The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, or St. Louis World’s Fair, was an international event held in St. Louis in 1904. We know many Members of IMechE were planning on attending because James Rowan wrote to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Secretary to suggest that their attendance would be a good opportunity for the two Institutions to hold a joint summer meeting in Chicago. A smaller delegation of Members would also visit other places, including St. Louis, New York, Boston, Montreal, Washington and Niagara. The really remarkable thing is that in our Archive are a set of glass plate photographs which document their journey across the sea and around America and Canada, and to the World’s Fair in particular. All are available online.
All but one of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition’s grand, neo-Classical exhibition palaces were temporary structures, designed to last only the length of the fair. They were built with a mixture of plaster of Paris and hemp fibres, on a wood frame and had to be patched as they deteriorated. By the time the Fair closed on 1 Dec 1904 an estimated 20 million people had visited. What greeted them were halls of art, culture, food, engineering, science and natural history from 62 exhibiting countries and 43 of the 45 American states. As well as the engineering on displays in the exhibition halls, technological advances were also apparent in the landscaping, architecture and entertainments (which included the world’s largest organ).
The Palace of Mines and Metallurgy was one of the most interesting of the great exhibit palaces; its unique architecture sought to unify Egyptian, Greek and Assyrian elements. Decorated obelisks flank the monumental entrances, within were nine acres of space showing mineral resources from around the world and the mechanical devices for making them available. The Palace of Machinery featured two central towers on the north side, each was two hundred and sixty-five feet high. The building was one thousand feet long and covered ten acres and was near the Palaces of Electricity and of Transportation, from its western end the power plant for the Exposition stood; it had an aggregate energy of forty-five thousand rated horse-power. There was also a fourteen acre Palace of Manufactures with worldwide exhibitions including from Japan and France. Displays featured textiles, glass and crystal, modern plumbing equipment, apparatus for heating and ventilation and lighting. Processes were also on display, such as the manufacture of steel pens, paper boxes, shoes and hats. Similar in size was the Palace of Varied Industries, it show-cased materials and decorative items. Finally, the Palace of Electricity featured the most up-to-date discoveries were shown in operation including, dynamos, motors and new electrical machinery for multiple uses. How electricity was being used medically was given centre stage, with exhibits showing x-rays and light therapy. Many other Palaces were also built.
IMechE had long held summer meetings, the first being in 1856. They were a chance to meet more informally, Members delivered papers, visited engineering sites and held meals together; their wives also followed a programme of alternate visits and events. Although held in Europe before, this was the first time a cross-Atlantic trip was planned. In the days click of a button inter-connectivity the scale and timeliness of the organisation is awe-inspiring. It was arranged that IMechE members could visit 191 American works in the months of May and June.
Members and their companions travelled by ship to New York, a journey by the sea took over 5 days. From New York they went onwards by rail for between 24-32 hours to reach Chicago. The meeting ran from the 31 May to 3 June. The next four days saw members of both Institutions meeting to read and discuss technical papers. Some of the topics discussed were: the burning of refuse and the use of the heat that this generates; theoretical and practical applications of steam turbines; how to power tall office buildings; and locomotive testing. Each member was given a badge with his name and number, accompanying wives and daughters had badges with a number. A list of names arranged in numerical order was published every two or three hours to aid socialising. At the closing Presidential event were 80 Members of IMechE and 15 of their accompanying ladies, with about 350 ASME Members and over 450 guests.
Throughout the days, there were several visits and excursions organised. Members visited the Illinois Steel Company, the Illinois Central Railway, the Stock Yards and Packing House of Swift and Company, and the Illinois Tunnel Company’s works, from the thanks to this company reading:
“The Mechanical Engineer is entirely wonted to the experience that some of his most successful achievements are where the eye of the superficial observer knows nothing of their real excellence.”