will exist practically immuned from infectious diseases,” wrote Dr. Uranus O. B. Wingate. Simon L. Stein, a “prominent” photographer, foresaw astronomers accumulating knowledge of “the outer worlds.” He also thought scientists would take an equally close look at the wonders of the deep, under the ocean surface. “Can we not conceive it possible that at some future date we may be able to carry apparatus on our persons which will enable us to communicate with another person similarly equipped, anywhere on earth, without the intervention of wires?” asked inventor Edwin Reynolds. A former governor, William Dempster Hoard, apparently was carried away in a fit of chauvinism in praise of the local dairy industry when he wrote, “We will teach the Chinese to eat butter instead of bugs. The ‘Yellow Peril’ will disappear under the Christianizing influences of the product of the American cow.”

Power would be the key that made all other advances possible. “There will be a universal cry for power. More power,” wrote Henry Litchfield West in the Washington Post.  He thought harnessing the inexhaustible power beamed to the earth by the sun would be inevitable. Almost everyone understood that new forms of power would be necessary, despite the contemporary peak of ubiquity of steam engines, on farms, in factories, and most visibly and audibly on the 258,784 miles of railroad track in the U.S., a number approximately equal to all the track in the rest of the world combined. The Chicago Fair demonstrated conclusively that smaller, yet more powerful and efficient engines changed all expectations. Few examples of that change were yet apparent in daily life; even the Fair used a combination of steam and electric power, however much it downplayed that mundane fact. For all its transformative power, steam was limited by its engines’ size, weight, and appetite for fuel.  Henri de Blowitz, correspondent for the Times of London, wrote in December 1900 that: “My conviction is that there is a force, whose real scope and power remains unsuspected by men, for it is as yet hardly wrested from the enigmatic obscurity in which it lurks. I refer to electricity. It is my conviction that the task of revealing the full meaning of this demiurgic force is to devolve upon the twentieth century, and that then, the question solved, the entire problem of existence on this globe will be seen to have been solved as well.”

E. P. Powell, in an article titled “Farming in the Twentieth Century,” also gave electricity pride of place.

Steam concentrates power, and therefore population. Electricity distributes force, and therefore population. The electric age will put an end to the packing of people like sardines in tenement-houses. It will take the people to the food, instead of carrying all the food to the people. Instead of factories, home life will be emphasized. Work will not need to be done so exclusively at great centers. The miseries of gorged streets and the problems of municipal misrule will steadily lessen. … The advent of a power that can wash our dishes, wash our clothes, do our cooking, churning, sewing, and that without noise or dirt, is to be hailed by accumulations of joy … Electricity will help us to get rid of the invasion of our homes by a purely menial class.


Powell dispatches that “purely menial class” into the countryside to farm and to work with their hands. Both boys and girls would benefit by learning how to “create things.” The head and hand would be equal. “There is no reason why every home shall not have laboratories and museums as well as libraries.” The telephone , or ‘phone, would bring together a physically dispersed population. Powell may be the earliest to see everyone as a number. “[H]e will be known by his ‘phone connections; that is, Farmer Smith will be ‘phone 10, in circuit 5, in County X.”

To those other than specialists who saw no reason to peer beyond their specialty, the distinctive aspect of American life in 1900 lay in its industrial might. Manufacturing was in full throttle in 1900, midway between the Panics of 1893 and 1907. Even so, the age of job security was so far in the future that only utopians like Bellamy dared suggest it. The Trusts worked to suppress employment and easy job transfer. Reality consisted of constant scrambles for jobs. A quarter of all those over ten years of age – this was also the era of child factorywork – were unemployed at some time in 1900, a total of 6.5 million job seekers. One-third of them needed more than four months to find new employment.

With the percentage of Americans engaged in farmwork declining every year, despite Powell’s hopes, the menial workers had no place to go but to industry. For all its uncertainties, long hours, low wages, and dangerous conditions, factory work was a more desirable occupation than servant labor. Though his phraseology needs careful parsing, H. G. Wells wrote bluntly on the “servant problem,” the reality that the new industrial society emerging would empower those at the base of the class system in ways not necessarily pleasant to the wealthy.

The servants of the past and the only good servants of to-day are the children of servants or the children of the old labour base of the social pyramid, until recently a necessary and self-respecting element in the State. Machinery has smashed that base and scattered its fragments; the tradition of self-respecting inferiority is being utterly destroyed in the world. The contingents of the Abyss, even, will not supply daughters for this purpose. In the community of the United States no native-born race of white servants has appeared, and the emancipated young negress degenerates towards the impossible – which is one of the many stimulants to small ingenuities that may help very powerfully to give that nation the industrial leadership of the world.


