Seattle is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 Exposition. This event is marked as a turning point in their self-appraisal of what Seattle was and where it was going. The fair imagined a bright future full of high-speed monorail transit, towering structures of steel and glass, cathedrals of commerce, and a population driven by and knowledgeable about science. The calling card of the future world of Century 21 was continuing progress.

I personally delight in the flights of imagination that World’s Fairs have brought to us. From the dizzying heights of the Eiffel Tower at Paris’1889 fair, the pristine ‘White City’ of the Chicago fair of 1893 (inspiration for countless American courthouses and “city beautiful” monuments), to the future utopia of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-people have sought out the grandeur and optimism of these events. Often they provided a panacea for the darkness that lingers around the various ages of man.

The symbol of France’s progress, the Eiffel Tower.

Once upon a time the way the average person could learn about technologies on the horizon was through the concept of the “fair.” All of the newest methods of crop maintenance, the most powerful steam engines, the latest in electrical engineering, and later the ideas of mass transit, public projects, and space travel-all fired the imagination. With hands on experience human beings were able to better comprehend the latest and greatest that was being developed for the betterment of civilization.

The administration building at the Chicago fair.

In the United States forward progress used to be the overriding goal of civic groups, corporations, and the government. The forward thrust of conceptual thinking was enrichment and fulfillment. Throughout the deepest period of the Great Depression this monumental thinking allowed the US to create jobs by literally ‘building the nation.’ Giant dams to use in hydroelectric power generation, roads, electrification of the entire southern US-very few of these things could have happened without the government becoming involved in betterment projects.

By the 1939 World’s Fair the US had finally left the harshest period of the Depression behind and was willing and able to participate in a Fair that would show the planet what America was capable of achieving in the coming years of the 20th century. The demonstrated progress in art, architecture, city planning, and most importantly high technology, secured in the American populace the idea that great times were ahead. The storm clouds of war hovering over Europe did nothing to diminish this hope.

1939 New York World’s Fair

New York Fair from the air.