A Brief History of World Expo

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Chapter 1
A Brief History of World Expo

1. Late and Middle 19th Century: Showcasing the Achievements of the Industrial Revolution

2. Early 20th Century: Scientific and Technological Advancements and Appeals for Peace

3. Late 20th Century: Diversity of Themes

4. The 21st Century: The New Road of Progress

5. World Expo and Globalization

Each world expo is a treasure for some people. On May 1, 1851, when the first World Exposition was inaugurated in London's Crystal Palace, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary:

Through the iron door came into view the steeple of the church, countless waving hands, flowers, statues, and crowded corridors. And trumpets blared inside the hall. It was so unforgettable. I felt so excited … The beautiful crystal fountain … so magical—how magnificent, grand and astonishing! It was just as I said later. I was full of piety that day—few other rituals could impress me so much.

The World Expo is a gathering of nations from all over the world to showcase their products and craftsmanship, to share with pride information about their hometowns and motherlands. It is an epitome of the great achievements of human civilization, possessing unparalleled appeal. This kind of assembly can be traced back to ancient times. Persia held the first exhibition as early as the 15th century, the function of which exceeded that of a mere bazaar. By the end of the 18th century, people began to come up with the idea of organizing an exhibition, similar to a bazaar, but in which products were only displayed and not sold. The World Expo in its modern sense originated during the budding period of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century. The World Expo, held numerous times since 1851, has evolved through four major stages.

1. Late and Middle 19th Century: Showcasing the Achievements of the Industrial Revolution

By the mid-19th century, the British Industrial Revolution had achieved world-shaking accomplishments after 100 years of development. In 1851, as part of its effort to exhibit its prowess, Britain decided to hold The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. In the name of her country and through diplomatic means, Queen Victoria invited over ten European and American nations to take part in the exhibition, which lasted for 140 days. Interesting activities were conducted during the exhibition, such as the appraisal of exhibits, arts and crafts works, and so on, but no trading activities took place. This became the framework of subsequent World Expos organized by various countries. That particular World Expo—The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations—was held in Hyde Park, located in downtown London. The exhibition hall was made of cast-iron frame components and glass, earning itself the name of the Crystal Palace.

The World Expo displayed the achievements of the British Industrial Revolution, as well as the advanced industrial exhibits of the various participating nations. They included items such as a 630-ton high-power steam engine, a locomotive, a high-speed steamship, a steam pressure engine, a crane, advanced steel-making techniques, as well as large tunnel and bridge models. During the 140-day exhibition, over 6.3 million people visited the expo.

The London World Expo represented a significant transition from simple commodity exchange to the exchange of new production technologies and new life concepts, and therefore it is regarded as the first World Expo in the modern sense. From then on, Western countries began to show great interest in the World Expo for its significant role in displaying industrial advances and promoting the exchange of technology, trade, and culture.

In 1853, the second World Expo was held in New York, U.S.A., during which the young United States of America exhibited its achievements to the world for the first time. At the 1855 Paris World Expo, concrete, aluminum, and rubber products were exhibited for the first time. At the 1862 London World Expo, new industrial products, including textile machines, printing presses, and trains, were showcased. And during the 1862 Vienna World Expo, the new power unit—the electric motor—was presented to the world for the first time.

The World Expos held during the 19th century were manifestations of an extraordinary “age of invention,” extensively presenting the latest achievements of industrial civilization during that period.

2. Early 20th Century: Scientific and Technological Advancements and Appeals for Peace

Generally, the World Expos held in the first half of the 20th century were a continuation of the basic concept of “technocentrism” of the 19th century; however, there were distinct transformations. The World Expo, born from a technical world, attempted to look further into the vast horizon ahead, look beyond technology and begin to pay more attention to human and cultural conditions. That was the main reason why the World Expo has continued to remain relevant and well received, even after going through many difficult periods.

Regarded as the “overview of a century,” the 1900 Paris Universal Expo exhibited the technical achievements of the West in the 19th century, such as the moving sidewalk. With the Industrial Revolution as the driving force during the 19th century, this expo reached the peak of all World Expos. The number of guests was 48.1 million, far exceeding the visitorship of previous expos. However, this also marked the turning point from which the World Expo began to see a gradual decline. In fact, in the first half of the 20th century, there was never again a World Expo of such grandeur and splendor.