Already an international figure because of his scientific romances like The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine – science fiction as a term lay a quarter century in the future – Wells approached the first of his towering pile of nonfiction books gradually, writing a series of articles for the North American Review in 1901. Adding commentary and responses from readers, Wells collected and expanded the articles into a book, Anticipations Of The Reaction Of Mechanical And Scientific Progress Upon Human Life And Thought, in 1902. A furious critic of the social order, Wells is a reminder that most of those who wrote about the wonders and freedom of the new century hated the misery, poverty, dirt, noise, inequality, inefficiency, and impracticality of the Victorian Era. Wells’ London is an overcrowded affront to humanity. The genteel nostalgia that forms our picture of the city from Sherlock Holmes stories and movies was inconceivable to Wells as a contemporary observer. (Even Conan Doyle starts the very first Holmes story by having Dr. Watson “naturally gravitat[ing] to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”)

The dirt of modern city life was an obsession of Wells’. In The Invisible Man, the title character fulminates, discreetly, about horse manure in the streets: “I gathered dirt around my ankles, floating smuts and dust upon my skin. I did not know how long it would be before I should become visible from that cause also. But I saw clearly that it could not be for long. Not in London, at any rate.”

Anticipations was a long list of the ways that the future would be quieter and cleaner. New roads, paved with newfangled asphalt rather than stony macadam, would remove the deafening clamor of “battering horseshoes, the perpetual filth of horse traffic, and the clumsy wheels of laden carts.” Railroads would be lifted over roads via bridges and move passengers with comfort. Quiet and ease he held to be even more important than mere speed. “Our rage for fast trains, so far as long-distance travel is concerned, is largely a passion to end the extreme discomfort involved. It is in the daily journey, on the suburban train, that daily tax of time, that speed is in itself so eminently desirable, and it is just here that the conditions of railway travel most hopelessly fail. … One could be patient enough if one was neither being jarred, deafened, cut into slices by draughts, and continually more densely caked in a filthy dust of coal.” In time, long-distance travel, or the British version of long, would connect the country. “Almost insensibly, certain highly profitable longer routes will be joined up – the [fifty miles from] London to Brighton, for example, in England.”

As did Bellamy, Wells offered solutions for the drudgery of housekeeping that held back the modern middle class woman and created the dread servant problem. Though far more of a socialist than Bellamy, Wells did not foresee communal living. His suggestions for rational housekeeping were geared to the individual English cottage. He placed centralization at the other end, visualizing the art of Westinghouse and Tesla replacing the filth of fireplaces and coal furnaces with clean electricity. “The house of the future will probably be warmed in its walls from some power-generating station, as, indeed, already very many houses are lit at the present day. The lack of sane methods of ventilation also enhances the general dirtiness and dustiness of the present-day home, and gas-lighting and the use of tarnishable metals, wherever possible, involve further labour. But air will enter the house of the future through proper tubes in the walls, which will warm it and capture its dust, and it will be spun out again by a simple mechanism.”

Getting rid of coal was the hope of the age. Prediction #20 in “What May Happen in the Next Hundred Years,” a concise prognostication of the new century’s twenty-six inevitable changes, started, “Coal will not be used for heating or cooking.” Waterpower harnessed for electricity would replace any need for the increasingly expensive mineral. The article, written by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr. for the December 1900 Ladies Home Journal, anticipated Anticipations almost exactly. In Prediction #21 he stated, “Hot or cold air will be turned on from spigots to regulate the temperature of a house as we now turn on hot or cold water from spigots to regulate the temperature of the bath. Central plants will supply this cool air and heat to city houses in the same way as now our gas or electricity is furnished. Rising early to build the furnace fire will be a task of the olden times. Homes will have no chimneys, because no smoke will be created within their walls.”

Watkins out-Wellsed Wells with the bold predictions that few others dared venture:

  • Strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great grandchildren for their Christmas dinners a hundred years hence.

  • Fast electric ships, crossing the ocean at more than a mile a minute, will go from New York to Liverpool in two days.

  • Huge forts on wheels will dash across open spaces at the speed of express trains of to-day.

  • Mosquitoes, house-flies and roaches will have been practically exterminated. 

