Turning Point in History

Lighting the 1893 World’s Fair: The Race to Light the World


Notice the top drawing is of a lit city

I am not a scientist. However, I do love science. To be exact, I love space science. If I had not become a history teacher, I would be teaching about outer space at some college. Instead, I chose history above all other pursuits….for a profession. I still read about space science when I can. Bu when history and science meet, as they do in this post, it is enough to break my writer’s block of the past month.

In the late 1800s, America had only begun to grasp the magical powers of science. America had always relied on engineering to build itself. From bridges and canals to railroads and telegraphs, America expanded across the continent slowly. Engineering played a huge role in spreading people and goods from one coast to the other. New methods of transportation and communication allowed the country to thrive economically. By the late 1880s, the country was in the last days of expanding on the continent and began to spread across the Pacific. We were beginning to produce more than we could consume.

As America spread, more and more people came to this country. Most settled in the cities along east coast. Those cities became more and more populated. With more people, come more problems. Cities tried lighting to enhance safety. However, kerosene lamps were not ideal. Electricity, on the other hand, was an idea whose time had finally come. By 1882, Thomas Edison began using DC (direct current) to power a street in New York. Electric street cars also began to appear around the country. But, in 1883, Nikola Tesla built his first transformer that turns AC (alternating current) from low voltage to high voltage. To contrast, AC power could travel much further with the aid of transformers while Edison’s DC current could only travel a mile before another power station had to be built.

George-Westinghouse-9528497-1-402  2244554096_b39c2c87d6_o   Nikola Tesla American Inventor
(George Westinghouse, an Advertisement for AC, and Nikola Tesla)

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Edison, backed by financier J.P. Morgan, and Nikola Tesla, supported by George Westinghouse, battled across the country for who would light this land. One of the first battles came at the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. Meant to be a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage, the fair would be better known for a peek into the future of America. The Fair introduced the Ferris Wheel (the “Chicago Wheel”), Scott Joplin, the world’s first public “moving walkway,” phosphorescent lamps (they came before the fluorescent lamps), Cracker Jack,  Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, shredded Wheat, and the hamburger. In addition, Milton Hershey introduced his version of Chocolate, and spray painting was on display. One of the most visited exhibits was one on electricity.


At night the fair was lit by electricity. Who would light the fair would soon light the world. Edison and Westinghouse both put in bids to light the fair. General Electric Company (Edison’s and Morgan’s company) first bid to light the fair for $1.8 million. That bid did not go over well. The two did a second bid worth $554,000. Unbeknownst to General Electric, George Westinghouse, armed with Tesla’s new induction motor, proposed to light the fair for $399,000. Westinghouse won the contract. The effect of winning the bid would change history. Tesla’s AC polyphase system would be on display for not only the US to see, but the whole world. Originally, Tesla planned on using GE bulbs but Edison, still miffed, would not sell to Tesla and Westinghouse. Instead, Westinghouse came up with a more efficient double-stopper light bulb.

At night, the fair became a scene of wonderment as the lights displayed the wonder of the fair and its location.

“If evenings at the fair were seductive, the nights were ravishing. The lamps that laced every building and walkway produced the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large-scale test of alternating current. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago. These were important engineering milestones, but what visitors adored was the sheer beauty of seeing so many lights ignited in one place, at one time. Every building, including the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, was outlined in white bulbs. Giant searchlights — the largest ever made and said to be visible sixty miles away — had been mounted on the Manufactures’ roof and swept the grounds and surrounding neighborhoods. Large colored bulbs lit the hundred-foot plumes of water that burst from the MacMonnies Fountain.” … it “was like getting a sudden vision of Heaven.” — The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.


On May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland pushed a button and near 100,000 incandescent lamps illuminated the White City. Westinghouse’s gambit paid off immediately and immensely. Over 27 million people came through the gates of the fair. Electricity, and AC current, was going to spread coast and coast and beyond. The “City of Light”, as it came to be dubbed, was powered by 12 thousand-horsepower AC polyphase generators. The fair showed how safe AC current could be. Westinghouse’s and Tesla’s exhibits displayed how electricity could reshape the nation.


The Electricity Hall – Notice the GE sign pales to Westinghouse’s

Two years after the fair, Westinghouse again bested Morgan and Edison in winning the rights to the Niagara Falls power station. AC was the future. But at the fair, Tesla, the White City, electricity and lights stole the show. The lighting of the fair marked a turning point in the AC-DC battle to power the county. The Chicago Tribune dedicated much attention to this new but old science at the time.

trib electricity

Chicago Tribune article from October 8, 1893

Tesla would regale fair goers with his life story and how AC worked much to the wonderment of the public and other scientists. Some referred to his machines as “Tesla’s Animals.” What surprised most about the difference between AC and DC was the amount of heat produced. At a constant pace, DC produced more heat in light bulbs than AC power did or could.

In the next few years, AC power would become the standard for 80% of the country and most of the world. The fair had seen to that. However for Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla, they would be pushed aside by J.P.Morgan as Morgan consolidated patents and companies. While Morgan lost the battles to light the fair and harness Niagara Falls, Morgan took over electricity, but he had to use AC power to do it.

A younger J.P. Morgan

A younger J.P. Morgan

Here is a PBS special on Tesla called “Master of Lightning”

For further reading: Devil in the White City
Here is an interesting collection of photos from the fair


The 1968 Election: A Turning Point in History

That summer, Mick Jagger sang,

“Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy,
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy
Hey, said my name is called Disturbance;
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the King, I’ll rail at all his servants”

While Jagger reflected what was happening in the streets, it was much more than that. In the US, the country was tearing apart at the seams. The world, too, seemed to be on the brink. Prague, Mexico City, and Chicago all became focal points of that summer. While Revolution seemed to be within a breath, law and order seemed to be absent. It was year when everything seemed to happen. And to top it all off, the US was having an election. It would be a year unlike any other.

