Petroski, Henry, ASEE Prism
The year was a remarkable one for engineers, engineering, and engineering education. Eighteen ninety-three saw the World's Columbian Exposition open in Chicago, marking the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landing in the New World. Of course, as we learned as schoolchildren, that discovery happened in 1492, but planning for the Chicago World's Fair ran a bit late.
The scale of the exposition, as imagined by architects Daniel H. Burnham and John W. Root, was grand. They were the designers of the city's 10-story Montauk Building, the world's first structure to be called a skyscraper, and they wanted the fair to be equally distinguished. When Root died suddenly, Burnham was left alone with the responsibility to organize the design and construction of the sprawling complex.
Since the upcoming fair was to occur in the wake of the enormously successful Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, there was a general feeling that Chicago had to top the French fair's soaring symbol. But Burnham did not want just a taller tower than Gustave Eiffel's; he wanted something that showed American engineering to be superior to France's. While Burnham praised architects for their artistry in designing the fair proper, he excoriated engineers for not coming up with something to rival and surpass the Eiffel Tower.
A young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. took up the challenge. He produced plans to put a circular structure similar in scale to the Paris tower on an axle and make it- and the 2,160 riders it could carry- revolve. Initially considered lunacy, the Ferris wheel was a tremendous hit and became a veritable symbol of American engineering prowess and achievement.
In the shadow of the Ferris wheel stretched the White City, as the fairgrounds came to be known. Electric power distribution was still in its infancy, and the use of countless incandescent bulbs to illuminate the fair's 600-plus-acre expanse at night was unprecedented. The exhibition buildings of classical design gleamed in the brightness and declared to the world the ever onward march of engineering generally and electrical engineering in particular. …