  • Nicaragua will ask for admission to our Union after the completion of the great canal. Mexico will be next.


(Arthur Bird, a minor diplomat, had already taken it a step beyond Watkins when he wrote in 1899 that “The author respectfully submits it as his firm and immovable conviction that the United States of America, in years to come, will govern the entire American Hemisphere. … It is a duty we Americans owe…”)

If suburban commutes could be made as shortly as urban jaunts, the age of the insanely overcrowded city core might be ended. In an article for the New York Herald on Dec. 30, 1900, Theodore Waters stated that:

Mechanical power, easily produced, widely distributed and readily available for man, woman and child, will be perhaps the great distinguishing feature of future New York. It may be merely electrical power as we know it now, in which case it will be furnished probably by the tides harnessed to gigantic generators. It may be power generated directly from sunlight; or the gases of the air may be utilized. It may even be some form of energy as yet not understood … but, at any rate, it will be a universal agent. It will be used on the aerial and the underground railways, for the moving stairways of private houses, for cooking and for lighting the buildings, the miles of streets, the innumerable crossways and the subterranean passages under the thoroughfares.


The New York of the year 2000 he foresaw was a metropolis that stretched “halfway down Long Island” and northward to Poughkeepsie, 50 miles from Manhattan. It would be solidly middle-class, a city of commuters coming in from the suburbs.

Many ways of egress from town will be provided for him. He will need aerial railways and underground roads, with trains running at terrific speed.

If he lives in a twenty story flat somewhere above old Yonkers, he will have to find means for charging his automobile at any point en route. So to provide for him in this last instance there necessarily will be up and down streets in New York in 2001, and the rules of the road will be rigidly enforced. The lines of aerial railway and the underground may take the bulk of the crowd, yet if power becomes so cheap that each person, however lowly, can have a vehicle of his own, or better still, if each can hire an automobile from the city at any street corner, leaving it when through with it at any other corner, it is likely that the inhabitants of the future metropolis will demand the extinction of the surface car and the freedom of the street from the curb.

If distance was to be conquered, then time must be as well.


These visions of the future, representative of many more, read more soundly today than many of the wild speculations that are more typically resurrected to make our ancestors look foolish. In fact, the solid majority of pundits were completely clear-eyed about the future: excited about the sudden opportunities that abundant power afforded, hopeful that the abuses of the present could be cured by them. When they waxed lyrical, they did so as deliberately as Uncle Richard. Even Waters wasn’t above tossing in some fun, as in “If the passenger wished for seclusion he might go to Europe via the submarine line, made to operate one hundred feet beneath the surface and famed for its freedom from seasickness and the wonderful views it provided of sea monsters.”

The distance between Waters’ 1900 and the future he forecast were summed in the telling line, “Perhaps, however, the lighting system will be so perfect that business will go on uninterruptedly day and night, each house employing two sets of employees.” For all the burgeoning electric companies and the incandescent lamps whose prices fell every year and the gas companies who so improved their mantles that gas light was often superior to electric light, most of the United States shut down at dusk. Automobiles barely existed; airplanes not at all. A few experimenters had sent dots and dashes through the air, none as yet managed voice transmission. Rockets and space travel were totally the realm of scientific romances.

Specific accurate predictions about technology were impossible. The vocabulary of the future did not yet exist. Inventors were groping with promises and potentials so new that questions far outnumbered answers. The best vision of the possibilities of the coming century was written on its very first day, January 1, 1901, by the editorial writer of the Superior, Wisconsin, Leader-Clarion. Nothing better encapsulates the hopes and dreams of the onrushing future.

The coming century will see the best of the old retained, while that which cannot stand the test of time and cannot meet comparison must retreat before the ceaseless, endless, irresistible onrush of enterprise, energy and genius. … Who shall say we shall not see the so-called “impossible” made possible ere the twentieth century merges into the twenty-first…? … Shall men not rival the swift-winged, sweet-throated lark, and fly through the air, in apparent defiance of the laws of gravity and all other natural laws. Shall we not, without wires and without any other material signs of communication, signal, and even whisper to, our friends and kinsfolk, thousands and thousands of miles away? … Shall the twentieth century see us out-Verne Verne and indulge in annual jaunts to the great orb of light that sheds its luster over our world with the dairy sinking to slumber of the more fiery orb that rules by day? Shall “a trip to the moon” forever be impossible? … Unroll, and gaze back over, the scroll of the twentieth century, and if tempted to sneer or scoff at any prediction, however strange or weird it may seem, pause and reflect before you assert that the unfolding panorama of the new born century shall have no more thrilling wonders to reveal to a generation, perhaps yet unborn.


