Tag Archives: 1939 World’s Fair

Unimate and the Rise of the Robots (The First Podcast)

THE FIRST PODCAST This is the history of the future.

Robots conjure up thoughts of distant technological landscapes and even apocalyptic scenarios, but the truth is, robots are a very old creation, tracing back to the ancient world.

We can thank science fiction writers for inventing new serious ideas about robots, automatons previously relegated as mere amusement. But they remained an unimaginable concept — rendered in a corny, campy fashion in the 1940s and 50s — until the development of computing and cybernetics.

In 1961 the first industrial robot named Unimate not only changed the automobile industry, but it opened the door for the vast, realistic possibilities of robotics in our everyday lives.

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A scene from Karel Capek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)

Electro the Robot with his companion Sparko the Dog.

George Devol and Joseph Engelberger, enjoying a cocktail served by their invention.

The Estate of George Duvol


This is Unimate, the robot which changed automation.

Audio from these clips was featured on this week’s show:

And other videos relating to this topic that you might enjoy:

Another promotional video about Unimate:

The introduction of Robbie the Robot, a popular character in the 1950s and 60s:

Another goofy robot from the 1950s

Robots can help you do household chores!

The most famous robots from television are probably the Daleks from Dr. Who.



Digital City: New York and the World of Video Games

PODCAST The history of video games and arcades in New York City.

New York has an interesting, complex and downright weird relationship with the video game, from the digital sewers below Manhattan to the neon-lit arcades of Times Square.  It’s not all nostalgia and nerviness; video games in the Big Apple have helped create communities and  have been exalted as artistry.

First — the relationship between the city and the arcade itself, once filled with shooting galleries and see ball. When pinball machines were introduced in the 1930s, many saw them as a gateway into gambling.  Mayor Fiorello La Guardia personally saw to it that they were taken off the streets.

The era of Space Invaders, Pac Man and Donkey Kong descends in New York during its grittiest period – the late 70s/early 80s – and arrives, like an alien presence, into many neighborhood arcades including one of the most famous in Chinatown – an arcade that is still open and the subject of a new documentary The Lost Arcade.

While the video game industry is not something New York City is particularly associated with, the city does in fact set the stage for this revolution of blips and joysticks at the start of the 20th century and from such unconventional places as the West Village and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

In Queens you’ll find one of America’s great tributes to the video game, in the spectacular arcade collection at the Museum of the Moving Image.

Finally — A look inside the games themselves to explore New York as a digital landscape that continues to be of fascination to game developers and players alike.

So are you ready Player One? Grab your quarters and log in to this New York adventure through the world of video games.

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The trailer for The Lost Arcade. It opens today in San Francisco at the Roxie and Friday, August 12, in New York at the Metrograph. Check out their Facebook page for more information about upcoming events and screenings.

The current exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image — ARCADE CLASSICS: VIDEO GAMES FROM THE COLLECTION — continues until mid-September.

Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image
Courtesy Museum of the Moving Image


Children at a penny arcade in Schenectady, NY, in 1910

Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy US National Archives
Photo by Lewis Hine, courtesy US National Archives


Mayor La Guardia was not a fan of pinball. Here, in a 1942, he rounds up the pinball balls. Read more in Seth Porges’ article for Popular Mechanics:



In a photo taken in 1948 by Stanley Kubrick for LOOK Magazine, prizefighter Walter Cartier plays an arcade game with a young woman.

Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY

And another by Kubrick, from 1946, at Palisades Amusement Park.


A couple images of a penny arcade and shooting gallery in 1950, photo by Robert Offergeld.


Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY
Courtesy MCNY


Playland on 42nd Street, courtesy the film Taxi Driver

Courtesy Scouting NY
Courtesy Scouting NY


The other Playland at Broadway and 47th Street, pictured here in the 1950s. GIANT MALTED 15 CENTS!

Office for Metropolitan History
Office for Metropolitan History

And later from the 1970s….



