Technological progress and the 1900 Paris World’s Fair

More notes from Chapter 3: Belle Epoque

I couldn’t ignore the backdrop of the Paris World’s Fair in Otlet and La Fontaine’s journey. It provided the ideal venue for them to present their Universal Bibliography.

As Alex Wright documents, this was during a time where the number professional conferences began to grow, both in number and variety:

The closing years of the nineteenth century saw the rapid growth of international associations, as people with similar interests began to connect with each other through the newly globalized postal network. In the early 1870s, there were twenty-five international associations in the world; by the first years of the twentieth century their number had risen to more than 600.

Cataloging the World, Alex Wright. pg 66

For the day, it was the largest conference of its type. 360 acres. 50 million spectators. The conference theme? Technological progress. Consider this remark from French minister of commerce Paul Delombre’s speech:

“The telephone, that sorcerer, brings to our ear the words and even the tone of a friend’s voice, separated from us by hundreds of miles. The intensity and the power of life—of death itself—recoil before the victorious march of the human soul.”

French minister of commerce Paul Delombre. Cataloging the World, Alex Wright. pg 68

It wasn’t only the phone either. The modern technologies that inhabit our daily lives were being introduced to the general public at the Universelle of 1900

The Exposition gave many attendees their first glimpse of such Industrial Age innovations as escalators, diesel engines, magnetic audio recorders, and Campbell’s soup cans. Some visitors took in the attractions by riding a two-mile-long moving sidewalk that circled the fairgrounds, on which a few of them might have spotted a solitary figure sitting behind a large wooden camera, turning a metal crank: Thomas Edison.

Cataloging the World, Alex Wright. pg 62

The 1900 Paris World’s fair didn’t only speak the rhetoric, they backed their rhetoric with technology. The show was powered by the Palace of Electricity (love that name):

The motion-picture projectors, moving sidewalks, and ubiquitous electric lamps all drew their power from the Palace of Electricity, a massive pavilion that did double duty as both a public exhibit hall and the Expo’s central power plant. The exterior of the building shimmered with millions of bulbs that were switched on at night, bathing the surrounding area in, as one guidebook put it, “a flood of fairy light.”

Cataloging the World, Alex Wright. pg 63

Might we have a modern Palace of Electricity at a new world’s fair? One powered by solar panels, wind turbines, and nuclear microreactors?

It is easily forgotten that Paris was once a world leader in encouraging technological progress.


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