The calendar made the gentle clickover from 1900 to 1901. As if waiting for a cue, the old older changeth, nowhere more literally than in England, where on January 22 Queen Victoria’s six-decade reign came to an end, launching the rowdier Edwardian Era. Paris had usurped 1900 but it seems inevitable in retrospect that the United States would reserve for itself the first World’s Fair of the new century. In fact, the 1901 date of the Pan-American Exposition emerged out of disorganization similar to that which caused Columbus’s celebration to be held a year late. Buffalonians started agitating for a World’s Fair as early as 1895, after seeing how Atlanta’s Cotton States and International Exposition boosted attention to that growing city. Buffalo was far above Atlanta in the national pecking order, reaching its apex as the eighth largest city in the country in 1900, a manufacturing and transportation hub overshadowed only by Chicago. Suffering from the inferiority complex that afflicts all cities in New York state not named New York, the organizers wanted little more than to sell the idea of western New York as a product, as marvelous as Westinghouse’s light bulbs. Intentions were so purely mercenary that a July 1898 Congressional resolution read “A Pan-American Exposition will undoubtedly be of vast benefit to the commercial interests of the countries of North, South, and Central America.” No one seemed to care that such a statement might be taken as exhibiting astounding levels of cultural insensitivity from a nation simultaneously laying siege to the city of Santiago, Cuba and about ready to take over the formerly Spanish island of Puerto Rico. Hubris abounded. The organizers specifically excluded European countries so that the achievements of the New World could stand on their own.

What those achievements were no one could say. The Columbian Exposition brought the world to the U.S. and then sought to outdo their best. They had the finest a-list talent to draw from. From the start, the Buffalo organizers thought in provincial terms. In a city defined by its location, linked to the west by Lake Erie, to the south by a collection of railroads, and to the east by the Erie Canal, the fourth compass point had suddenly been filled in by the electric lines that received the nation’s first long-distance AC transmissions from the hydroelectric plants to the north at Niagara Falls, already famous to tourists around the world as a wonder of nature. Buffalo wanted tourists. Niagara Falls and the newfound unnatural wonders of electricity were to be the draw.

After a hurried opening to a still half-built mud grounds – Expositions had unassailable traditions – electricity and the light it made dominated even more than in Paris, and in quantities never before attempted. Commentators saw its profusion as the future made manifest. “The crowning glory of the Pan-American Exposition is the nightly illumination. It seems like a glimpse into another world, or at least a foretaste of the glories of another century,” wrote Joe Mitchell Chapple in the National Magazine. A newly designed rheostat system effected a gradual effusion of light throughout the fairgrounds. In The World’s Work, which covered the Fair endlessly, Walter Hines Page described the ceremony. “You have hardly realized the scene as it appears in the dusk, when on the rows of posts tiny dots of light appear in clusters, like little pink buds in a nosegay. Then the pink points grow brighter and change their hue, and in another moment the full illumination bursts forth, and the whole great court becomes luminous with a soft brilliancy that does not tire the eye. And it is a new kind of brilliancy. You are face to face with the most magnificent and artistic nocturnal scene that man has ever made.”

There could be only one possible symbol as the centerpiece of the Fair. Four hundred feet tall, the Pan-American Electric Tower was visible from every corner of the fairgrounds. As ornately decorated as any fairy tale structure at Paris, each protruding surface of the Tower was outlined with electric bulbs. At eight pm every night of that summer, the tower lit gradually, light by light, level by level. In Cosmopolitan magazine, Julian Hawthorne proclaimed that The “Tower of Light … appear[s] above the horizon of the future. Science, discovery, and industry are the great, immortal democrats whose teaching shall wipe out political boundaries… We shall have all America, united; and what America becomes is the prototype of what the world must be.” According to Mrs. Harriet Taggart Mack, member of the Board of Woman Managers, “No exposition has ever had anything so beautiful as the Pan-American Electric Tower. … It was as if God spoke.”