New York City arcade, 1981.



Courtesy Twin Galaxies
Courtesy Twin Galaxies


The original Chinatown Fair sign, near its closure in 2011. It reopened the following year, perhaps a bit more family friendly than its precursor.

Courtesy Giant Bomb
Courtesy Giant Bomb


Screenshot from Mario Bros. (1983)

Courtesy GamesDBase
Courtesy GamesDBase


Screenshot from Amnesia (1986)

Courtesy Hazlift
Courtesy Hazlift



Images from Manhunter: New York (1988)




Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 12.14.12 PM


Screenshot from Grand Theft Auto‘s Liberty City

From GTA Wikia
From GTA Wikia

The area of Bowling Green, after the Great Fire of 1776, as depicted in Assassin’s Creed III.

Courtesy Assassin's Creed Wikia
Courtesy Assassin’s Creed Wikia

Brooklyn Dodgers vs. Cincinnati Reds at Ebbets Field — in the first Major League baseball game ever broadcast on television

Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, N. Y.

Seventy five years ago today, an extraordinary tradition began — televised Major League baseball!

The location was appropriately Ebbets Field, one of baseball’s legendary ‘field of dreams’. The home team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, was pitted against the Cincinnati Reds in a key National League match-up. Both teams were quite strong that year, although it was Cincinnati at the top of the standings.

Fans who packed the stands at Ebbets that steamy Saturday afternoon noticed some rather unusual contraptions had invaded the field — bulky television cameras.  “One ‘eye’ or camera was placed near the visiting players’ dugout,” reported the New York Times. “The other was in a second-tier box back of the catcher’s box and commanded an extensive view of the field when outfield plays were made.”

The experiment was inspired by the technological marvels at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadows.  In fact, since few people actually owned TVs then, it was in David Sarnoff’s RCA exhibition hall where most people saw the broadcast, courtesy W2XBS (a precursor to WNBC-TV).

Below: A view of one of the cameras broadcasting the game.  Ads for GEM Razor Blades and Calvert Whiskey can be seen across the field. They became the first sponsor of a televised baseball game, although it was purely accidental!

Up until that point, the 400-odd receivers throughout the city — owned mostly by RCA executives and technicians — received broadcasts from a studio in Rockefeller Center. (For more information, check our our New York and the Birth of Television podcast.)

This was not the first baseball game ever broadcast;  a college game between Columbia and Princeton was beamed out to the handful of received that May, near the opening of the World’s Fair.  But it attempting to broadcast a game with broader appeal, like the Dodgers-Reds face off, Sarnoff and his engineers invented a new way of interacting with major sport.

Sports of mass appeal had been heard on the radio for over 15 years by this point. Interestingly, New York teams originally blanched at the idea of radio broadcasts, thinking they would reduce stadium attendance.  Broadcasters were even banned from the field for a few years. [source]

Adding a live visual element was crucial not only in popularizing the game of baseball — uniting fans of a certain team beyond the borders of a stadium or a city — but in popularizing the idea of television itself.  Televised sports, invented here in 1939, had the unique potential of bringing together masses across the globe, as anybody caught up in this year’s World Cup hysteria or last year’s Summer Olympics fandom can attest.**

It’s to the credit of the television engineers that their feat seems not to have disrupted the game.  Coverage in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle neglects to mention the cameras*, and the New York Times mentions it only in a small article.

In the end, the teams split the two-game event — the Reds one the first (5-2), the Dodgers the second (6-1).  The Reds would eventually win the National League pendant and return to the New York for the World Series, facing (and eventually losing quite badly to) the New York Yankees.

