he 1939 New York World's Fair of 1939 was the first exposition to focus on the future and was billed as the "Dawn of a New Day". The Fair is fascinating on many levels; it asked companies to use their consumer products to tell the story of a future of prosperity and possibilies. The promotion of the fair was the work of PR pioneer Edward Bernays (who happened to be Sigmund Freud 1st cousin). Teaming with the greatest advertising minds, he told a pained a picture of the future as something enabled by science but didn't get bogged down in the messy details of it. Despite of the vocal objections of eminent scientists such as Einstein, Bernays managed to inspire an entire generation of sceintists to fulfill the promises of the Fair (including Carl Sagan who'll I'll cover in the days to come). Most inspiring to me is that the '39 Fair was dreamed up in 1935, at the very height of the Great Depression. That alone is a testament to the power of optimism.
As Wikipedia puts it, "The main purpose of the fair was to lift the spirits of the United States and drive much-needed business to New York City". It's story is a testament to the powerf of the optimism to affect the Future.
The story of the Fair has been told far better than I will in books like E.L. Doctorow's classic "World's Fair" and David Gelernter's: "1939: the Lost World of the Fair" (a slightly odder and crankier take). Earlier this year, a company named iPotion created an amazing site for the New York Public Library's Biblion project, combining articles and commentary with lost materials and ephemera from the NYPL's collections. lost. One can literally get lost in it for hours.
Before getting to my point (if indeed I have one) I'd like to just isolate some bizarre facts about the Fair:
1. 60 foreign government collaborated for the event.
2. The Fair marked the first time the British royal family ever visited the United States since the rogue colony declared independence.
3. A copy of the Magna Carta left Britain in 1939 for the first time to be in the British Pavilion at the fair. Within months Britain joined World War II and it was deemed safer for it to remain in America until the end of hostilities. It therefore remained in Fort Knox, next to the original copy of the American constitution, until 1947.
4. The fair also hosted the First World Sci-Fi Convention.
5. The central images of the fair were the Trylon and the Perisphere, two structures that formed the end-points of the train tour over a massive diorama of the idealized future the organizers named Democracity. Below is an iconic film that shows this tour; it's tone has such a dated and breathless quality and yet predictions it makes about the impact of cars, the rise of suburbia and development of industrialized agriculture are amazingly accurate.
The Fair remains forever poignant, for it's hope amidst the swirling global currents of that pivotal year of 1939. Despite being 71 years ago, I'm reminded of it every time I drive past Flushing Meadows and see the giant globe that still remains. More importantly, I think of the Time Capsule buried 50 feet below that site. Sponsored by Westinghouse, this time capsule is not intended to be opened for 5000 years. Inside are a variety of items, ranging from seeds to essays on microfilm to an RKO newsreel. Finally there are 3 messages to to citizens of the years 6939 - by Einstein, electron pioneer Robert Millikan and finally, by writer Thomas Mann. All three are hopeful, but Mann's words are the most moving. He wrote:
"We know now that the idea of the future as a "better world" was a fallacy of the doctrine of progress. The hopes we center on you, citizens of the future, are in no way exaggerated. In broad outline, you will actually resemble us very much as we resemble those who lived a thousand, or five thousand, years ago. Among you too the spirit will fare badly it should never fare too well on this earth, otherwise men would need it no longer. That optimistic conception of the future is a projection into time of an endeavor which does not belong to the temporal world, the endeavor on the part of man to approximate to his idea of himself, the humanization of man. What we, in this year of Our Lord 1938, understand by the term "culture" a notion held in small esteem today by certain nations of the western world is simply this endeavor. What we call the spirit is identical with it, too. Brothers of the future, united with us in the spirit and in this endeavor, we send our greetings."
In other words, he is saying, progress creates many illusions, but the essential but human nature changes very little. I have read and reread his words many times; I think what he means is that optimism is both dangerous and necessary. The paradox is that if the world ever reached a point of perfection it would did NOT require an optimistic spirit and the result would be a terrible descent. Humans, in other words, are humans, halos and warts. With optimism, we can and must strive to make a better world, but need to realize this journey is long.
How do you read it?