Americans spoke with equally majestic tones, though they spoke mostly to themselves. The Pan in Pan-American never materialized. Only five Spanish-speaking nations bothered to set up buildings and those were shunted to an obscure corner. Excluding Europe by choice and Latin America through arrogance left those entrusted with running the Fair with no actual vision, or theme, or plan. Instead they slavishly copied Chicago in every possible way, from large central Manufacturers and Transportation Buildings to artificial lakes to a Midway with a reprise of the Streets of Cairo along with an exhibit of premature babies snugly incubated in electrically warmed glass-walled “ovens,” adapted from ones used for baby chicks. Visitors were charged a dime to file past singletons, twins, and a set of triplets rushed from New York.

The most popular Midway attraction was a ride that anticipated every theme park ride of the 20th century. “A Trip to the Moon” combined Verne and Wells with fantasy and mythology to create the image of an inhabited Moon that bounced its way through the media of the 20th century. Passengers for the “voyage” bounded the Luna, a craft that looked like a dragonfly fitted with multiple bat wings. As in a contemporary Disney Imagineering vessel, fairgoers were treated not merely to sight and sound but feel. The Luna “lifted” from the ground on enormous cables, while gimbaled bearings swayed the ship with realistic motions. Blasts of air and mist simulated a passage through a thunderstorm on the way up. A gigantic cyclorama, or moving canvas, provided the backdrop for a thrilling flight.

After the eventful trip, the visitors disembarked for a stage show put on by “Selenites,” midgets and children who performed 5,000 shows over the course of the Expo. Decidedly unfuturistic, the Selenites danced and sang current sentimental hits, culminating in “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon." According to theme park historian Jeffrey Stanton, Selenites escorted the fairgoers:

through stalactite caverns, across chasms spanned by spidery bridges to the underground city of the Moon. There at the entrance of a broad avenue lined with the illuminated foliage of fantastic trees and toad stool growths, were the walls of a castle beyond a moat. They were led to the throne room where there were seats for the Earth visitors. Bronze griffins flanked the sides where the "Man in the Moon," a giant, sat on his splendid throne. On the stage in front was the Geisler electric fountain that displayed all the colors of the spectrum through its cascading water pulsing in a rhythmic dance.

As the visitors departed moon maidens in the green cheese room offered them tasty pieces of their cheese. Of course back then, everyone was certain the moon was made of green cheese. The moon tourists walked out through the mouth of a mighty "moon-calf" into the park's daylight.

Presenting the hit of the Fair, exhibitors Frederick Thompson and Skip Dundy could charge a pricy fifty cents admission, twice that of other Midway rides. They eventually forced the performers to put on 30 twenty-minute shows a day. Total attendance was estimated at over 400,000, yielding one of the few profit centers.

"A Trip to the Moon" was the one element of the Fair to outlive it.  Thompson and Dundy shipped the works to Steeplechase Park, the largest theme park at Coney Island, the stretch of beachside property on the southern edge of Brooklyn. There it was an even bigger hit, drawing over 800,000 during the rainy summer of 1902. Dreaming big, the pair bought 22 acres of land to create their own seaside draw. Luna Park was named for the spaceship and its design was a fairyland of electric bulbs festooning 1200 minarets, towers, and domes, spectacle stolen directly from the 1900 and 1901 World’s Fairs. “A Trip to the Moon” was to be the centrepiece of the park. With Barnum-like showmanship Thompson had the Park’s elephant act haul the bundle-up attraction down the beach to its new home. (An elephant went wild and killed a trainer en route. No matter. Thompson invited New Yorkers to a public execution of the elephant, something quickly achieved by Westinghouse’s AC. Edison probably approved.)

A stupendous 250,000 electric lights switched on to the thrill of crowds on May 16, 1903. A remodeled and enlarged Luna III took passengers for a flight over Manhattan’s skyscrapers before settled on the Moon for the Selenites’ song and dance. Attendance quickly rivaled that of the Exposition. “A Trip to the Moon” would run for five years and carry over 4,000,000 passengers.

