A world’s fair can be a momentous occasion for both the city and the country hosting it. World fairs, or expositions, are exciting events that introduce the world to new inventions and leave behind structures that can permanently alter a cityscape. While they may seem like something from a bygone era, they are still held somewhere in the world at least every five years with the most recent being held in Astana, Kazakhstan, and the next scheduled for 2020 (Dubai, United Arab Emirates), 2023 (Buenos Aires, Argentina), and 2025 (Osaka, Japan). So how did world fairs become such an institutionalized event? Let’s take a quick look at how the expositions developed and have changed over the last couple centuries.
Origin of the World’s Fair
World fairs as we know them today developed from regional trade shows that were held in England and France in the 18th century. The British Royal Society of the Arts, established in 1754, formalized these events in England with competitive art and industry shows. Many new inventions debuted at the events, such as the cider press and spinning wheels. The French trade shows also adopted a competitive spirit and became more focused on representing accomplishments from different parts of France.
First World's Fair
The first true World's Fair was held in Hyde Park, London, in 1851. The fair was a project of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Elizabeth, and was called the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” The fair was held in the Crystal Palace, a steel and glass structure built for the event, which also began the tradition of constructing permanent modern structures to hold the event.
The event was a massive success with over 6 million people attending. The exposition also turned a healthy profit. In fact, it made so much money that the profits were used to create a fund that still provides fellowships for students of industry and engineering today.
The success of the 1851 exposition ushered in the first of three eras of world fairs – the industrialization era. This period, lasting from 1851 to 1938, was marked by the introduction of many significant inventions, such as the steam engine, the typewriter, the telephone, and the mechanical calculator.
It was during this period that world fairs had their golden era, which lasted from 1880 to the beginning of the First World War. During this time, more than 40 world fairs were held all over the world, including in Australia, Guatemala, and Vietnam. The Paris Exposition, held in 1889, was marked with the construction of the Eiffel Tower, perhaps the most iconic structure ever created for such an event—though the Sunsphere from the 1982 Worlds Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee (pictured above) is an icon in its own right.
Cultural Exchange Era
The 1939 New York World Fair was significant for its emphasis on social progress and cultural exchange as opposed to technology. This exposition would mark the beginning of the second era of world fairs, the cultural exchange era. The focus of the following events was to celebrate a more unified world in an effort to heal some of the wounds caused by the catastrophic Second World War.
Despite the good intentions behind the events, they were also marked by the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. The technology on display from representatives of either country was often focused on the space race that the two countries were involved in. Even when the Soviet Union did not participate in a world fair, there were overtones of Cold War competition. An example of this is Seattle’s 1962 Century 21 Exposition, which was culminated in the construction of the iconic Space Needle, despite the absence of any Soviet delegates.
Nation Branding Era
After the 1964 World's Fair in New York (pavilions from which are pictured above), the modern era of world fairs started. It is known as the nation branding era, due to the tendency for nations to use the expositions to enhance their image worldwide. Spain, Finland, Canada, Japan, France, and China have all invested significant resources into either hosting a world fair or constructing impressive pavilions at other countries’ expositions since 1988.
Today there is debate as to whether world fairs are a good investment for countries. There are arguments on both sides, but one independent study suggested that the Dutch pavilion, which cost 35 million euros, generated over 350 million Euros’ worth of potential revenue for the Dutch economy – a convincing case for the value of future world fairs.