It began to unravel in January 31. The North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive breaking an agreed upon truce. 70,000 North Vietnamese troops took part in attacks all across the country of South Vietnam. It was military disaster but a psychological victory for the North. They proved they determined the order of battle. They proved that President Johnson and General Westmoreland were lying to the public about who was in control in the war. By taking the battle from the jungle to the city, Johnson and Westmoreland had some explaining to do. The public would not be receptive. Ironically, two days after the offensive began, Richard Nixon, declared his presidential candidacy and entered the New Hampshire primary.

Early on in the campaign, it became evident that Vietnam was the major issue. When Peter Arnett quoted a US major that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” the Johnson administration came under attack for its handling of the war. Adding fuel to the fire came later in February when Walter Cronkite reported on his recent trip to Vietnam. Entitled, “Who, What, When, Where, Why?”, the report was a stinging condemnation of the US in Vietnam. Cronkite’s special contradicted official statements by Johnson and Westmoreland on the progress of the war. Cronkite said near the end, that the US “…not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” Johnson knew that in losing Cronkite, he had lost the middle of the country.

Two weeks later…
On March 12, the New Hampshire primary showed how American felt about Tet. Senator Eugene McCarthy almost defeated incumbent President, Lyndon Johnson. Four days later, Senator Robert Kennedy entered the 1968 Presidential race. Johnson was to have his hands full if his campaign was to continue. It would not. Johnson would drop out on March 31.

Four days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The largest manhunt began for his killer but not before riots swept most American cities. Robert Kennedy gave one of the most emotional speeches amid the chaos. He was appearing more and more presidential.

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with — be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poem, my — my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King — yeah, it’s true — but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder.

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

Thank you very much.

Later that months, the anti-war movement began to throttle up. Occupation of five buildings lasted for seven days later when police stormed the buildings and removed the protesters. Other riots and sit ins began at campuses all across the country. It was not sure if the country would make it to election day.

On June 4, the California Primary saw Robert Kennedy win big. Addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in San Francisco at 12:13AM on the morning of the fifth, Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan. Sirhan claimed he shot Kennedy for his pro-Israeli sentiments. Kennedy, only 42 died on June sixth. The election was getting more and more surreal.

On August 8, the Republicans nominated Richard Milhouse Nixon to be their presidential candidate. The next day Nixon chose Spiro Agnew. Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war but would not reveal what it was. Nixon, said he spoke for a “silent majority” who wanted to restore law and order to the country in chaos. Nixon would later refuse to take part in the debates. He would, however, offer up this campaign commercial.

Nixon was not the only “law and order” candidate. “Dixiecrat” George Wallace ran as his 3rd party candidate that fall.

The former Alabama Governor represented a strong portion of the South that felt the Democratic party had strayed too far from its principles on Vietnam and Civil Rights.

On August 20, 200,000 Soviet troops stormed in to Prague ending the “Prague Spring,” and began “normalization” procedures to return the country under Soviet rule. No response came from the Johnson people. The revolution there had been crushed.

On August 26, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley opened the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It would be the most tumultuous convention in American History. Yippies and riots occurred in the streets, fighting took place on the convention floor, all the while the convention tried to nominate Hubert Humphrey for president. Chicago police took action against the large crowd of protestors, beating some unconscious. Over 100 protesters were sent to the emergency room. Mayor Daley said of the actions by his police, “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” The leaders of the antiwar movement and the protesters, the Chicago 8 (later renamed the Chicago 7), were charged with crimes relating to the riots.

In October, nights before the Olympics began, police attacked protesters in Tlatelolco Square. It was estimated 500 demonstrators were killed. The government of Mexico silenced any news. At Games, 32 African nations boycotted because of South Africa’s participation. On the 18th, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, shocked the world by performing the Black Power salute during the “Star-Spangled Banner” at their medal ceremony for the 200 meters. Smith said,

“If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

On October 31, President Johnson announced a halt to US bombing in North Vietnam. The action gave Humphrey a boost in the polls. It was not enough. Nixon won the electoral college handily a few days later. Dominating the center of the country while Humphrey was strong in the Northeast and Wallace in the deep South, Nixon ran away with the victory.

The 1968 election was steeped in events of the year and in fact, took a backseat to the events of the day. When it was all said and done, the country had spoken its mind. It craved for law and order, some sense of normalcy in a year of chaos. Reflecting back, many leaders of the antiwar movement failed to rally behind any viable candidate. Fractured and disruptive themselves, no consensus could be reached on whom to put forth after the death of Bobby Kennedy. Humphrey was too close to Johnson for them. In reality, Humphrey was more distant from Johnson than he lead on. However, Humphrey was not about to denounce the man to whom he was Vice-President. The failure to support Humphrey was one of the great tragedies of the year. Nixon would not end the war. It would continue on for almost five more years. Although his secret plan of Vietnamization was announced early in 1969, it would not take effect for years as Nixon tried to stop the Ho Chi Minh Trail by secretly invading Cambodia.

For a time that summer, many wondered if America was going to collapse and implode. It did not. The antiwar movement would continue throughout Nixon’s first term. The issues to be resolved never were. But 1968 did mark a turning point. The election, while historical, was not the key event. The key event was the US was no longer seen as the bastion of liberty in the world. Between the assassinations, the riots, the Tet Offensive, and the election, freedom was lost. The world would never see us the same way after that summer. It would take a long time for the US to get itself back together and restore its place in the world.