Welcome to the future

23rd April 2019

With its streamlined automobiles and sci-fi cityscapes, the 1939 New York World’s Fair gave visitors a vivid sense of stepping into the future. Eighty years on, it still provides a fascinating vision of tomorrow’s world, yesterday.

Words by Oliver Bennett


It had a 65-foot statue of George Washington and a seven foot robot called “Elektro the Moto-Man” that smoked cigarettes. There was an “Arctic Girl in her Tomb of Ice”, while trilby-clad voyeurs furtively queued up to enter the “Living Magazine Covers” stand where, for a small fee, they could photograph topless burlesque models in mock-ups of popular magazine covers of the era.

In so many ways, then, yesterday’s world. But 80 years ago, the New York World’s Fair of 1939 was the most cutting edge place on the planet. This was the future, right down to its stargazing slogans like “Dawn of a New Day” and “The World of Tomorrow”, and architectural fixtures such as the skyward-reaching 700ft Trylon. Looking at it now is to see a cityscape like a celestial chessboard, as if Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis had been brought to life. It tore up the old brick-and-tenement American city and helped everyone forget the calamitous Great Depression. Like our own Millennium Dome, the World’s Fair was about renewal. Even the site of the fair, Corona Park in Queens, NY, had formerly been a huge refuse-burning operation – the inspiration for the “valley of ashes” in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby , itself a symbol of the transition to an American future. 

A journey of imagination across time and space

But the World’s Fair had another vast claim: it ushered in the age of the automobile at a time when there was no freeway system and few people owned a car. Of all its various zones – Communications, Food, Business Systems – it was the Transportation Zone that really grabbed the public attention. Detroit’s Big Three – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – certainly saw a huge opportunity in the Fair. Ford’s pavilion was the biggest, “a journey of imagination across time and space” that included “The Road of Tomorrow”, an elevated cork and rubber highway. But it was arguably General Motors that took the gold medal, because it had a key weapon in Norman Bel Geddes. An ex-theatre designer and automotive visionary known as the father of “streamlining”, Bel Geddes’ concept – outlined in his 1932 book Horizons – was to design cars as sleek as seals, and his Futurama exhibit showed how in the impossibly distant year of 1960, these objects of desire might travel along shimmering multilane superhighways, above cities as well as through them. As architectural historian Adnan Morshed wrote in a paper about the exhibit, Bel Geddes’ designs “prophesied an American utopia”. Adding to the considerable “gee-whiz” factor, visitors looked down upon the Futurama model from a conveyor belt. No wonder it was the fair’s most visited attraction.


Festival of Speed Future Lab - take an awe-inspiring look into the future.

Then there were the individual cars, including vehicles that still induce gasps today. Among them was the so-called “ghost car”, a Pontiac Deluxe Six clad in Plexiglas; a 1939 Plymouth P8 Deluxe with a clear acrylic top; and a Delahaye Type 165 Cabriolet. Most importantly, a streamlined transcontinental bus gave visitors a luxurious taste of how they’d get around the country in the future – complete with dining section and panoramic observation lounge. 

Some 45 million people attended. The writer EL Doctorow captured some of its dizzying sense of vertigo in his 1985 novel, World’s Fair : “What was small had become big; the scale had enlarged and you were no longer looking down at it, but standing in it, on this corner of the future, right here in the World’s Fair!” At the end of the fair, visitors were given a badge bearing the message: “I have seen the future.” Yet you may have noticed those baleful dates. Within six months of the fair, World War II started. Quite apart from the cataclysmic events, the whole idea of progress was tainted. The Polish statue of King Jagiello and the French staff remained exiled as their countries were occupied. Big Joe, the 79-foot steel statue on the Soviet Union Pavilion, also looked somewhat tarnished. And as the years developed, the ideas of the ideal urban environment changed, too. In 1962, a New York Times writer said, somewhat ruefully, that the fair had “proved its point so well that the whole countryside is a Futurama now”. There’s still a time capsule, prepared by the electrical company Westinghouse, which is due to be opened in the properly impossible year of 6939 (the 5000th anniversary), bearing camera film, a razor, a packet of cigarettes and a dollar in change.

It’s easy, perhaps, to deride outdated symbols of modernity, but every generation conjures up fresh visions of the future – which is why the robotics or space technology at Futurelab has become an integral part of Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Nor does our taste for futures past appear to be abating: in 2011 that Plexiglas-bodied Pontiac sold for $308,000. 

This article was taken from the Spring 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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