Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1968:
VIGNETTES FROM THE FAIR

by John H. Lienhard

Today, scenes at a fair. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Erik Larson's book, The Devil in the White City, is about the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exhibition. A superb interweaving of stories, it shows the fair forming a great watershed in American culture. It centers on two people in its mesmerizing picture: The fair's chief architect, Daniel Burnham -- and the most horrific serial killer you'd ever want to meet, Dr. Henry Holmes.

But they're only backdrop to the fair itself. Called The White City, it moved Katherine Lee Bates to write the line, "thine alabaster cities gleam," in America the Beautiful. For one shining moment, the fair caused us to look at who we were and who we might become. Everyone came, everyone was moved. (Well, almost everyone. Mark Twain got to Chicago and then fell ill. After eleven days in his hotel room he went home without over seeing it.)

President Cleveland visited. So did Theodore Dreiser, who met his wife-to-be there. I suppose the fact that he went on to be chronically unfaithful made her one more victim of the fair's excesses. When the daughter of the King of Spain, Eulalia, showed up, Chicago tried to make royal pomp of her visit. She failed to appear at expensive parties, and went out to play. The age of empire was done, and she wanted to drink in the twentieth-century.

So a vast transition bubbled just below Chicago's consciousness, at this fair-to-end-all-fairs. Perhaps Larson best captures that moment -- that tipping point -- with a story about Susan B. Anthony. Now 73, the Quaker reformer had spent her life fighting for abolition, temperance, education and labor reform. She was deeply involved in the cause of suffrage and women's rights.

When conservatives tried to close the fair on Sundays (the only day the working class could attend) Anthony fought to keep it open. One clergyman asked her if she'd prefer seeing a son of hers at the fair's Buffalo Bill Show instead of in church. "He would learn far more ..." she acidly replied. In the view of many, that confirmed "the fundamental wickedness of the suffragist movement."

A gleeful Buffalo Bill Cody sent her box seat tickets to his over-whelmingly popular show. She went, and Larson describes a poignant scene in which Buffalo Bill rides up to her box before the packed stands, his white hair flying, and bows low in his saddle. The crowd falls silent as she rises to return the bow.

Here, Larson says, "was one of the greatest heroes of America's past saluting one of the foremost heroes of its future. The encounter brought the audience to its feet in a thunder of cheers."

The magic of the fair is unremitting. The brail typewriter inventor sees a blind girl being led to his booth. She is introduced as Helen Keller, and she moves in to embrace and kiss him.

The many paths of our nation, for a moment, converged in one time and one place. Then we took our separate ways. The White City was torn down, and it was over. But not really over -- for we'd seen something of what we wanted to be, and we were changed.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


E. Larson, The Devil in the White City. (New York: Vintage Books, 2003.)

The Agricultural Building
The Agricultural Building

The Grand Basin
The Grand Basin

The Ferris Wheel

All images from The Columbian Exposition Album (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company, Publishers, 1893).



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.