Everybody in American wanted to travel to the moon, from the youngest child to the President of the United States, William McKinley, who did so on September 6, 1901. Just as President Grover Cleveland was drawn to the prospect of appearing before the crowds at the Columbian Exposition, McKinley, his successor, couldn’t help but be entranced by an opportunity to parade himself through a salute to U.S. industry and progress that would inevitably remind the public of his role in the congenially small and victorious Spanish-American War.  When the presidential train pulled into Buffalo it was greeted with full military honors, including, with pulp-quality foreshadowing, a cannon salute that blew out windows and knocked people down. He spent the next day touring the site before delivering a rousing address to adoring crowds. “Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world’s advancement,” he declaimed. Thomas Edison’s cameramen, who roamed all over the fair and ground out dozens of minute-long films for the Nickelodeons, filmed the speech on the sun-lit outdoor reviewing stand. The next morning McKinley took a side jaunt to Niagara Falls to view the hydroelectric plants there before returning for an afternoon reception at the Temple of Music. A line of people waited to shake his hand afterward, including one who had lost his job in the 1893 recession and never found work again. A steel worker, a follower of Emma Goldman’s brand of anarchism, Leon Czolgosz was exactly the sort of uncouth rabble whom Frances Bellamy despised. Nevertheless, Czolgosz carried a Polish translation of Looking Backward with him for eight years. As historian Eric Rauchway wrote, like Julian West, “he had awakened to a terrible alienation from himself and found himself adrift in the fantasy of his native country.” Also like West, Czolgosz took drastic action. In the receiving line at 4:07 pm on September 6, 1901, he shot McKinley twice at point-blank range. Cameras of the day could not film under ordinary indoor conditions, so no film exists of the assassination itself. A minute of film survives of the crowds outside as they hear the news. A little boy held high in his parent’s arms watches the movement of the camera. The adults are intent for news from within.

McKinley would not die until September 14, probably from an infection by a bullet the doctors could not find to remove. Although the X-ray machine was first publicly exhibited at the Expo they didn’t use it on the president. In fact, the electricity so omnipresent elsewhere at the Fair was lacking in its emergency hospital. The doctors moved mirrors to focus the sun streaming in through the windows until backup could arrive. Understanding of the progression of infection was similarly unknown. McKinley’s prognosis was so favorable that his sudden turn for the worse the took everyone off guard. That surprise would in some ways define the 20th century, because at that instant of McKinkey’s passing Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States. If it were not for that one event with its all-consuming consequence, no one today outside of Buffalo would remember the Pan-American Exposition of 1901. For all its contemporary wonder, it would be as forgotten as Atlanta’s Expo in 1895 or the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition in Nashville or 1898’s Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha or San Francisco’s California's Golden Jubilee of 1898 or the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition that started in Charleston a mere month after Buffalo closed its doors.

Roosevelt was as different a personality and politician from McKinley as anyone could find in the Republican Party. He had been kicked upstairs to Vice President by the political bosses as a means of shutting him up. Etiquette of the day meant that the VP had no position in policy, and could not even call attention to himself through interviews or speeches. Roosevelt suffered in unaccustomed silence from his March inaugural until September. Then he exploded, taking on the conservative business interests that dominated the Republican party and through them the nation. The first small steps in anti-trust activity started under Roosevelt. The Progressive party saw its platform being eaten away plank by plank as both Republicans and Democrats started to advocate for once-radical notions like an income tax, direct election of senators, anti-child labor laws, and the eight-hour day. “Traditionally, historians see McKinley’s death as finally making way for political modernization, a terrible but effective way of clearing the decks,” Rauchway wrote.

So Roosevelt changed everything. And yet… It is impossible to believe that child labor and the trusts would have survived for much longer in any 20th-century America. The Progressive Party platform is now a conventional and staid collection of obvious rights. Modernization and technology had their own imperatives that swept everyone of every political belief before them. The future was larger than any one individual. The technologies that cheap and transmittable electricity would enable came into being without regard to ideology. Marconi and Tesla’s experiments with radio; Langley and the Wright Brothers with aircraft; Einstein using Planck to evolve a new physics; architects planning for ever higher skyscrapers in cities beautified with parks and parkways and connected with subways and streetcars; Ford and Olds bringing mass production techniques to affordable automobiles; these landmarks that occurred within five years of 1900 and the additional changes wrought by a thousand other inventors and visionaries would overwhelm the policies of any set of politicians temporarily in office. Technology would provide the foundation, the structural core, and the beautiful if insubstantial outer wrapping of the future, a parallel to the deep piles, steel-framing, and glass walls of the modern skyscrapers that are the lasting symbol of the technological revolution of the 20th century. The history of the 20th century isn’t written in its wars and politics and economics, as overwhelming as they seemed at times. The deeper changes affected more people more profoundly, more frequently, and more lastingly. In 1900, a few people tried to make sense of the changes they sensed were coming. Their most extravagant words would prove to be both ludicrously overwrought and laughably inadequate. The future was larger than they could possibly imagine. That made it irresistible to try.

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