The 1915 World Expo held in San Francisco, U.S.A., was a successful event. As many as 31 countries participated in the expo, with visitorship reaching 19 million. It was a significant and momentous event for China, as many of its high-quality and exotic exhibits gained the favorable attention of overseas visitors. These exhibits were displayed in nine halls according to the themes of agriculture, industry, education, literature, arts, transportation, minerals, food, and horticulture. In appreciation of China's participation, and to show that China was a highly esteemed participant, the expo organizers specially designated September 23 as China Day. At this World Expo, the exhibits from China were granted a total of 1,211 awards, of which 57 were medallions, 74 honor awards, 258 gold medals, 337 silver medals, 258 bronze awards, and 227 encouragement awards. China was ranked first amongst the 31 participating countries. This was the highest achievement China has ever attained throughout its participation in various World Expos.

The Great Depression and the two World Wars that occurred in succession during the first half of the 20th century had a significant impact on the World Expo. However, it continued to develop amidst these adverse circumstances.

In the 1926 Philadelphia World Expo, China and its neighbor, Japan, were the two most important participating countries besides the host country, the United States. China's raw silk, handmade embroidery, emeralds, silks and satins from Jiangsu and Zhejiang, porcelain from Jiangxi, and lacquer from Fuzhou were exhibited at this Expo. In addition, China also showcased its printing technologies, cosmetics, leather products, electrical appliances, steel, and copper products, in the process achieving remarkable results in the various categories of awards.

In 1933, the United States held the Chicago World Expo to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city. The expo took place at a time when the American economy was just beginning to recover from the Great Depression of the 1930s. A total of 47 countries participated in the expo and there were 38.3 million visitors. Two new phenomena that appeared during this expo became part of the tradition for subsequent expos. Firstly, this was the first time that the expo was given the theme of A Century of Progress. Henceforth, each expo had a theme. Secondly, some large companies, such as General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, were allowed to set up special halls. This was greatly welcomed by entrepreneurs and visitors, and marked the beginning of these special halls in the history of the World Expo.

The theme of the 1935 Brussels Expo was Strive for Peace Through Competition. At the same time that new technologies were displayed, this was an expression of the hope for peace by all participating nations. The 1939 San Francisco World Expo was the last expo held before World War II and had an optimistic and positive theme: The New World of Tomorrow. The exhibits showcased during that expo included new products such as nylon, audio recorders, plastic, and television sets.

3. Late 20th Century: Diversity of Themes

The 1958 Brussels Expo was the first expo held after World War II. Amidst the rubble of the war, not only did people have to rebuild their homelands, they also had to rebuild their trust in progress. The logo of this expo was a giant model of the atomic structure, symbolizing safe and peaceful use of atomic energy. The theme of this Expo was Scientific Civilization and Humanism. In subsequent expos, there was great variety and diversification, as well as new developments.

Japan was defeated during World War II. After the war, it was committed to economic development and national revival. In 1964, Japan hosted the Tokyo Olympic Games, a great boost and encouragement to its people. In July 1964, the Japanese government decided to bid for the 1970 Osaka Expo, and in September 1965, it was announced that it had been successful in its bid. The Osaka Expo attracted the participation of 76 countries and four international organizations, with visitorship exceeding 64 million, the largest ever in the history of the World Expo. This expo dramatically promoted the building effort put into transportation facilities, high-grade housing, commercial and tourist infrastructure, as well as places for cultural exchange in Osaka. It also stimulated the formation of city agglomerates in the Kansei area, which has Osaka as its center. This was of great significance to Japan's economic development and overall layout.

In order to raise public and governmental awareness of the threat that human activities pose to the earth's ecological system, the United Nations held an international conference in Stockholm in 1972, which for the first time included environmental issues on its agenda. Two years later, an International Environment Expo was held in Spokane, U.S.A. This was the first World Expo in history to focus on environmental issues.

In the expos of the 1980s and 1990s, the word that most frequently appeared in the themes was “horticulture.” The catchwords were “energy” and “water resources.” The expo with the most creative theme was the International Exposition on Leisure, held in Brisbane, Australia in 1998. The 1999 Kunming World Horticulture Expo held by the Chinese government took the expo to another level. During the latter half of the 20th century, as people were rebuilding their homelands, restoring development, and facing new problems, the expos all reflected upon the word “nature,” albeit from different perspectives.

The 1992 Seville Expo retraced the Age of Great Navigation 500 years ago in commemoration of Columbus's discovery of the New Continent of America. The 25th Olympic Games were held in Barcelona at the same time that the Expo was held. As these two grand events were being held simultaneously in Spain, it became the focus of world attention. The expo attracted the participation of 108 countries and 23 international organizations. The exhibition space of the China hall was 2,800 square meters, with the theme of Chinese Civilization. During the 176-day exhibition period, the China Hall received an audience of 5.5 million, making it one of the halls with the highest visitorship. It was also granted the honor of a Five-Star Exhibition Hall.

