World Columbian Exposition

We all are witnessing Football World Cup craze at this moment. It is considered to be the world’s largest sporting event after Olympics. 32 nations are participating from all over the world with nearly 550 players actually playing in it. Around millions of spectators are expected to witness live action.

Similarly back in year 1893, there was a huge event held in America with 46 nations and 2.8 crore people participating in it, this was not a sporting event, it was the world's largest cultural and scientific exhibition of that time. It was known as World Columbian Exposition. Let us briefly what the World Columbian Expo was.

The World's Columbian Exposition (the official shortened name for the World's Fair: Columbian Exposition, Chicago) was one huge Fair held in Chicago in year 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival on the American land in 1492. The exposition was located on a huge area of 630 acres. A large water pool representing the long voyage Columbus took to the American continent stood as the iconic centerpiece of the Fair. The fair featured nearly 200 new (temporary) buildings of neoclassical architectures. It included exhibits on agricultural, liberal arts, mining, machinery, electricity, transportation, construction. The fair was also a display of various cultures worldwide.

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World’s Columbian Exposition


The fair began on 1st May 1893 and it lasted till 30th October 1893, for nearly six months! The fare was located in Jackson Park bordering Lake Michigan to facilitate access to the outside world by the means of sea, road and rail. It was organized to be a gathering of ideas, men and technologies from every corner of the globe, with each country contributing the best of their industrial, cultural, commercial and educational enterprises. 

The fair even had a display of 35 marine ships from various European countries and had more than 10,000 officers, seamen and marines demonstrating their national power. The fair was an important and influential social and cultural event. The fair had a profound effect on architecture, arts, and American industrial optimism. The exposition was the greatest event in America and in the world at that time. Nearly 3.5 million (35 lacs) square feet of space in this fare was devoted for various exhibitions. One of the major exhibitions in this fare was the Electricity exhibition.

Both Westinghouse Electric Company and Dr. Nikola Tesla started preparing for this huge and historic exhibition. This was Dr. Tesla’s greatest chance to display Alternating Current system to the entire world. Dr. Tesla travelled nearly 1200 kilometers to Chicago and began preparation for this massive global event. Westinghouse was dedicated to promoting the polyphase alternating current system and felt that this was the best chance to introduce it to the public at large through the medium of this fair. Dr. Nikola Tesla also prepared a detailed plan to light up the Expo using his Alternating Current System.

This task was not at all easy, Dr. Tesla had to work day and night and he managed every single thing that needed to be done to get entire system of AC electricity wired up and running. It was an extremely cold winter, so cold that the entire preparatory work of the expo was halted for several weeks just two to three months prior to the actual exposition. But without bothering about such harsh conditions, Dr. Tesla relentlessly worked to bring his polyphase AC system in front of the world. Winter was not the only hurdle in front of Dr. Tesla. It so happened that General Electric dragged Westinghouse Company in a patent war that prohibited Westinghouse Company from using the incandescent bulbs which were very commonly available in the market. This was 2-3 months prior to the Expo. This eventuality posed a very serious problem, as the patent petition of General Electric would prevent Westinghouse and Dr. Tesla from lighting up the World Columbian Expo. Westinghouse Electric and Dr. Tesla came up with an alternative solution to the incandescent lamps and managed to get 2,00,000 (2 lac) of such special bulbs manufactured just before the Exhibition. This was also a record in itself because the 2 lac bulbs that Dr. Tesla and Westinghouse got manufactured made up almost 25% of the total bulbs in use in America at that time.

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Lighting an entire fair with 2,00,000 bulbs in the year 1893 is absolutely a phenomenally unimaginable task. Even in today's times manufacturing 2 lac fluorescent bulbs that too in a timeframe of just a few weeks is not an easy task. If it is so today, then just imagine how difficult and actually close to impossible it would have been in the year 1893, to manufacture 2 lac fluorescent bulbs that too in complete or partial absence of mass production techniques, industrial automation, assembly lines, etc. Yet Dr. Tesla and Westinghouse worked tirelessly to accomplish their goal and that they did extremely successfully. Running against the time that too in one of the most inhospitable conditions, Dr. Tesla managed to light the fair with these 2 lac lamps running solely on Alternating Current.

The Westinghouse Electric Company and Nikola Tesla displayed several polyphase AC systems. The display exhibits included polyphase AC Current generators, step-up transformers, step-down transformers, transmission lines, huge induction motors commercial DC to AC current converters, an operational railway motor, and many other inventions.

Dr. Nikola Tesla himself designed various unique experiments specially for this exhibition. In this fare Dr. Tesla designed various gas-filled (fluorescent) lamps which used to emit different colours depending upon the gas which is filled inside it and the also depending upon the frequency of electric current passed through it. These were more efficient than the incandescent bulbs which used to emit light by heating up a filament. We must know that Dr. Tesla did not discover the gas-filled lamps but rather they were in use prior to his time  Dr. Tesla rather devised a more useful and efficient way to lit up the gas-filled or fluorescent lamp using the high-frequency and high-voltage electric current. The same procedure is used in today's commercial gas-filled bulbs, and more importantly, all of us today know about these gas-filled lamps as tube lights, CFLs, neon lights, sodium vapour lamps etc. So, now we know who the brain behind all these innovations was.

Not only are we going to see how Dr. Tesla designed various fluorescent lamps and managed to display flair of beautiful lighting effects at the World Columbian Expo but also we are going to witness some of his truly astonishing experiments that were on display at the World Columbian Exposition.

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Published at Mumbai, Maharashtra - India