For 170 years, World Expos have shaped the course of human history, showcasing the possibilities of tomorrow and an opportunity for history-making innovations to be unveiled to the planet.
First opening in London in 1851 and quickly spreading to countries across the globe, Expos – also known as World Fairs - have brought far-flung nations together to explore inventions and ideas.
It has consequently been the birthplace of some of humankind’s greatest inventions, with the computer, television, and even tomato ketchup being among the hundreds of thousands of life-changing creations passed through the hallowed halls of World Expos over the years.
This year the United Arab Emirates will host Expo 2020 Dubai – the first event of its kind in the Middle East.
As the countdown continues, here are the top 10 legacies of World Expos.
France, 1889: The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower, the iconic Parisian monument, was built for the 1889 Expo in France.
The brainchild of entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel and his team of engineers, its construction was opposed by French artists and intellectuals who referred to it as a “stupefying folly.”
However, it drew more than two million people coming to see it during the Expo.
Taking more than two years to build, the landmark was never intended to be a permanent structure. Only meant to exist for 20 years, the role it played as a base for scientific experiments and transmitting radio signals guaranteed its survival.
During World War II, Hitler is said to have ordered for the tower to be destroyed. However, his instructions were ignored.
Since then, the Eiffel Tower has survived a fire and everything the elements have thrown its way. A symbol of France, more than 300 million visitors from around the globe have visited it since 1889.
London, 1851: The fax machine
The first iteration of the fax (short for “facsimile”) machine was unveiled in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London.
Known then as an “image telegraph,” the machine was invented by English physicist Frederick Bakewell, who built on a theoretical concept developed by Alexander Bain, a Scottish mechanic, 10 years earlier.
It used synchronized rotating cylinders with a stylus to transmit images via an electric current.
Live demonstrations at the 1851 Expo wowed the audience, but it was only in 1863 that the first commercial model of a fax machine was produced.
Some 100 years later, the machine would become an office staple.
Philadelphia, US, 1876: The telephone (and tomato ketchup)
Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his contraption at the Expo in the US, after being granted a patent for the technology just a few months before. He had registered his patent just hours before competing inventor Elisha Gray. There followed a bitter legal battle over the invention of the telephone, which Bell subsequently won.
At Expo, Bell showcased his communication system which had two ends: a transmitter and a receiver.
It wowed the audience, with one witness, Brazil’s Emperor Dom Pedro II, reportedly exclaiming: ”My God, it talks,” as he put the receiver to his ear, according to the New York Times.
It subsequently led to the invention of the smartphone which, as of 2021, has approximately 6.4 billion users, a figure that is expected to climb to 7.5 billion by 2026.
The Expo also paved the way for other inventions. Many food creations have tickled tastebuds and debuted at World Expos, in 1896 that included including popcorn and the now-famous Heinz Ketchup.
Paris, France, 1878. The Statue of Liberty
A colossal structure, the Statue of Liberty has stood on Liberty Island in New York Harbor as a universal symbol of freedom since 1886.
However, the copper statue was a gift from the people of France to the people of the US and was designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi who exhibited part of the structure at the 1878 Paris Expo.
Visitors could enter and explore Liberty’s hollow head via interior stairs.
The idea for the symbolic statue came from French historian Édouard de Laboulaye, who wanted to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the USA’s Declaration of Independence and the end of slavery.
The iconic statue, seen as a symbol of welcome to immigrants arriving by sea, took nine years to complete and cost $250,000 (around $6 million today) to make, but in 1885, the completed statue – now 151 feet tall and weighing 225 tons – was shipped to New York City.
Chicago, US, 1893: The Ferris Wheel
A staple of amusement parks worldwide, the Ferris wheel was first unveiled at the Chicago Expo in 1893.
Following the Eiffel Tower’s success, the US set about creating its own unmistakable landmark.
Designed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., the wheel was 264 feet tall -- almost double the height of the world’s first skyscraper.
The wheel rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5-foot axle comprising what was at that time the world’s largest hollow forging, manufactured in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company and weighing 89,320 pounds, together with two 16-foot-diameter (4.9 m) cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds.
The Exposition ended in October 1893, and the wheel closed in April 1894 and was dismantled and stored until the following year. It was then rebuilt on Chicago’s North Side, near Lincoln Park, next to an exclusive neighborhood.
The tradition of Ferris wheels at World Expos has lived on: Japan constructed two in the 1980s, while Dubai has built the Ain Dubai -- nearly triple of the height of the Chicago original, it will be the world’s tallest when it opens in October.
New York, US, 1939: Live television
In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first US president to be broadcast on live TV at the New York World’s Fair.
As he declared the event open, the ceremony was filmed by NBC and transmitted from a mobile van to an aerial atop the Empire State Building.
The at-home audience would have been limited -- there were only a 100 or so television sets in New York City at the time -- but visitors to the fair could also watch Roosevelt’s speech on the televisions scattered across the 1,200-acre site in Queens.
It marked a new era of mass communication.
Seattle, US, 1962: The Space Needle
The iconic observation tower was built in the Seattle Center for the 1962 World’s Fair, which drew over 2.3 million visitors. Nearly 20,000 people a day used its elevators during the event.
The 605-foot tower opened in the year the Soviets launched two spacecraft in two days, the US conducted its first planetary flyby, and the first communications satellite was launched. It began life as a napkin doodle by Expo organizer Edward E. Carlson, with the final design only agreed on a year and a half before the event.
Space was integral into every aspect of the project: Its chief engineer had designed rocket gantries for NASA, the viewing deck was modeled on a flying saucer, and even the colors it was painted in were known as “Astronaut White,” “Orbital Olive” and “Galaxy Gold.
Today it is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world and “one of the most photographed,” according to its website.
Osaka, Japan, 1970: The wireless phone
One of the most used inventions of our time, the star attraction at the Osaka Expo 1970 was a piece of technology that revolutionized society and brought in a new age of communication: the wireless phone.
At the fair, visitors to the Electronic Communications Pavilion could sit in plastic pods and make calls to anywhere in Japan via a large cordless phone.
Today, the number of smartphone users in the world today has exceeded 3.8 billion, which translates to 48.16 percent of the world’s population owning a smartphone. In total, the number of people that own a smart and feature phone is 4.88 billion, making up 61.85 percent of the world’s population.
Hanover, Germany, 2000: Clean energy cars
After interest in World Expos waned in the 1990s, the event returned at the beginning of the millennium in Hanover, Germany.
There, a major milestone was reached in the automobile and clean-tech industry.
It was BMW that first thought to free the industry from the tyranny of oil dependence, with the introduction of the first hydrogen-powered clean-energy car at Hanover’s Expo.
The innovation caused seismic changes in the automobile industry, urging more manufacturers to create their own clean-energy vehicles once they saw the market demand for the alternative. Although it marked the first foray into clean energy cars, it was certainly not the last.
Shanghai, China, 2010: Car pods
General Motors’ EN-V was an all-electric personal vehicle concept designed for the city of 2030.
Unveiled at Expo 2010 Shanghai, this battery-powered, two-person pod could travel 25 miles on a single charge and was loaded with GPS and vehicle-to-vehicle communication to prevent collisions and allow autonomous routing.
After the Expo, work continued developing the concept under the Chevrolet badge. In China, a pilot program of second generation EN-Vs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University logged nearly 35,000 journeys and close to 56,000 miles between 2015 and 2017.
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