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Obama’s Lost Olympic Bid in Copenhagen: Remembering Chicago’s (Electric) World’s Fair of 1893

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- October 5, 2009

[Editor note: This excerpt from Bradley’s next book, Edison to Enron: Energy Markets and Political Strategies, is part of a five-chapter history of Samuel Insull, the father of the modern power industry.]

President Obama just returned from Copenhagen empty handed. His hometown will not get the 2016 Olympics, or as a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Chicago operation advertised it, the “Blue Green Olympics.”

Given the science, economics, and politics of the global warming, aka climate change, it can be hoped that Obama–and the heads of all governments around the world–come away ’empty handed’ in Copenhagen in December. No town, city, province, or country should be burdened with energy rationing when consumer-driven, conventional energy has become more sustainable, not less.

The real global issue is economic recovery and growth, which means expanded private property and enhanced market institutions to promote sustainable growth in place of abject poverty and economic underperformance.

Flash back to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It introduced the world to the newest energy, electricity, soon to become the energy of energies. A new era of hope and progress was on display. Twenty million visitors had their lives changed by witnessing the results of the transformation of coal inputs into electric outputs.

“Electricity resparked the Industrial Revolution, found new worlds to conquer, and accelerated the process of mechanization not only of manufacture and transport, but of agriculture as well,” noted Erich Zimmermann. “It set in motion a new wave of inventions which reduced and continues to reduce the cost of inanimate energy and thus encourages the further spread of its use.” (1)

Added Vaclav Smil: “In addition to revolutionizing industrial production and services, electricity has helped industrial production and services, electricity has helped implement profound social changes by easing household chores through mass ownership of various appliances and by allowing instant global communication.” (2)

So here’s to the power behind the second Industrial Revolution and how it was displayed at the event also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition.

And may the electricity-for-all message of Chicago’s finest hour be remembered when citizens of the United States journey back to Copenhagen later this year.


Chicago had a gift in waiting for the new head of Chicago Edison Company, Samuel Insull: the World’s Columbian Exposition, better known as Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World. Chicago bested New York City, Washington, D.C. and nearby St. Louis for the honor.

 The 600-acre fairground at Jackson Park on Lake Michigan was beyond Chicago Edison’s modest DC reach, but self-generating exhibitors General Electric and Westinghouse brought the latest and future of electricity to twenty-two million visitors for whom technology provided hope amid economic uncertainty and social change. “Sell the cook stove if necessary … and come,” one enthralled visitor wrote to a relative.

At least in this time and space, Chicago became the White City, Dream City, and City of Light—“the city of the future as a technological utopia.” One of the Fair’s goals of turning night into day represented, in Insull’s estimation, “the first really successful effort in electric lighting of very large spaces.” The Fair successfully demonstrated elevated electric transportation (urban streetcars). And scalable power production was inaugurated with “marine type economical steam engines directly connected to large electric generators.”

From the Electricity Building to the Machine Hall to the applications themselves, electricity overshadowed just about everything else at the Fair, which also exhibited architecture, art, and industry. Searchlights illuminated water fountains, motorized sidewalks moved thousands at a time, and electric gondolas traversed the waterways. There was the all-electric “servantless” kitchen, complete with such novelties as a thermostatically controlled oven, water heater, chafing dish, and coffee maker.

Such marked “the birth of home economics,” which early feminists associated with “liberation” and “modernity.” “Monumental, orderly, beautiful, and clean”—those words had never described Chicago until the Exposition. Katharine Bates, a visiting English teacher from Wellesley College, was so moved by the Fair as to write the words for what became the song “America the Beautiful” (“Thine alabaster cities gleam”). The Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz was similarly inspired. Chicago’s showcase for America was what the Great Exhibition had been for Victorian England some decades before.

The six-month extravaganza propelled Samuel Insull and the nascent Chicago Edison. It introduced Insull to the important people he had not yet met in the industry. It whetted the public appetite for electrification—lighting now and appliances later. And the World’s Fair would put GE’s resident 1,200 horsepower engine and two 800-kilowatt generators—the juice behind their 70-foot Tower of Light showcasing 2,500 different types of Edison incandescents—in Insull’s reach. (Not to be outdone, Westinghouse exhibited 250,000 bulbs lit by a 15,000 horsepower engine.)

GE’s generator needed a home after the Exposition ended in October 1893, and with a financial downturn, as well as a lull in the central station business from GE’s own policies favoring isolated plants, Insull bought the equipment for a fraction of its production cost. Such would be housed at Chicago Edison’s new Harrison Street station, the largest power plant in the world.For industry executives, the “cultural significance of the World’s Fair [was] a starting point in plotting new directions for their business enterprises.”

Indeed, the National Electric Light Association (NELA), founded in 1885 in Chicago, had meticulously planned the event. And the Fair exceeded their high expectations.


(1) Erich Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), p. 596.

(2) Vaclav Smil, “The Energy Question, Again,” Current History, December 2000, p. 409.


One Comment for “Obama’s Lost Olympic Bid in Copenhagen: Remembering Chicago’s (Electric) World’s Fair of 1893”

  1. Noblesse Oblige  

    My recollection is that Insull brought about the development of large central (vs. small local units) power stations for electric power development in areas that could not be served by hydro, such as the MidWest. This enabled the price to come down, ultiimately leading to affordable power for all. This appears the be the process we are now attempting to reverse.


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