If you want to track the history of the world expos, you have to go all the way back to year six, or as the French say “l’an VI“. That’s as in six years after the French revolution, or what the rest of the world thought of as 1798.

Of course the event that was staged that year on Champ de Mars in the heart of Paris (with all kinds of shiny new technology showcased, the hot air balloon being the real crowd-puller), wasn’t technically a world expo since no foreign nation was invited.

It was however an important factor in motivating the United Kingdom—France’s perpetual rival—to organize what’s now seen as the first proper world expo, which happened in 1851.

If you know one thing about that event, it’s probably to do with the Crystal Palace; a 92 000 square meter behemoth of a glass and cast iron structure in Hyde park, housing exposition booths for every country that mattered; meaning those industrialized nations which had colonized the rest of the world.

Speaking of industrialization, at this point in time the only nation which could claim to have fully taken that leap, was the UK. In fact staging the world expo—an initiative taken by Queen Victoria’s husband prince Albert—was a powerful way of asserting Great Britain’s technological and scientific supremacy to the rest of the world.

It was also, historians tend to agree, a vehicle for selling the very idea of industrialization to the working class.

Making an effort to gain acceptance from ‘the people’ was a novel idea. There had been no need for it during the long static centuries of the dark ages, where despotic kings didn’t depend on popular support.

The French, and then the Industrial revolutions changed that. The masses could no longer be counted upon to be so docile.

The world expos addressed this problem in much the same way as the Romans had once appeased the masses with “panem et circenses“; cheap ways of winning popular approval by offering distractions, gladiator games being a popular option. Fast forward a couple of millennia and the awe was inspired by technology instead.

(This wasn’t for everyone. When Fyodor Dostoevsky paid a visit to the first London expo, he was appalled by what he saw as “a prison of progress”).

But the world expos were more than a distraction. It was also the first truly effective mass medium—the London show drew more than six million visitors. As such, it was a powerful way of telling stories, and storytelling has always been human culture’s primary tool for absorbing change. Of which there was plenty in the accelerating industrialization that culminated around the time of the first expo.

This idea of the expo as a tool for integrating change might seem rather abstract, but in reality it manifested in quite concrete ways. For example, Sweden’s booth in Crystal Palace didn’t just feature shiny tech but also Sámi people busying themselves with traditional handicraft. This kind of concept—which would seem offensive today—was popular well into modern times, with a flagship example being the 1893 expo, when native Americans were brought to Chicago to reenact their traditional ways. (That whole event, by the way, was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the ‘new’ continent)

What would have been the point of such displays? One theory could be that putting the new and unknown next to the old, was an attempt to domesticate technology, which must often have appeared scary. One piece of anecdotal evidence to this effect can be found in the tragic assassination of William McKinley, 25th president of America. The doctors who worked to save his life after he was shot by an anarchist at the world fair in Buffalo 1901, didn’t dare to use the novel X-ray technology that was part of the exhibition.

(In his opening address by the way, McKinley had referred to the world expo as “the speedometer of our civilization”)

Putting the new next to the old was perhaps never done more overtly than in the 1897 Swedish expo, where a half-scale replica of a huge chunk of Stockholm such as it had appeared in the 16th century, was built smack in the middle of the exhibition area; right next to the parts exhibiting capabilities of the fantastically successful Swedish industrial corporations of the time.

One aspect of the expos I find interesting, is their ephemeral nature. They were almost always dismantled right after the show was over, which might explain why they were so often held at a loss for the hosting nation. The Eiffel tower is actually the exception that proves the rule here. It was built for the 1889 world expo and was never meant to become a permanent installation. In fact most people at the time thought it was an eye-sore and couldn’t wait for it to be torn down.

So far we’ve enumerated two functions of the world expo: It provided a distraction to appease the working classes; and it helped domesticated scary new technology.

Many would claim that the world fairs also had a third raison d’être: In spite of being very international in nature, they also played an important role in consolidating nation states.

The whole concept of nations is actually fairly recent, and it hasn’t always been obvious how to establish this rather abstract idea firmly in people’s minds; especially not before the advent of proper mass media.

Historian Benedict Anderson thought deeply about this. In his landmark book Imagined Communities, from 1983, he had the following to say:

“A nation is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. […] Regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

The last fair to be held in Stockholm happened in 1930. It was heavily influenced by the modernistic winds that were blowing at the time, and a group of prominent architects used the occasion as a platform from which to launch their manifest tiled acceptera.

Parts of it read as follows:

Acceptera den föreliggande verkligheten – endast därigenom har vi utsikt att behärska den för att förändra den och skapa kultur som är ett smidigt redskap för livet. Vi har inte behov av en gammal kulturs urvuxna former för att uppehålla vår självaktning. Vi kan inte smyga oss ur vår egen tid bakåt. Vi kan inte heller hoppa förbi något som är besvärligt och oklart i en utopisk framtid. Vi kan inte annat än se verkligheten i ögonen och acceptera den för att behärska den.

That quote strikes me as halfway between eloquent and megalomaniac. It also somehow seems relevant for us today.


This post builds on a lecture given by Anders Houltz, head of research at the Centre for Business History and author of A Temple of Technology which explores the 1923 Gothenburg world expo.

It’s also part of a series of posts inspired by the excellent course Stockholms Teknikhistoria, where other entries include What We Need Libraries For, Atomic Swing : A Brief History of the Shifting Swedish Nuclear Policy, and Things I Didn’t Know About KTH.