Today’s must-have products often debut at big shareholder meetings or splashy trade shows like the annual CES in Las Vegas. But in decades and centuries past, world’s fairs were the places to give the planet a preview of brand-new technology, products, and design. And hard as it may be to imagine, these now-commonplace items were once considered the latest and greatest, attracting droves of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the future at the world’s fair.
The Ferris Wheel
You’d be hard-pressed to find even a county fair without a Ferris wheel today, but when it debuted at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, attendees had never seen anything like it. For 50 cents, people could spend up to 20 minutes slowly soaring to a height of 264 feet on engineer George Ferris Jr.’s creation, with spectacular views of Lake Michigan and beyond. The original wheel was destroyed in 1906, but versions of Ferris’ creation live on around the world.
It may be hard to believe that the humble zipper is a mere 128 years old, but a version of the now-ubiquitous invention debuted at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Then dubbed the “clasp locker,” the closure was patented by Whitcomb L. Judson, who found it tedious to fasten the many buttons on his boots by hand. Perhaps surprisingly, the zipper didn’t take off until decades later, when Gideon Sundback’s “Hookless No. 2” added more reliability in the form of more teeth per inch. The catchy name we now use didn’t show up until the 1920s, when B.F. Goodrich used the Hookless No. 2 on his company’s rubber boots, calling the fasteners “zippers” — either from the sound they made or from an earlier sense of “zip” as a verb meaning “to move quickly.”
Cherry-flavored cola was nothing new in the early 1980s; soda fountains had been adding cherry syrup to their carbonated concoctions for decades. But Coca-Cola Cherry — that is, Coca-Cola with the cherry flavoring already added and packaged in the can — was a 1982 World’s Fair original. Coca-Cola tested several new flavors at the Knoxville event, including lemon, lime, and vanilla. All would eventually come to fruition, but cherry was the clear winner among fair-goers.
Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated several telephone prototypes at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia — the telephone’s public debut. (He used at least one of the devices to recite lines from Hamlet.) Among the impressed spectators was Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil, who ended up being one of Bell’s first stock investors. He later had one of the first private-residence telephones in the world installed at his summer retreat.
Nearly a century after the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Bell Telephone revealed another technological wonder at a World’s Fair. Folks at the 1964 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, New York City, lined up in droves to make a 10-minute video call to a stranger at Disneyland on Bell’s Mod 1 Picturephone. Two months later, the product was available for public use via AT&T, but because a mere 15 minute-call cost the equivalent of more than $600 today, it was still out of reach for the vast majority of people.
The Ford Mustang
The 1964 World’s Fair in Queens witnessed the birth of an American classic: the Ford Mustang. As Henry Ford II unveiled the “working man’s Thunderbird” at the fair, the model also rolled out in showrooms across the U.S. More than 20,000 Mustangs were purchased almost immediately; 400,000 rolled off of lots within the first year of production.
They might be the biggest and most immersive places to catch a blockbuster now, but IMAX movies were brand-new at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. The 17-minute short shown back then was Tiger Child, described on IMDb as a “poetic vision of civilization at the dawn of the 1970s, filmed on locations around the world as a travelogue of the human spirit.” Film scholar Seth Feldman has described the Canadian-Japanese co-production as a montage of scenes that included children watching a puppet show, polka dancers, busy city streets, the Berlin Wall, cowboys, and a stunt driver flipping a car — all meant, in his words, to serve as “a time capsule of the concerns of 1970 and the cumulative unease they produced.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when bananas seemed unusual. But when they debuted to Americans wrapped in foil and sliced into pieces (Victorians were offended by their natural shape) at the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, one wowed visitor reported that the fruit was “the most romantic of all the innumerable things I had seen at any of the vast buildings.”
If you’ve ever relied on a moving walkway at the airport to get you and your luggage to that terminal all the way on the other side of the airport a little more quickly, you have the 1893 Columbian Exposition to thank. The original concept for the moving walkway included “parlor cars” every 100 feet or so for women to rest and men to smoke, although the version revealed at the world’s fair downgraded those rest stops to mere benches.
Cream of Wheat
It’s said that 1893 Columbian Exposition fairgoers were not entirely impressed with Cream of Wheat — some compared it to wallpaper paste. But the breakfast staple quickly caught on, and by 1897, the company had to move to a bigger factory just to keep up with demand.
Of all of the game-changing inventions and creations the 1893 Chicago Exposition brought us, brownies just might top the list. Organizers asked the famed Palmer House Hotel to create something special and transportable for the fair, and boy, did Bertha Palmer deliver. If you want a taste of the Columbian Exposition, drop by the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, where the hotel still uses the original recipe.
A wealthy woman named Josephine Cochrane was tired of servants chipping her china — so she decided to invent a machine that didn’t require servants at all. Her patented device debuted at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, where it was the only machine invented by a woman, and she soon started a company to manufacture the device. Cochrane’s dishwashers eventually gained mass appeal under the KitchenAid brand.
Everyone’s favorite brunch indulgence made its first stateside appearance at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, where the waffles were served with strawberries and cream. They were a hit at the fair, with more than a half-million sold, but didn’t immediately become a national treasure. It took one more World’s Fair, the 1964 event in Queens, for the fruit-topped phenomenon to become a breakfast bombshell.