The United Nations endorsed 1988 as the International Year of the Ocean. In the same year, the Lisbon World Expo was held in Portugal, with the theme Oceans—A Heritage for the Future. The event lasted 132 days and attracted ten million visitors. Occupying 1,620 square meters and having the Silk Road on the sea as its main theme, the China Hall presented the spectacular achievements of Admiral Zheng He, one of the greatest navigators in Chinese history, best known for his seven voyages to various parts of the world.

4. The 21st Century: The New Road of Progress

During the early days, the various World Expos highlighted economic progress. However, in recent years the concept of solely pursuing economic and technological progress has gradually given way to “sustainable development” and other similar concepts. The 2000 Hanover World Expo has often been compared with the 1900 Paris World Expo. This expo offered the best way to sum up the achievements of humankind in the 20th century, and usher in a new century and a new millennium. After serious and meticulous consideration, the expo organizers decided to include “necessity for resource protection” as one of its topics. This was indeed in line with contemporary trends. The 2005 Aichi World Expo held in Japan chose Nature's Wisdom as its theme, placing emphasis on “Reconnecting mankind with nature, mankind and nature to go hand in hand, and boundless dreams for the future.” By means of the many and varied exhibits, the organizers retraced how mankind has restored its gradually estranged ties with nature with wisdom and through technology.

Five years after the Aichi World Expo will come the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, with the theme of Better City, Better Life. It will continue to add to the history of the World Expo. In the days to come, the great World Expo will demonstrate that the way of humanity has new possibilities, that life is beautiful, and that it can become even better.

5. World Expo and Globalization

In 1851, the first World Expo in its truest sense was held in London. The British government, through diplomatic means, invited various countries to participate. More than ten countries accepted the invitation to participate in the event. Over 18,000 merchants exhibited about 100,000 products, including machinery, new materials, and so on. Civil and military products were also showcased. In other words, the advanced technological achievements of the participating nations were extensively exhibited at the expo as industrial products. (In a certain sense, it was one way of showing off.)

The 1851 expo was of epoch-making significance. Firstly, it clearly showed that the World Expo in the modern sense had now been born; and it created an unprecedented forum for global exchange. Secondly, it opened the way for showcasing leading industrial and technological achievements from all over the world (of course subsequent expos included excellent art and literary achievements as well).

The great charm of the World Expo transformed it into a global stage on which countries from all over the world scrambled to display their latest technological achievements. This was the reason why inventions like trains, aircrafts, air conditioners, television, nylon, the gramophone, and the elevator were first exhibited and presented to the world at the World Expo. It is not an exaggeration to say that the World Expo is the incubator and inspiration of global invention.

It was exactly because of this unparalleled appeal and influence the World Expos possessed that various countries and international organizations flocked from near and far to participate in them. Just over ten nations participated in the first expo. The second expo was attended by 23 nations, and the Philadelphia Expo in 1876 attracted 37 countries. More than 180 countries and international organizations showed up by the time the Hanover Expo was held in 2000. True to its name, the World Expo has indeed become a global gathering of nations, as well as a terrific, non-political global forum. It has stimulated technical innovation and promoted cultural, economic, and technological exchanges amongst various countries.

Countries all over the world were passionate about holding the World Expo due to its huge appeal. In 1928, in an effort to standardize and regulate the bidding for the World Expo, as well as the exhibition procedures, France initiated the formation of the Bureau of International Exhibitions (BIE) in accordance with a diplomatic treaty. On November 22 of the same year, representatives from 31 countries took part in a meeting convened by the BIE, and formulated the Convention on International Exhibitions. The convention conveyed a clear message: the World Expo had become an international gathering in its truest sense, whose status was now legally recognized.

Currently the BIE has 98 member countries from various continents. In fact, the BIE itself is a product of globalization. Its founding was not only a necessary outcome of the globalization of the exhibition economy, but also a centralized manifestation of the exhibition industry when global economic development reached a certain level.

The World Expo played a role in promoting globalization of the exhibition economy as well as cultural globalization. For example, during the 1855 Paris World Expo, a special Arts Hall was set up for the first time, exhibiting about 5,000 paintings and sculptures, providing a wonderful venue for artists from all over the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. This was indeed a rare opportunity. During the 1876 Philadelphia World Expo, a special hall was set up for women to display their creations, inventions, arts, and craftworks. The handicrafts of Queen Victoria were also exhibited. In the early days, this became the symbol of gender equality and women's liberation. The fight for equality between men and women probably began with this initiative. During the 1893 Chicago World Expo, the First World Conference on Women was held and attended by a total of 3,000 women. This heralded all subsequent women-related campaigns. As a show of respect for women, a hall for women was specially set up at the expo. It was during this World Expo that March 8 of each year was designated International Women's Day.