*However, RCA ran an advertisement in the Brooklyn paper on August 24, 1939, to drum up a big crowd for their inaugural broadcast:

**As commenter Andrew points out, portions of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin were also broadcast live to several countries.
Top picture of Ebbets Field courtesy Museum of City of New York

The ten greatest fireworks displays in New York City history

Above: One of my favorite pictures of the Williamsburg Bridge, at its opening in 1903
Nothing befits a fireworks display quite like a skyline to frame it, and no city has a skyline quite like New York City.  And so, despite the obvious dangers of setting off thousands of pounds of explosives in a crowded, flammable city, the city has been subject to some of the most beautiful feats of pyrotechnics in American history.
Here are ten of the greatest examples in the city’s history — celebrations not only of holidays, but vivid displays that highlighted the finest landmarks and accomplishments:

A View of the Magnificent and Extraordinary Fire Works Exhibited on the N.Y. City Hall

1. Opening of the Erie Canal — November 4, 1825
“On November 4, 1825, a spectacular extravaganza celebrated the just finished Erie Canal. City Hall, brilliantly illuminated, proudly overlooked a fireworks display in the park. There was good reason to celebrate:  the canal was the match that lit the fuse that detonated the boom of the 1830s” — Mark Caldwell, New York Night
(Illustration by John Francis Eugene Prod’Homme, Image courtesy MCNY)


2. Celebration for the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable — September 1-3, 1858
This called for a variety of elaborate pyrotechnic displays, including one 21-part program, which included “some new principles were attempted for the first time in the pyrotechnic art,” “two light houses connected by a line of rolling waters, on which the ships slowly moved towards their destination” and “all the splendor of the dazzling colors, assisted by all the mechanical contrivances of which the art is capable”. [source]

Incidentally, this fireworks festival caught City Hall on fire, burning down the cupola! (NYPL)


3. American Centennial — July 4, 1876
The all-day centennial celebration culminated in fireworks “representing the Goddess of Liberty sitting on a cloud in the act of greeting,” as well as several street-level “allegoric representations” illuminated in colorful fireworks. [source]


4. Opening of the Brooklyn Bridge — May 24, 1883
“Forty pyrotechnists superintended the display. There were 6,000 four-pound skyrockets, 400 bombshells and 125 fountains of colored lights.  Zinc bombshells of about ten inches in diameter were fired from mortars 500 feet in the air. Each bombshell held 600 stars of various colors.  A newly-invented rocket was displayed.  It held seven parachutes of cloth.  From these hung colored balls of fire.  The rockets burst, leaving the parachutes floating in the air. Five of these rockets were fired at once.  The result was thirty-five balls of colored fire floating in the air…..” [source]


5. Dedication of the Statue of Liberty — October 28, 1886
Well, actually, three days later, on November 1.  A soggy day killed off the fireworks on the day of the statue’s dedication, but were finally launched the following Monday.

“At precisely the hour fixed there came a burst of kaleidoscopic lights from Bedlow’s and Governors Island, and in an instant the air was filled with flying fire balls of every color of the rainbow.”


6. Hero’s Welcome for Admiral George Dewey — September 29, 1899
The arrival of Admiral Dewey, the face of the U.S.’s victory in the Spanish-American War,  inspired an exuberant celebration throughout the city.

“The day of Dewey celebration on the water ended in a roaring, popping, banging blaze of glory last night. Fireworks displays lit up the east side, the west side and all around the town. Not only did great boats loaded down with fireworks sweet down all the water-ways and circle about the lower Bay, but in the parks throughout the middle of the city the sky was painted red, white and blue and all the other shades of color known to the pyrotechnic art. ” [New York Sun]  (Illustration by GW Peters, courtesy NYPL)

7. Opening of the Williamsburg Bridge — December 19, 1903
“Then, without warning, the bridge was suddenly transformed into a sheet of flame.  From tower to tower the flames turned and writhed and flared high in the air, illuminating the waterfront for blocks.  Then came a kaleidoscopic medley of colors, red, green, purple, orange, violet — more colors than French ribbon dealer could enumerate — from huge rockets that sails two hundred feet above the bridge.” [source]

8. New York World’s Fair — July 4, 1939
“Fireworks colored the sky with the red, white and blue of the nation’s colors over the World’s Fair Grounds last night as two spectacular and elaborate displays of fire, water and music were set off, first from the Lagoon of Nations in the exhibit area and a short while later from Fountain Lake in the amusement area.”


9. America’s Bicentennial — July 4, 1976
This event was notable not only for its visibility across the nation — thanks to a television special — but it was the first fireworks display sponsored by Macy’s.   “New York Harbor became more brilliant than Broadway last night as the biggest and most colorful fireworks display in the city’s history exploded for half an hour in celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial.” [NYT]


10. Brooklyn Bridge 100th Birthday — May 24, 1983
“Then the sky simply exploded with fireworks. Red, white and blue shells, golden comets changing to silver, crackling stars in red and green, appeared to fill the entire sky, while hundreds of thousands of people gasped at the sheer dazzle of it all.” [New York Times]
(Bruce Cratsley, courtesy Brooklyn Museum)

George Washington’s inauguration and the 1939 World’s Fair

James Earle Fraser’s colossal Washington statue out in Queens. (NYPL)

Tomorrow (April 30th) is the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, sworn in at Federal Hall as the first President of the United States.  It is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  That was not an accident.

The monumental events of America’s founding would be immortalized by the fair in some rather unusual ways 150 years later.  Both April 30th events were occasions of great patriotic ceremony (and both even slightly kitschy) in their own ways.

April 1789
 It took George seven entire days to get to New York from his home in Mount Vernon, as his procession was met every step of the way with throngs of patriotic crowds and flamboyant celebratory displays.

Washington’s vice president John Adams had already arrived in New York, on April 21st.  The building which greeted him, the former City Hall building on Wall Street, had been the center of city’s government since 1699, when the British used materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall to construct it.

The heavily remodeled building which now stood in its place, later to be called Federal Hall, was designed by successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  According to author David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.” (Sadly, this building was ripped down in 1812; the ‘Federal Hall’ which stands in the same spot today was built as a customs house in 1842.)

L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC out of Maryland swampland.  He would ultimately be fired from that project — by George Washington.

George finally arrived in New York two days after Adams, April 23, via a barge from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was met at the Wall Street pier by the current mayor of New York James Duane and the state’s governor George Clinton.

From there, he was taken to his new home on Cherry Street (long demolished, around near the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage today) and spent the day greeting dozens of well-wishers.  That night, Governor Clinton hosted an elaborate dinner in his honor; the pomp and extravagance by this time were probably getting tiresome to the stately Virginian farmer.

Meanwhile Adams spent the week at Federal Hall in Senate chambers, hashing out such things we take for granted — such as how to even address the new president — until at last they were ready for the ceremony to begin, on April 30.

According to Ron Chernow, “Washington rose early, sprinkled powder in his hair, and prepared for his great day.”  Like some detail from a fairy tale, Washington left his Cherry Street home at noon in a yellow carriage driven by white horses, legions of soldiers marching proudly behind him.

The streets of Manhattan were clogged with people, over ten thousand cramming Broad and Wall streets, as far as the eye could see both ways.  Sitting on the balcony of his own home on Wall Street was Washington’s closest confidante Alexander Hamilton, certainly reveling in the moment.

After greeting the Congress, Adams led Washington to the second floor balcony along with Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York (the highest judicial office in the state), who held out a bible owned by the St. John’s Lodge Freemasons and delivered the oath of office, probably not loud enough for anybody in the street to actually hear.

Washington, even less audibly than Livingston, swore to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  He then possibly threw in a ‘so help me God’ for good measure (although there are many doubts that this occurred).

New Yorkers went crazy then, firing cannons, screaming and waving flags, playing music and dancing in the streets.  After returning inside to address the new Congress — by this time with tears in his eyes — Washington and his entourage went up Broadway to receive on invocation at St. Paul’s Church, the scrappy survivor of the great fire the destroyed much of the city in 1776.  Washington would be a regular here for his entire stay in New York; the pew where he planted himself for two years is still on display there (illustrated above).

Martha Washington would not arrive in town for another month, but that didn’t stop the parties.  The official inauguration ball took place a week later, on May 7th, at the Assembly Rooms at 115 Broadway.

Although a bit stiff and silent, George was still popular with the ladies and danced “two cotillions and a minuet,” often seen with Alexander Hamilton’s young bride Eliza. When Martha arrived on May 17, landing at Peck Slip, she was greeted with similarly grand fanfare, and yet another ball was held in her honor.

April 1939
One hundred and fifty years later, the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the second largest American fair up to that time (only St. Louis’ 1904 event was larger).

This celebration of human advancement — as demonstrated through miles of utopian kitsch and strikingly bizarre architecture — was a reason for Robert Moses to turn the unsightly Corona Ash Dumps into a Queens super-park.  The fair was advertisement as entertainment, with hundreds of modern gadgets displayed as novelties and staples of the future.

But the celebration was planned with the past in mind as well.  It opened on April 30, 1939, coinciding with another great day in New York City history — Washington’s inauguration.  That’s how important the city thought the opening of the fair was.  (Life Magazine was a little more cynical; in 1939, they refer to Washington as “the excuse” for the fair.  The purpose, of course, was profits.)

A 61-foot-tall statue of Washington by James Earle Fraser stood mightily over the fair’s Constitution Mall, peering perhaps quizzically at Paul Manship’s massive sundial sculpture.  A cluster of buildings called the Court of States recalled the Colonial architecture of Washington’s day.  Even Federal Hall was recreated.

Below: The World’s Fair presented a recreation of Washington’s inauguration, except with lots of flag dancing. (NYPL)

A replica of Mount Vernon (sort of) called Washington Hall was the pet project of a New Yorker with presidential ties.

According to the New Yorker, “Mr. Messmore Kendall, is responsible for the Hall.  Mr. Kendall, president of Sons of the American Revolution and owner of the Capitol Theatre, [developed] plans for erecting, entirely at his own expense, a $28,000 building to house a collection of Washington relics. Before the Fair closes, he expects the whole thing will have cost him more than $50,000. He has given more than money to the project; he has given the family cook, so that whenever he wants a home-cooked meal, he has to go all the hell out to Flushing.”

The Hall received a host of reenactors who had made their way up from Mount Vernon in emulation of Washington’s own footsteps.  On May 6th, a child named Robert E, Lee Williamson opened Washington Hall in a grand ceremony, bringing “three consecutive weeks of neo-Federal quaintness to a close.” [source]

The president also sits (sometimes awkwardly) upon a variety of World’s Fair merchandise.  Light shows and fireworks unheard of in Washington’s time were dedicated in his honor throughout the fair.  He even starred in a popular musical pageant at the fair called American Jubilee, with books and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. 

It was another great president who kicked off the fair 75 years ago.  With 200,000 people in attendance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an opening speech extolling the virtues of American ingenuity as he became the first president to be broadcast to television audiences.  Few had televisions in their homes at the time.  But NBC founder David Sarnoff helpfully scattered a few dozen of them throughout the city in a clever publicity stunt.

Roosevelt starts off his speech referencing Washington. “[T]here have been preserved for us many generations later, accounts of his taking of the oath of office on April thirtieth on the balcony of the old Federal Hall. ….. And so we, in New York, have a very personal connection with that thirtieth of April, one hundred and fifty years ago.” [Read the whole speech here.]

Defined by the odd Trylon and Perisphere buildings, the fair seems like something truly dreamlike.  The land where the fair once stood now contains the ruins of a New York’s other World’s Fair, the event from 1964-65.

For this article, I’ve re-purposed a couple pieces of writing I did on these events a few years ago.  The original pieces can be found here and here.