An excerpt from "The White City," the fifth chapter of Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.
In 1893, just a year after Samuel Insull arrived in Chicago, the city hosted the largest world’s fair ever - the Columbian Exposition - to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World. Constructed on a 633-acre site on the shores of Lake Michigan, the fairgrounds formed a spectacular city-within-a-city, featuring ornate neoclassical exhibition halls, displays by dozens of countries and hundreds of businesses, and a midway with a 265-foot-tall Ferris Wheel, the first ever built. The fair drew more than 27 million visitors - equal to nearly half of the country’s population at the time - over the course of its five-month run.
The Columbian Exposition was a monument to the idea of technological progress. It celebrated advances in industry, transportation, and the arts, but most of all it celebrated the arrival of electricity as the nation’s new animating force. The organizers of the event wrote that it was their intention “to make the World's Fair site and the buildings one grand exemplification of the progress that has been made in electricity." A steam plant, built on the grounds, pumped out 24,000 horsepower of energy, nearly three-quarters of which went to generating electric current. During its run, the exposition consumed three times as much electricity as the rest of the city of Chicago.
The electricity powered railroads and boats, moving walkways, elaborate fountains, and dozens of commercial displays of the latest machinery and appliances. Most of the current, though, went into the 100,000 incandescent bulbs, arc lights, and neon tubes that illuminated “The White City,” as the fairgrounds came to be called. One visitor described the sight of the exposition at night in rhapsodic terms: “The gleaming lights outlined the porticoes and roofs in constellations, studded the lofty domes with fiery, falling drops, pinned the darkened sky to the fairy white city, and fastened the city’s base to the black lagoon with nails of gold.” The beam of a search light, he wrote, “flowed toward heaven until it seemed the holy light from the rapt gaze of a saint or Faith’s white, pointing finger.” Another visitor, L. Frank Baum, was so dazzled by the fair that it became the inspiration for the Emerald City in his 1900 book The Wonderful World of Oz.
One of the exposition’s most popular attractions was the palatial Electricity Building. Sprawling over 5.5 acres, it contained, in addition to an 80-foot-tall Tower of Light built by Thomas Edison, hundreds of exhibits of the latest electrical equipment, including “horseless carriages” powered by batteries. An awestruck Henry Adams spent two weeks exploring the treasures of the Columbian Exposition, but he was most deeply affected by seeing a display of electric dynamos - two 800-kilowatt General Electric machines, the largest available at the time, and a dozen of the latest Westinghouse generators.
He recalled the experience in his biography The Education of Henry Adams. “One lingered long among the dynamos,” he wrote, “for they were new, and they gave to history a new phase.” Sensing that such machines “would result in infinite costless energy within a generation,” Adams knew that they would reshape the country and the world. He felt humbled by the dynamos, but their power also troubled him. What history’s “new phase” would bring, he realized, lay beyond our understanding and even our control: “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving.”