Events like this are numerous. At the 1889 Paris World Expo, a resolution was passed that May 1 would be designated as International Labor Day, thus laying the foundation for the internationalization of festivals.

What is of great interest is that the Olympic Games had been a part of the World Expo. For instance, the second Olympic Games were held during the 1900 Paris World Expo (May 20–October 28). During that time, because people were more interested in the World Expo than in the Olympics, the games were only athletic performances to attract visitors to the Expo. The early Olympic Games relied to a large extent on local governments and the World Expo for financial support. Hence, the World Expo played a significant function in propelling the modern Olympic Games in the early days.

From 1912 onwards (the fifth World Expo), however, the Olympic Games broke away from the expo. With its great appeal, it showed vitality and good prospects for success. Today, countries all over the world compete to hold the Olympic Games, just as they compete to host the World Expo. If the Olympic Games are a competition arena for international athletes, the World Expo can then be compared to an amphitheatre for the global exhibition industry.

The World Expo is more than a major exhibition event. It is also a global salon where countries from all over the world (including international organizations) come together to discuss world issues and future developmental trends. All expo activities are international in nature from the very beginning.

In short, the World Expo has played an indisputably crucial role in globalizing culture, sports, and especially the exhibition industry.

Table 1.1 Global events
Prior to the 18th CenturyEconomy, Society, and PoliticsPrior to the 18th CenturyScience and Technology
14–16th CenturiesThe Renaissance1543Copernicus, a Pole, published On the Movement of Celestial Bodies
14–17th CenturiesEuropean Commercial Revolution16th CenturyItaly became the Global Science Center
1492Discovery of the American continent16–17th CenturiesRise of Galileo, an Italian, and modern science
1601Britain's Poor Relief Act16–17th CenturiesRevolution of Modern Science
1640–1689English Revolution and Cromwell  
1694The Bank of England Established1660–1662Formation of the British Royal Society
16th CenturyColonization and Foreign Trade17th CenturyUnited Kingdom became the global science center
16th CenturyRise of Capitalism  
17–18th CenturiesMercantilism in Europe  
18th CenturyEconomy, Society, and Politics18th CenturyScience and Technology
1700–1790The Enlightenment Movement1763Watt, a Scot, began to make improvements in the steam engine
1710–1810Enclosure Movement in U.K.18th CenturyFrance became the global science center
1760sThe First Industrial Revolution (U.K.) and mechanization  
19th CenturyEconomy, Society, and Politics19th CenturyScience and Technology
1808–1826Campaigns for Independence amongst the Latin-American Countries1785–1807Fitch Fulton, an American, built the steamship
1815–1870Rise of Liberalism1802–1825Stephenson, an Englishman, built steam locomotives
1825The first railway laid in U.K.1851–1900Germany became the global science center
1869Digging of the Suez Canal1876Invention of the telephone
1870–1913Germany became a powerful industrial nation in Europe  
1870–1914Second Industrial Revolution, electrification  
1871Unification of Germany  
1900U.S. became the No.1 industrial nation  
20thCentury Economy, Society, and Politics20th CenturyScience and Technology
1908“Production line” of Ford, an American car manufacturer  
1914–1918World War I1903The Wright brothers built the first aircraft
1929Great Depression  
1939–1945World War II  
1945Third Industrial Revolution, automation1945U.S. made the first atomic bomb
1945The United Nations (UN) established1945U.S. made the first electronic computer
1945International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) founded1954U.S.S.R. completed the first Atomic Energy Power Plant
1945International Monetary Fund (IMF) founded1957U.S.S.R. launched the first man-made satellite
1947General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) signed  
1949North Atlantic Treaty (NATO)  
1955The Bandung Conference and the Third World  
1957European Economic Community (EEC) formed  
1960s–70sNew Industrial Economies emerged in East Asia1961Yuri Gagarin, an astronaut of the former Soviet Union, flew into space on “Vostok I”
1961Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) formed1969Successful landing on the moon by the U.S. Apollo Program
1966United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) founded20th CenturyU.S. became the global science center
Since 1970Economy, Society, and PoliticsSince 1970Science and Technology
1970s–80sWorldwide inflation and unemployment  
1970sFirst Information Revolution, popularization of microcomputers1970The computer network was born in the U.S.
1971EEC implemented a system of preferential treatment for developing countries1971Intel, an American company launched microprocessor
1972Declaration of the UN Conference on the Human Environment1975Apple Computer Inc., an American company, invented microcomputer
1974Action Plan for World Population by the UN1982–1989Internet and World Wide Web emerged
1993Second Information Revolution, popularization of Internet  
1994–2002Financial Crisis in South America and Asia  
2001World Trade Organization (WTO) membership reached 144  
2002Euro officially adopted as a currency  

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