Thursday, April 24, 2014

Meet Me at the Fair

When I was a child, one of the many things deprivations I had to endure was never having attended a World’s Fair.

But, unless a World’s Fair were actually held in Worcester, driving someplace other than Chicago or the Cape and traipsing around a futurama was not the sort of vacation our family went in for.

No, our vacations had to be:

  1. Visiting Family: Going to Chicago to see my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
  2. Relaxing for my father: That meant renting the Bass River cottage of my parents’ friends Mae and Nemo for a couple of weeks.
  3. Quick and cheap: Day trips to places like Nantasket Beach or Bennington, Vermont. We’d take a couple of these during my father’s two weeks off, and the rest of the time he’d relax on the chaise longue in the backyard.

The closest I came to the World’s Fair was when friends came over with slides that their son in the Air Force had taken at the Brussels’ World Fair in 1958. Did the excitement never end?

Why couldn’t we have lived in St. Louis in 1904? We could have lived next door to Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, and met them at the Fair. (Don’t tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.)

It’s not as if I would have expected to go to the Brussels’ World Fair. (As if…) Or that I believed that there was a way-back machine that could produce a meet up in 1904 St. Louis. But I was a bit miffed that we couldn’t even make our way 180 miles to Queens, New York for the 1964 edition.

Practically everyone else I knew got to go. (Wah, wah, wah.)

Over fifty million folks attended the New York World’s Fair. Sureunispherely we could have been among them, catching a glimpse of the future and what would have been my first glimpse of New York City.

I’ve had to settle for seeing the Unisphere coming and going from the airport.

What did we miss?

At the Bell System pavilion, engineers touted a "picturephone" that allowed callers to see who they were talking to, a concept that lives on in modern-day apps such as Skype and FaceTime. (Source: CBS News)

Picturephone? I would have been thrilled with a sleekly modern Princess Phone. I suppose I should have been happy that, in addition to the old time black phone in my parents’ bedroom, we had a hip yellow wall phone in the kitchen.

The fair also gave wide exposure to the power of computers, which at the time were seen as huge cabinets of blinking lights and electrodes operated by big corporations. At the IBM pavilion, visitors saw a computer system in which a machine took in a card with a date written on it and gave back another card with a news story from that date. At the NCR pavilion, a computer would answer scientific questions or give out recipes from a cookbook.

Hey, we’ve got that.

One exhibit I’m happy to have missed was the Disney “It’s a Small World” attraction. And The Talking Mr. Lincoln? I saw both of these a decade later at Disneyland, and wasn’t impressed with either. Robots have come a long way, baby. But:

"This is the first time that millions of people had the opportunity to see something that could be described as robotic. The special effects you could see in the World's Fair blew away what you could see in the movies," said Joseph Tirella, author of a book about the fair.

Jet packs were demo’d. We still don’t have those, but we do have drones.

And General Motors foresaw a future that would include:

…colonies on the moon as well as in Antarctica, huge underwater dwellings and a machine that used a laser to cut through rainforests, leaving behind paved roads.

Maybe another fifty years or so.

Regardless of whether such notions survived, observers say the fair offered a vision of the world's potential that made it seem like anything was possible.

"It really seems like 50 years ago, we had more exciting visions for 50 years in the future than we do now," [filmmaker Ryan] Ritchey said.

Oh, I don’t know about that. We may have some bleak predictions, but there are also those drones that will be delivering goods to our door from Amazon. I.e., the goods that we won’t be able to print in our own homes on our 3-D printers. Goods we’ll pay for telepathically from the comfort of those homes, which we’ll never have to leave. Because our doctor robots will be able to perform surgery remotely and so microscopically that we won’t skip an Amazon-ordering or 3-D printing beat.

Futurama, come on down.

No comments: