To know How will the future be you just have to look at what the big and small technology companies present in world fairs such as CES (Consumer Electronics Show), MWC (Mobile World Congress) or Web Summit, among others. But a few decades ago, to amaze locals and strangers about the news that we would see in the coming years there were world fairs. One of them, the New York World’s Fair 1939, was a before and after thanks to one of its star exhibitions, with the suggestive name of Futurama. Exactly, like that great animated series you’re probably thinking of.
Precisely, the Futurama series by Matt Groening got its name thanks to the Futurama exhibition of the same name. Designed by Norman Bel GeddesFuturama was the star exhibition of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Its purpose was to teach its visitors what the future of 1959/1960 was going to be like.
Up to what point he got his predictions right? What were your mistakes? To what extent did it influence our way of seeing the world and how did it inspire designers and architects to come? throughout the 20th century? Welcome to Futurama, “The World of Tomorrow.”
Traveling to the future without leaving your city
Do you remember when was the last World Expo? And when will the next one be? You most likely don’t know. It’s not your fault. What today is known as “Expo” to dry, or “World Expo” has lost the importance it had at the time. The great technology fairs are today the main sideboard of the future and world exhibitions have had to reinvent themselves. One only has to compare the commotion caused in 1992 by the Seville Expo and how the Zaragoza Expo in 2008 went practically unnoticed. In visitors, almost 42 million compared to 5.6 million.
World exhibitions arise in the middle of the 19th century with industrialization. The English engineers surprised the whole world with their great machines that were going to revolutionize the way of creating things. From the first World Expo of 1851 in London, world exhibitions served to showcase inventions, devices and technologies that we could only dream of. We are talking about a time when the news took days or weeks to arrive. And not everywhere. But for your invention to be at a World Expo meant reaching the whole world and finding investors. Come on, exactly what happens today with small startups that want to be known at technology fairs in search of public and money.
And the World Exposition in New York was one of those that has most penetrated popular culture along with others such as the International Exposition of 1881. At the Expo of 1881, there was talk of tame electricity. And at the 1939 Expo, a future was glimpsed in which technology was going to make things easier for us.
The future that came with Futurama
On April 30, 1939, the New York World’s Fair was inaugurated. A hot Sunday. On their first day, some 206,000 visitors. When the Exhibition closed its doors on October 27, 1940, it had received a total of 44 million views. His motto was intended, “The World of Tomorrow”, The World of Tomorrow. And among the facilities in the more than 33 participating countries, one of those that attracted the most attention was Futurama.
Futurama had everything to succeed. His sponsor was General Motors Corporation, one of the emblems of the United States at the time and the second largest automaker. Only surpassed by Ford Motors. A great sponsor and a person in charge of height, the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. A visionary who “built” a city in 1960 and, looking at the 1939 photographs, practically hit the mark.
Much of the Futurama installation could be seen comfortably seated. Source: General Motors
Big skyscrapers, endless highways, cars in bulk … All in a big way. And, curiously, that idea of unstoppable growth and dizzying foreseen in 1939 it was fulfilled if we see images of what the great American cities of today and of that distant 1960 were and are like. He even succeeded in the design of buildings and other constructions, with the omnipresence of glass in large windows and chromium and other metals in vehicles, buildings and infrastructure.
The Futurama facility occupied 3,251 square meters and was considered one of the largest models built to date. To get an idea of its size, it consisted of more than 500,000 buildings, a million trees and 50,000 moving vehicles. And to enjoy Futurama, visitors didn’t need to move. You just had to sit in a comfortable seat that moved slowly so that you could see all the dioramas that made up Futurama. And to enjoy the scale models, the installation played with windows of different degrees.
Photograph of Perisphere packed with visitors. Author, Leo Husick. On the right, cover of the official guide of the Fair with Perisphere and Trylon. Source: The Henry Ford
If Futurama was spectacular on the inside, it was also spectacular on the outside. The pavilion that housed it was a gigantic white balloon. It was entered by stairs and exited by a ramp. The name of this curious building with a diameter of 55 meters was Perisphere and it had been designed by the architects Wallace harrison Y J. Andre Fouilhoux. They had also designed Trylon, a spire-shaped structure that doubled as a ladder. Unfortunately, nowadays you cannot visit these structures because their materials were used to create weapons for the Second World War. Hence, there are only black and white photographs or illustrations of the time.
A future, big and automated
Spectacular on the outside and spectacular on the inside. But, to what extent did Futurama and the New York World’s Fair succeed in portraying the future 1960 or our present present? Beyond the great avenues full of cars and the impressive skyscrapers even by today’s standards, in Futurama very interesting proposals are made for deal with such gigantic structures.
To get started, Norman Bel Geddes introduces something that is very normal for us: motorways. In 1939 the cities were still connected by common roads. The introduction of motorways or expressways it would change in coming years how cities have expanded and how they have connected with each other by creating networks across the map, reducing distances thanks to the speeds that could be reached on these new roads, safer and wider than conventional roads.
The future that could be seen in Futurama was full of good intentions. Semi-automatic vehicles remotely controlled, electrical installations to supply the needs of the moment, automated farms, flying vehicles for private use … An amalgam of wishes that had to come true in 1960 and that, in part, today we see as something normal. And other news that have not reached our days as it should. And it is that in the city of Futurama, people could circulate freely on the streets and on bridges that crossed the lanes without being interrupted or threatened by the omnipresence of cars.
The legacy of Futurama
As we have seen, there is much left of the New York World’s Fair and Futurama in the world we live in. Of course, without the innocence, good intentions and optimism that reigned in that distant 1939. Today, cities continue to grow but face the reclaiming space by the ordinary citizen in front of a car that has been in the center for too long.
After the closing of the Fair in 1940, practically all the facilities were dismantled due to the war needs to come. In the memory, photographs of the time collected in several books. Some of them difficult to find, except in some libraries, such as the official guide, “Official Guide Book 1939 New York Worlds Fair”.
Another example of Futurama’s impact on society at the time was the Disneyland attraction. Tomorrowland. Inaugurated in the summer of 1955, it had the support and participation of companies such as Monsanto or American Motors. Interestingly, this attraction predicted a future set in 1986.
Over the years, this attraction has been updated. The same happened with Futurama, which was remembered in the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The General Motors pavilion included an attraction called Futurama or The New Futurama. But, of course, it was not as relevant as its 1939 equivalent.