SLIDESHOW

Back to the Future With World’s Fair Tech: 8 Amazing Highlights

Ahead of next month's 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, we explore tech innovations--from the telephone to touchscreens--that premiered during the Fair's sprawling 159-year history.

Center Stage

Before CES, Macworld Expo, Comdex, or Computex, game-changing inventions often made their public debut at the World's Fair. Since the London World Exposition of 1851, this celebration of culture and science has introduced countless marvels to the masses. Think the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, rocket ships, the steam engine, futuristic concept cars; even electricity. Here we'll focus on ideas that shaped some of the tech products and entertainment we enjoy today.

Humanoid Robots

Say hello to Elektro the Moto-Man, Westinghouse's 7-foot-tall, cigarette-smoking, balloon-blowing, record-playing "automaton" built for the 1939 New York World's Fair. His 700-word speaking vocabulary included conversation starters like "my brain is bigger than yours" and "if you use me well I can be your slave." Watch Elektro in action.

Elektro wasn't the first humanoid robot, but he became part of the national psyche as he toured North America to promote Westinghouse. He was joined by a mechanical dog companion called Sparko, the precursor to ideas like Sony's Aibo robot. As for the most popular humanoid robot today? Arguably, that's Honda's ASIMO, which made one of its first appearances at World Expo 2005 in Japan.

Image credits: Cybernetic Zoo

The Typewriter

Remember typewriters? You know, those archaic things the office girls use on Mad Men. The first model to achieve commercial success was the Remington 1--Mark Twain was an early adopter, even though the original model only typed in capital letters. The Remington 1 was overshadowed by the telephone at the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair, but 4000 were sold by the following year. Significantly, the QWERTY letter layout invented during the Remington 1's development has (mostly) stood test of time. Your computer's keyboard probably retains that layout, despite clever and bizarre alternatives being available.

Image credit: Office Museum

Telephones

Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his telephone design to the public at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Two years later, at the Third Paris World's Fair, the telephone earned Bell a Grand Prize, which he shared with Thomas Edison (who had greatly improved the device) and Elisha Gray (who may have invented it).

Prior to the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair, Bell conducted the first transcontinental call (from New York to San Francisco) and made a daily cross-country call possible throughout the show's three-month run. After years of experiments, Bell Labs--as part of AT&T--would go onto showcase and sell its "Picturephone" videophone at the 1964 (New York) and 1967 (Montreal) World's Fairs.

Movie Magic

Motion pictures with recorded sound may have been presented to the general public for the first time at the Paris Exposition of 1900. (Competing systems included Phono-Cinema-Theatre, Phonorama, and Theatroscope.) In any event, recorded sound didn't become a commercially viable part of the movies until the "Talkies" of the 1920s. (This also happens to be when Hollywood grew into a global force in the film industry.)

Twenty years later, Chrysler Motors gave the first commercial 3D film (requiring Polaroid glasses for viewing) to appear in the United States its premiere at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Parker Pen Pals: Computerized Match Making

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Parker Pens provided a novel service for the time: Its pavilion used a computer to connect personalities on opposite sides of the world. You could jot down contact details, along with numbered interest selections, and (perhaps) get connected with a distant but like-minded person. Jump-cut to today, and we have eHarmony, complete with a 258-question inquisition into each participant's character.

Paper image credit: Worldsfairphotos.com

IMax

I don’t know about you, but when I went to see The Dark Knight at the movies, I had to watch it in IMax. The format’s early history is tightly intertwined with the World’s Fair. Canadian filmmakers Graeme Ferguson and Roman Kroiter presented films using multiprojector/multiscreen systems at Expo '67 in Montreal, and then they teamed up with childhood friend Robert Kerr and engineer William C. Shaw to devise their own larger single-screen system a year later. The first IMax film was created for Expo ‘70 in Osaka Japan (in the Fuji Pavilion), and some 5 million visitors viewed a 300-foot-by-213-foot IMax screen at Expo '74 in Washington, D.C. Also, the first permanent IMax 3D theater was built for Expo '86 in Vancouver, and IMax HD was first tested at Spain's Seville Expo ‘92.

Touchscreens

Researched from the 1940s, infrared touchpanels first gained traction in the University of Illinois's PLATO educational computers during the 1970s. But not until the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, did the wider public get a chance to try touch input. The U.S. Pavilion showcased 33 televisions covered with Elographics' new transparent touch-sensitive panels. The next year (and completely separately), Hewlett-Packard introduced its HP-150, the first commercial touchscreen computer, which used an 8-inch Sony CRT surrounded by infrared receivers. Two decades later, Apple, Google, HTC, Nokia, and others are engaged in a multitouch catfight. Lame.

Image credit: Vintage Computing

Electric Dreams

According to Washington University in St. Louis, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair saw the introduction of the electrical plug and wall outlet. And as the university points out, you still can't have too many outlets.

Electricity remained a major attraction at the 1904 exposition: The fairgrounds and major buildings were lit with electric lights, and electrical machinery drew large crowds. In the years prior, Westinghouse won bids to illuminate the 1893 (Chicago) and 1901 (Buffalo) World's Fairs using Nikola Tesla's alternating current (AC) system, rival to General Electric/Thomas Edison's direct-current technology. In 1893, Tesla also showcased the first neon lights and phosphorescent lamps (predecessor to fluorescent lighting).

Image credit: Brooklyn Museum/Flickr (World's Columbian Exposition: Grand Basin, Chicago, 1893).

Timekeepers of Progress

As William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, noted: "Expositions are the timekeepers of progress. They record the world's advancements. They stimulate the energy, enterprise, and intellect of the people, and quicken human genius..." Tragically, he was assassinated at the Pan-American World Fair in Buffalo the day after making that speech...

Danny Allen is a PCWorld contributing editor. Heckle him on Twitter @danny_allen.