IN THE ANNALS OF GOOD TIMING, THE ELECTRICAL Exhibition of 1898 must surely rank near the top of the list. Predictions of war had been brewing even before February of that year, when the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. Then, in late April, Commo. George Dewey steamed into the Philippines and routed the Spanish fleet at Manila for the first victory of the Spanish-American War. This news hit the street on May 2, the very day that the Electrical Exhibition opened at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. It turned out to be an excellent tie-in.
The show the organizers delivered—today all but buried by a century of bigger world’s fairs—mingled politics, technology, and spectacle in startlingly modern ways. Historically speaking, the most important entry came from the United States Electrical Supply Company. This exhibit, which involved ringing a bell from 180 feet away, predated Marconi’s visit to the United States by almost a year, though an exhibit of “Marconi’s wireless telegraphy” could be seen at the fair as well. But visitors were far more intrigued by the sight of a miniature battleship being blown apart in a tank of water by a remote detonator. This ritual was popular enough to run four times a day, even though, as one journalist described it, the ship was blown “into the air, together with a considerable quantity of water, which fell on those who were not quick enough in getting out of the way.” It was so popular, in fact, that a more ambitious plan was broached to explode a vessel five miles away in New Jersey from a transmitter on the exhibition’s roof. What became of that idea is unknown.
The combination of the military and the mechanical was not always so salutary. Plans had called for President William McKinley to activate the fair’s exhibits from the White House, but on opening day the necessary machinery had not arrived, because the nation’s railways had been busy transporting troops instead. Into this vacuum leaped the railroad executive and future senator Chauncey M. Depew. An able patriot, Depew said (as reported in The New York Times ) “that if Spain, which had hardly emerged from the darkness of the Middle Ages, had made the progress in electrical knowledge and the sciences that this country has made there would be no war.” Then he fired a dynamite gun, and a pair of flags flew across the hall and onto the heads of the crowd. As the band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the onlookers, including John D. Rockefeller and John Jacob Astor, sang along.
As the exhibition got under way, the halls filled with things to behold. The New York Telephone Company offered a “theaterphone” through which one could hear plays being performed on remote stages. Thomas Edison gave the public a look at his ingenious but uneconomical ore-separating machinery. Patriotic tunes were recorded on a phonograph and played back while a technician described how the mechanism worked.
Of course, any electrical exhibition worth its name had to supply its share of electrical gadgets, and in this the organizers did not disappoint. There were electric cars, electric boats, electric trams—electric everything, it seemed. For the ladies there were electric housewares and even an electric rocking cradle.
Historians have often seen in the Spanish-American War the first rumblings of American overseas expansionism, as a swelling domestic economy pushed outward. McKinley was thinking along the same lines. The exposition, as he telegraphed in his opening address, was proof that electrical engineering was already “so far advanced in the United States that American electrical goods are welcome the world over.”
By the time the show closed, after five weeks, the warship had met its watery doom upward of 120 times. A few years later the fair’s contents were all but forgotten. What remained was the notion of a large-scale technological spectacle given over to a unified theme—and a certain flair for promotion. How this flair worked its way through the next few decades was prefigured by newspaper ads for the show. “Electricity is working a revolution in peace as well as in war,” read one. “You are electrically entertained, electrically educated,” promised another. And “War things you’ve been reading of for weeks and failed to comprehend—grasped at a glance.”
A century ago, it seems, the art of the bite was already upon us.