History Stories

1. Ford assembly line

For three hours each day inside the Palace of Transportation, the Ford Motor Company operated an assembly line that produced a new automobile every 10 minutes. Fairgoers watched as workers added axles, wheels, engines and interiors to the vehicles, which were driven away from the fairgrounds to be sold at a local Ford distributor.

2. Airplanes

Pilot Art Smith gives a demo at the Fair

Pilot Art Smith gives a demo at the Fair

Little more than a decade after the Wright Brothers first took flight, many Americans still had not seen an airplane in person until coming to the fair. Brothers Allan and Malcolm Loughead, who later changed their surnames and aviation company moniker to the more phonetic Lockheed, earned thousands of dollars by taking adventurous fairgoers on 10-minute hydroplane flights over San Francisco Bay. Lorraine Collett, the original “Sun-Maid Girl,” rode in a plane in her signature white blouse and red sunbonnet each day and showered crowds with raisins. Stunt “aeronaut” Lincoln Beachey dazzled crowds performing loops and death spirals in his biplane until his experimental monoplane fatally crashed into San Francisco Bay in front of horrified spectators on March 14, 1915. Pilot Art Smith, hired to replace Beachey, continued the stunt shows and even performed nighttime flights with phosphorous flares attached to his plane’s wings that left luminous trails in the darkness.

3. Transcontinental telephone calls

A giant model of a telephone on display (Credit: Cardinell-Vincent/FPG/Hulton Archives/Getty Images)

A giant model of a telephone on display (Credit: Cardinell-Vincent/FPG/Hulton Archives/Getty Images)

Nearly 39 years after Alexander Graham Bell made his inaugural telephone call to Thomas Watson, the inventor made another historic call to his assistant—this time separated, not by a wall, but by more than 3,000 miles. Bell’s transmission from his New York City office to Watson in San Francisco on January 25, 1915, was the first transcontinental phone call, and fairgoers at the AT&T exhibit in the Liberal Arts Palace could raise receivers attached to their seats, listen to the recording of the historic phone call and then eavesdrop in real time as a boy in New York City read newspaper headlines, described the weather and played phonograph records—unwittingly presaging modern-day on-hold music.

4. Panama Canal model

To commemorate the fair’s inspiration, organizers constructed an engineering marvel of their own. A 5-acre working model of the Panama Canal Zone, which took two years and cost $500,000 to construct, featured miniature trains, lighthouses and ships passing through locks. Nearly 150 cars, capable of holding 1,200 fairgoers, circled the model from an elevated track as passengers on the 23-minute ride placed receivers to their ears and listened to commentary delivered by a phonograph and telephone system designed by Thomas Edison. Visitors exited through a souvenir shop selling Panama Canal photographs and rocks from the Culebra Cut with letters of authenticity from the project’s chief engineer.

5. Tower of Jewels

1915 worlds souvenir

Souvenir card

The 43-story stepped tower near the fair’s entrance was the architectural centerpiece of the exposition and the tallest structure in San Francisco at the time. More than 100,000 pieces of polished crystal and colored glass affixed to hooks on the tower shimmered in Pacific breezes and glittered like diamonds, emeralds and rubies. The iridescent tower sparkled with a rainbow of colors when struck by the sun or electric lights and led to the fairgrounds being called “The Jewel City.”

6. Dayton Flood

A strange draw in a city recently destroyed by a natural disaster itself, the exhibit featured a re-creation of the historic deluge that had struck Dayton, Ohio, in March 1913 when the Great Miami River overflowed its banks. Fairgoers entered the attraction underneath a marquee featuring a colossal giant struggling to hold back waters surging behind massive floodgates. As visitors listened to a narration about the flood, water raced out of a hole and inundated a scale model of the Ohio city before miniature buildings burst into flames.

7. Aeroscope

The Aeroscope

The Aeroscope

Just as the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris had the Eiffel Tower and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had the Ferris Wheel, the 1915 World’s Fair had its own steel-engineered marvel—the Aeroscope. For 25 cents, fairgoers entered a two-level, 120-person passenger car attached to the end of an enormous steel arm that was slowly raised by an enormous counterweight to a height of 235 feet. For 10 minutes, visitors had spectacular views of the fairgrounds and city. The ride’s designer, Joseph Strauss, would gain lasting fame two decades later as chief engineer for another San Francisco construction project—the Golden Gate Bridge.

8. A 14-ton typewriter

The Underwood Typewriter Company’s 15-foot-high machine on display inside the Palace of Liberal Arts was 1,727 times larger than its standard model. So big that a person could sit on one of its keys, the mammoth contraption typed newspaper headlines on a nine-by-twelve-foot piece of paper using a 100-foot-long ribbon.

9. Palace of Fine Arts

The rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Fronting a placid lagoon, the Palace of Fine Arts displayed more than 11,000 works of art including paintings, tapestries and fabrics. A circular colonnade and a 162-foot-high central rotunda housed sculptures and murals. While the rest of the exposition’s temporary buildings were torn down at the fair’s conclusion as planned, the mother of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst led efforts to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts. Rebuilt in the 1960s, the landmark is the only building from the 1915 World’s Fair that remains in its original location.

10. Stella

Even a century ago, sex sold. For a dime, visitors could spend two minutes gazing at a painting of a nude woman that, thanks to a lighting trick, appeared to breathe. Even though female nudes were on display in the Palace of Fine Arts for free, Stella proved one of the fair’s top attractions and raked in $75,000.

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