In his spectacular book, The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson gives a delightful historical account of the World’s Columbian Exposition, more popularly known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The fair’s original purpose was to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, but it quickly turned into an American response to the 1889 World’s Fair in France.
America was a rising power in the late 19th century. The fair in Paris had been a roaring success, and had won France so much respect around the world that it roused America’s jealousy. Some Americans had a particularly intense fixation on the 1,000-foot-tall iron structure that the French civil engineer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel had built for the fair. Now widely known as the Eiffel Tower, it was by far the tallest structure in the world at the time, and people everywhere were awed by it. The Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, had until then signified America’s global dominance in iron-and-steel structures. The Eiffel Tower had dethroned America in that realm.
According to Larson, “America’s pride in its growing power and international stature had fanned patriotism to a new intensity.” The board of directors assembled to plan the fair issued a call-to-action to America’s engineers: build a different kind of structure that would surpass the Eiffel Tower in global prominence. In the words of Larson, the goal was to “out-Eiffel Eiffel.”
Larson’s account reveals that much of what we see as major power competitions are often nothing more than accumulations of petty individual envies that flow all the way from local to international levels. The Columbian Exposition announcement triggered a fierce domestic competition. Major American cities began vying for the right to host the fair. People in Washington, D.C. felt entitled to it because their city was the nation’s capital. Chicagoans had always felt disrespected by New Yorkers so they wanted to use the fair to show those snooty easterners what Chicago was capable of. The New Yorkers claimed that their city was culturally superior to any other in America and was thus best-suited to host the fair.
Chicago went all out for the privilege, and the U.S. Congress ultimately awarded it the hosting rights. Then suddenly, it became a contest among people in the different locales of Chicago to determine where in the city the fair would be built. The board of directors had great difficulty breaking the impasse. One board member traveled to Massachusetts to solicit the help of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City’s Central Park and America’s most famous landscape architect.
It took some convincing before Olmsted agreed to become the fair’s landscape architect. But crucially, the board needed him to pick a site and use his star power to break the logjam. After careful consideration of different locations, he recommended Jackson Park because its setting would allow use of the “spreading blue plain of Lake Michigan as a comely backdrop for [the] fair.” Chicagoans agreed.
A young American civil engineer in Pittsburgh, George Washington Ferris, responded to the clarion call to build a structure more impressive than the Eiffel Tower. His original proposal was described by the fair’s board as a “monstrosity” and unsafe. It was flatly rejected. He pitched his idea a second time and managed to convince the board. The structure he built was a vertically revolving wheel 250 feet in diameter, with thirty-six cars that carried a total of 2,160 people at a time 300 feet into the sky overlooking Jackson Park. It was the world’s first Ferris wheel.
The Ferris Wheel was easily the most popular attraction at the fair, with up to 20,000 people patronizing it each day at one point. Over 1.4 million people in total are said to have taken rides on it during the six-month duration of the fair.
Whether Chicago achieved its goal to out-Eiffel Eiffel or not is open to debate. Despite its success and popularity, Ferris’s wheel was dismantled after the fair. The Eiffel Tower has stood to this day and continues to attract millions of visitors each year. What is indisputable, however, is that the names of both engineers have been etched in world history. Ferris’s invention birthed the Ferris wheels currently in operation around the world.
The Chicago fair brought together some of America’s best architects, engineers, scientists, and businessmen. Their collaborative work yielded invaluable scientific ideas and introduced products that are now part of our everyday lives.
As I was reading Larson’s book, I kept wishing that every major power would always spend its precious time, energy, and resources productively. Instead, what we often find is the most destructive types of competition. Nations spend enormous amounts of resources building progressively deadlier weapons that threaten to wipe humanity off the face of the earth.
The world’s great sports rivalries are similar in nature to major power competitions. To attain the supremacy that individual athletes or teams crave, players train hard to be the very best they can be. They don’t resort to guns to defeat their opponents to win the trophies and bragging rights that come with them. That is something powerful nations should learn from sports. The way America responded to the 1889 fair in France is a good example of how to engage in major power competition.