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The Golden Age of the World’s Fairs

The “golden age” of the world's fairs was roughly between 1850–1900, starting with the Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, England.

1900 Paris World's Fair
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

If you say “world’s fair,” many people may not know what you are talking about or recognize the mark that these fairs have made on the world. The “golden age” of world fairs was roughly between 1850–1900, starting with the Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, England.

The world’s fairs were meant to showcase the industrial and technological advancements that the hosting country had achieved. World’s fairs were being held long before the golden age began in 1850. English 'exhibitions’ were held as early as the 1750s and were the forerunners of the classic world’s fairs. Some of the more recent fairs have been held in Milan, Italy (2015), Astana, Kazakhstan (2017), and Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2021).

You may be asking yourself, “So what? Why should we care about the golden age of world’s fairs?” Well, have you ever considered the beauty of the Eiffel Tower? Have you ever enjoyed a ride on a Ferris wheel? If you have, you can thank the world's fairs for both of those experiences!

The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 Paris Exposition as the main attraction of their fair. And just four years later, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) was determined to outdo the Paris exhibition and invented the first Ferris wheel for their fair.

But that isn’t all! At the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, fair in 1876—during the prime of the American Industrial Revolution—many new technologies were showcased. A few of these technological advancements included exciting new inventions like the telephone, the typewriter, the mechanical calculator, and a 700-ton Corliss steam engine.

Corliss steam engine (the "Centennial Engine") at the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 1876.
Photo by Centennial Photographic Company

Every part of our daily life has been influenced by world’s fairs and the inventions and innovations that have been showcased there. The theme of the Astana, Kazakhstan, world’s fair (2017) was, “How do we ensure safe and sustainable access to energy for all while reducing CO2 emissions?”

World’s fairs today may be less focused on creating spectacles from their new technology, but the good that comes from each fair is no less important today than it was 200 years ago.

The next world’s fair is set to be in Osaka, Japan, in 2025. Hope to see you there!