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  • Writer's pictureRobert P. Fitton

Why is the 1939 New York World’s Fair so Important?

The 1939 World’s Fair

Robert P. Fitton audio with 1939 Glenn Miller Moonlight Serenade

There have been other fairs before and after the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The first time I became aware of the 1939 fair was in my grandmother’s attic which was walkable on a wood plank floor and the high gables of the Victorian house gave the attic a spacious aura. There were numerous books about geography and non-picture books that caught my eye, but what fascinated me was this astounding exposition of geometric structures with powerful names such as Westinghouse, General Electric, Ford, General Motors, and RCA. In my mind I walked the colored pathways under the omnipresent Trylon and Perisphere as seen on the book cover above. And the biggest impression at I got at age nine or ten was they were predicting the future and after the Great Depression they were speculating on a bright future.

Dawn of a new day by Horace Heidt-1939

The Capsule of the Cupaloy

As the years went by thoughts about the fair floated around my brain. I saw documentaries and films of this fair where they actually buried a time capsule in the ground to be opened 5000 years in the future. It wasn’t until I began acquiring a sense and knowledge of history that I revisited the New York World’s Fair. That fair posited a number of ideas that came into fruition. Super highways! In 1939 there was a freeway from Pasadena into L.A. or the Autobahn in Germany. Most of American roadways from what I’ve studied were in rough shape or nonexistent until Eisenhower’s interstate highway initiatives. And TV. TV was held up until World War II was over (Thanks a lot Hitler) but when the fair opened on April 30, 1939 Roosevelt was on a broadcast to New York City. At the fair there was a robot named Elektro and communities mirroring the future suburban spread.

FDR Opens the Fair

NY Worlds Fair

So what? What’s the big deal? The time capsule is the big deal and the unabashed optimism promoted at the fair. When I put that together in my head I started wondering about the future and these people of 1939. Just look how society has changed in 82 years. If we go ahead into the distant future does humanity maintain freedom? Do we have standards? What about the technology of the fair-does it proceed into the future thoughtfully with consideration its ramifications? The catch phrase of the fair was: I have seen the future. What would we see if the future and even the distant future were on full display?

Iowa Corn Fields is a photograph by Bonfire Photography

And Iowa-1939. No, this isn’t Fitton’s version of the Field of Dreams but it’s not bad. I’m not talking about a perfect idyllic world. After all-the absence of electricity in many places forced an human connection. I am strongly making the point that some values such as integrity, justice and moral certitude existed in 1939 Iowa and in much of the country. I am not naïve in my understanding of society’s underbelly. However, there were societal norms. I’m not being sentimental either. Most of these norms protected everyone while technology eviscerated individual freedom in Andy Reese’s future world. Even more distant is the Enclave , escaped to Ganymede around Jupiter as they prepare to die and end human existence. Professor Geiger is the messiah, not of wiping out technology, but of paying attention to the collateral damage.

Andy Reese, an exoplanet astronomer living in the distant future contacts the Enclave, the last vestige of humanity. To stop the annihilation of the human race by the Seraph, post biological life forms, Reese is sent back along the timeline to prevent the evolution of the Seraph from computers. The link in time is an Iowa farm girl, Lucy Apel who has won a national contest to travel to the 1939 New York World’s Fair and Professor Herman Geiger a gifted scientist, writer, and social philosopher. To change history Reese must avert Geiger’s death at the fair. But the Seraph have other plans as they follow Reese back to 1939 to thwart changing history.

-Book description on Amazon

Back in time Andy meets and falls in love with a young woman, Lucy Apel who’s brilliance is apparent. Lucy’s future holds great prospects for her. Professor Geiger is her idol in the way he thinks about science and the future. Lucy gets to meet Geiger at the New York World’s Fair. But the Seraph is inhabiting human bodies and lurking–lurking–lurking.

Okay Fitton, can’t you make your point without bringing in this artificial intelligence and the lost humans on Ganymede? Sure, but bringing out the contrast between the time periods in a narrative, experienced by humans is an essential way to understand the future. Do humans have to battle the Seraph? Oh yes- because they are the products of the runaway technology. Is Professor Geiger really necessary? You bet he’s necessary. Geiger espouses the positive nature of humanity, using the human power to reason and understand the possibilities of technology but he cautions us to be aware of the side effects. As technologies advance, we must have that attitude. To think. “Nachdanken.”

Here is the complete podcast list for I Have Seen the Future, 7 episodes with the audio book sandwiched in between. The clean version of the book is at Audible-without the podcast:


Post Script: Color movies of the 1939 NY World’s Fair

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