Whenever I visit Chicago, my favorite attraction is the Museum of Science and Industry. The beautiful, massive building the museum calls home was once called the Palace of Fine Arts, and is now the last remaining structure of the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition that was held there in 1893. World’s Fairs (or Expositions and Exhibitions, as they were also called) were long, multi-month events popular from 1851 to the 1960s. In a single location, they showcased and celebrated the world’s new technologies and inventions, scientific advancements, cultural contributions in art, and astonishing curiosities. They combined the enterprise of a trade show with the atmosphere of a carnival, which produced an effect that not only entertained, enlightened, and inspired, but also marked seismic shifts in society.
People traveled great distances to get a glimpse of Edison’s latest invention, the Wright Flyer, one of Tesla’s experiments in electromagnetism, or Bell’s telephone. They were some of the very first to see a diesel engine, electrical lighting, an elevator, the monorail, a mainframe computer, the gas-powered automobile, and a film with synchronized sound. The Seattle World’s Fair in 1962 was a tribute to “Century 21” and captured the growing interest in the space race. Its futuristic science and space themes ultimately changed the perception of Seattle and forged its new reputation as the city of tomorrow, bringing both technological and aerospace industries to the city.
World’s Fairs had a profound impact on Walt Disney. Years after his father worked as a carpenter at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Disney created the character Mickey Mouse, who appeared later on a number of items during the 1933 to 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. It’s also said that the fair’s Belgium Village provided him with the inspiration to create Disneyland many years later, including the attraction Tomorrowland. Disney would dedicate the attraction, the culmination of how he viewed the future at the time, with the words:
“A vista into a world of wondrous ideas, signifying man’s achievements...a step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure, and ideals: the Atomic Age, the challenge of outer space, and the hope for a peaceful and unified world.”
Today, people seldom travel just to see an idea or new invention, and the luster of the World’s Fair has diminished along with its frequency and attendance. The last fair held in the U.S. was in New Orleans in 1984. Attendance at this fair was far less spectacular, 7.3 million compared to the 51.6 million that attended the fair in New York two decades earlier.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about inspiration and what it takes to engage young people in the National Space Society’s vision of “people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth…” In many ways, the vision of NSS is similar to Disney’s vision of tomorrow, and in order for either vision to be fully realized, it will require subsequent generations of young minds to see it through to fruition.
As an educator, I see everyday how the priorities of young people have changed, how nothing today inspires them on the scale that the Apollo program inspired my generation to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics––inspiration that ultimately ushered in the digital age and much of the cool technology people take for granted today. Unlike past generations, the emphasis now seems on becoming relevant using this technology through impersonal connections on social media, reality television, viral videos, and the tabloid exploits of celebrities, athletes, and musicians.
When Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012, the days following could have served as a tribute to both his incredible journey and all of the people who helped make that journey a reality. However, America’s focus had since shifted to other matters deemed more important, as evidenced by the History Channel choosing to air 19 consecutive hours of Swamp People and Pawn Stars instead of anything related to Apollo and the passing of Armstrong. We would have to wait another seven years to finally see the country celebrate his achievements during that first lunar landing.
Until the NSS’s vision is achieved it remains aspirational,just as walking on the Moon was in the decades preceding the 1960s. To see it become reality, we need to create an environment where future generations are highly inspired to solve the problems necessary to achieve it. For example, during the 1800s, Almon Strowger was an undertaker whose competitor’s wife worked as the local telephone operator. When callers requested an undertaker, or even Strowger by name, she deliberately directed the calls to her husband. Strowger spent years complaining to the telephone company, but this failed to solve the problem. So, he became inspired to solve the problem himself despite knowing very little about telephone technology. The result was the invention of the automatic telephone switch, which allowed callers to dial directly without having to go through a local operator. His inspiration led to a creative solution that resulted in the redesign of the entire telephone industry.
Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the Moon, once said to me, “Apollo is an example of inspired, ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” Whether it’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Almon Strowger, great change is often the result of inspired individuals. These people observe a situation, make an emotional connection, take action, and then persevere, often when the odds of success are stacked against them. The first steps in this sequence, observation and connection, are often the greatest hurdles to overcome, especially in an age when many people relate most strongly to the tiny screens of their smartphones.
Students enjoying the Celebrate! Innovation Exhibition
In 1999, I was hired to oversee the design and construction of a new college campus focused on innovation and technology. When we built the campus, the design was beautiful and state-of-the-art. It was also blindingly white, sterile, and uninspiring. Influenced by the history of the World’s Fair, we began transforming the campus by showcasing imagination and creativity. In 2006, we started the Celebrate! Innovation Exhibition. Through a collection of artifacts, images, digital video, live presentations by speakers who have accomplished great things, and a variety of hands-on activities, the intent was to create a visual, interactive environment with the power to mentally engage students, faculty, and visitors. While the exhibition has evolved adding elements such as VR/AR technologies, a technology-focused makerspace, and a platform to showcase new products and technologies built by regional start-ups, it’s designed to begin conversations, encourage questions, and show how a very diverse group of inspired people from varying backgrounds chose to contribute to society by adding value to everyday life.
What if every organization began approaching their events, workplaces, and schools like smaller versions of a World’s Fair? What if the International Space Development Conference became the annual World’s Fair focused on space exploration and settlement?
While we’re all inspired at various times throughout our lives, everyone is inspired by different things in different ways. Whether constructing the Panama Canal, inventing new technologies in Silicon Valley, designing massive skyscrapers for New York City, advancing medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital, or expanding food production through new biotechnologies in Iowa, people have realized incredible feats of imagination throughout history. Achieving vision requires calls to action that motivate future generations to think differently. We are all responsible for creativity and the innovations that serve as the driving forces for our future. For those who have come before, the spirit of their imagineering should be celebrated, and their stories shared over and over to inspire future generations to imagine and act.