The World of Tomorrow
The vision of the 1939 World’s Fair influenced many science fiction writers over the years, though I don’t know if it had a direct impact on Gene Roddenberry (who was 18 when the Fair opened) or other Star Trek creators. Yet it was so famous in its time—even unavoidable—that those who were young then must have had it imprinted somewhere on their psyche.
“See the sun through the gray/It’s the dawn of a new day,” went lyrics to the World of Tomorrow song, as belted out by Ethel Merman.
President Franklin R. Roosevelt opened the Fair, promising those who came that “they will find that the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future.” Though there were only 200 TV sets to receive it, the opening was the first public event in America to be broadcast on television.
One of the tragic ironies of the Great Depression was that America had productive farms, massive factories, willing workers, skilled technicians, but they were idled by mysterious forces of finance. The Fair expressed pent-up creativity as well as hope, a practical ingenuity as well as positive spirit. Strip away the hokum and hucksterism and self-serving corporate forecasts, and the Fair envisioned modern solutions to current and age-old problems, in a cooperative if not united world. A kind of vision that we've seen again.
The technology was beautiful as well as amazing, and this future was nestled in the embrace of green nature. Exciting design characterized the Fair, with every expression of technology and scope streamlined towards the future.
Inside the Perisphere, under the tall blue dome, visitors stood on balconies to look down to a dramatic model of a landscape a hundred years in the future, in 2039. A city of elegant tall buildings stood near a flowing river. Rolling countryside radiated out from it, dotted with towns and parks where people lived in bright modern homes, connected to the city and to factories by white ribbons of superhighway. A recorded voice told the story of Democricity, and projected faces floated over the scene as the music swelled.
After Democricity, the most popular show at the Fair was Futurama in the streamlined General Motors Building.
They left this experience bearing a white button with dark blue lettering that said simply, “I Have Seen the Future.”
Among the shows and amusements were some that seemed to enhance the excitement of this future: the nightly dances with the latest swing music, and especially the displays of fountains, lights and fireworks at the Lagoon of Nations.
It wasn’t all show. Design and exhibits were meant to demonstrate the rationality and practicality of innovations—and their benefits for all.
“We were great believers in Science in the Thirties, the Depression time,” wrote Arthur Miller, in his foreword to works by Czech science fiction author Karel Capek. “Our problem seemed to be that scientific objectivity was not being applied to social problems, like that of scarcity in the midst of plenty.”
But the exhibit also asserted that to raise the income of the entire population to the good life minimum was no fantasy. “With modern technology and power production, it is not long physically impossible...we need now to discover a workable formula for its distribution to ‘Three-Thirds of a Nation.”
Showing this future as exciting and dramatic was a key principle of the Fair. Applebaum noted that the Fair’s designers—“men like Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague,” came from “careers in theatrical design or other artistic backgrounds... without them and their decisive influence, the Fair might well have been a stodgy curio show.” It would be an insight made again with Star Trek.
So it was little wonder that the first World Science Fiction convention was held in New York the summer of 1939 in conjunction with the Fair, attended by Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury (among others), who explored the grounds. And it during this convention that editor Mort Weisinger came up with the character made famous by Edmond Hamilton’s novels: Captain Future.
“I think it stayed with every child who saw it,” wrote John Crowley, author and science fiction writer, who himself first visited as a ten year old. It certainly stayed with Carl Sagan, who said that being taken to the Fair at the age of four was a defining moment in his life. He marveled at science exhibits, Futurama and television. He loved the Fair’s time capsule, an inspiration for the record and items he later sent on with the Voyager spacecraft.
But even children and others who didn’t get there could hardly escape knowing about it, and seeing its images—even in far off California, for instance.
The Fair was the cover story in Life Magazine the month before it opened, with a 16-page preview inside. It was on Life’s cover again the month after it opened, in May 1939. The Fair’s opening was covered on radio.
Radio-Craft revealed the internal workings of Electro, the robot that interacted with fairgoers in the Westinghouse building. Superman and Batman visited the Fair in Action Comics.
The Fair’s symbols—the Trylon and Perisphere—were seen on postage stamps and posters, roadmaps and brochures, tie clasps and rings, children’s games and women’s dresses, carpet sweepers and typewriters—and on the side of Howard Hughes’ airplane as he circled the globe. They were everywhere.
With the economy at a standstill during the Depression, businesses provided little support for innovations. (Some New Deal programs, on the other hand, did show that intentionally shaping the future was possible.) But the Fair provided the opportunity for visionaries to show that the creativity and practical ability to create a new future were just waiting in the wings.
And why not? The 1930s had already built parts of the future—from the TVA dams to the Golden Gate Bridge, from highways to airports and national parks. America had the know-how, the factories, the creative spirit.
But in 1939 that energy and skill was already turning in a different direction.
The New York World’s Fair closed in 1940, as German bombers and British fighters battled in the English skies. The Trylon and Perisphere and most of the other buildings were torn down. Their steel was used to make weapons.
Some Europeans working at the Fair, fearing a return to war-torn countries, tried to stay in America. The cooking staff of the French pavilion went into the restaurant business in Manhattan. But many of the cooks at the Italian pavilion were sent to an internment camp as enemy aliens.
At Star Trek conventions and elsewhere, Gene Roddenberry would later speak with pride and wonder of human accomplishments, of what humanity had built, despite its sad and violent history. While ignoring the meaning of an apocalyptic present might make some utopian dreams seem deluded and insipid, the fact remains that it is often in such deadening times that utopian visions arise most clearly and strongly. A horrific present seems to clarify what people want in a different time to come.
And the New York World’s Fair of 1939 lived on in the dreams of those who walked its avenues, or even those who gazed at the brilliant, mysterious color renderings that remain magical today.
Meanwhile in 1940, Gene Roddenberry was attending college classes, dating his future wife, and learning to fly. He’d been recruited for an aircraft pilot training program instituted by a U.S. Army Air Force general. Aviation was still so new that the general (Henry “Hap” Arnold) had himself been trained in flying by the Wright Brothers.
Even though the United States was not yet in the war, Gene knew what he was training for. Still, for the rest of his life he remembered the exhilaration and feeling of complete freedom of his first solo flight.
Many others who helped create Star Trek would also soon go off to war. The dream of a gleaming white future would stay with some, though it seemed to fade in the fog of war, the smoke over European cities and the mushroom cloud. But it didn’t die.