Jet packs, Corfam and disposable dishes versus color television, computers and the Mustang. Did prognosticators at the 1964 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows get it right?
The answer is inevitably, yes and no, but based on long-term success, many of the winners introduced at the World’s Fair exceeded expectations and are thriving 50 years later.
Take the Mustang, which was unveiled at the fair at the Ford Pavilion. The car was based on the platform of the Ford Falcon and to keep costs down, many of the parts were taken from the Falcon and Fairlane. The first model sold for $2,368.
The company hoped to sell up to 100,000 cars the first year; that was surpassed in three months, and in its first 18 months, more than 1 million Mustangs rolled off the assembly line.
At the pavilion, fairgoers could ride one along the Magic Skyway, which featured scenes of dinosaurs and depictions of the future.
The Mustang remains popular today, and now starts at around $25,000 with no frills.
Color television was introduced at the RCA Pavilion, where visitors could watch themselves on color monitors and images of lost children could be broadcast in color to 250 sites throughout the fairgrounds.
There was also a color TV studio where live shows were recorded on a regular basis and the glass-enclosed control room was open to public view.
Computers, though not brand-new, were introduced to the general public at the World’s Fair through several pavilion exhibits. The IBM facility featured an egg-shaped theater, and below it visitors could interact with computers to get information about a particular date in history.
The National Cash Register building offered fairgoers a chance to use a computer to get a recipe from the Hilton International Cookbook. It could also provide information on important events on any date and answer 100 scientific questions.
At Parker Pens, computers could match up pen pals across the country based on interests, and at the Clairol Color Carousel, computers could pick the most flattering hair colors for a woman based on an information card she filled out.
Something new in the field of cooking that was used at the fair was the radar range, which used microwaves to cook food. Greyhound cooked some of its food using the modern technology.
Unquestionably, the most popular edible at the fair was the Bel-Gem waffle, first served at the Belgian Pavilion. It proved so successful the first year, stands were added later throughout the fairgrounds.
The extremely light waffles topped with fresh-made whipped cream and strawberries were easy to eat on the run and refreshing in the hot weather. It was brought to the fair by Belgian Maurice Vermersch and his family.
Though the confection was first introduced two years earlier in Seattle, it didn’t take off until its offering at Flushing Meadows and its popularity continues.
“A couple of months ago, my father told me that he loved the Belgian waffles from the 1964 World’s Fair,” said Rob MacKay, director of the Queens Tourism Council. “I didn’t think anything about it, but since then, I have met hundreds and hundreds of people who attended the fair, and they all report that they loved the waffles. It appears that they are people’s fondest memory.”
A mixed success was Bell System’s picturephone introduced at the fair. Visitors were fascinated to be able to see whom they were talking to at booths in the pavilion. But the cost to produce them was high and there was limited interest, so Bell scrapped the idea. However, jump ahead a few decades to Skype and FaceTime and it’s easy to see where their beginnings came from.
Companies at the fair made many predictions and products for the future that have not transpired or failed. Take, for example, DuPont’s Corfam, a synthetic product that was supposed to simulate leather. The problem was it lacked the flexibility and give of leather and was expensive to manufacture. It also was allegedly itchy to wear. The company ditched the product in 1971.
Jet packs were a novelty at the fair with men flying around the grounds. That idea, pardon the pun, never took off and is more likely seen in a James Bond movie than on the streets of a real city.
The General Motors Pavilion with its Futurama theme made several predictions that did not happen: underwater hotels and colonies on the moon and on Antarctica. The three-wheeled car does now exist, though it’s rare, and computer-controlled highways are still on the drawing board.
By today’s standards, GM’s most deliterious display was of a futuristic bulldozer that could clear rain forests and leave a paved road in its wake.
One of the oddest inventions and hardly green by today’s standards was Norge’s Dishmaker at the Festival of Gas pavilion. It looked like a kitchen cupboard and was able to mold plastic dishes by pushing a button.
The product used dirty plastic plates and cups, ground them up and washed the emerging pellets. They were then remolded into new dishware. The idea went nowhere.
The Hall of Education highlighted a school of tomorrow for the year 2000. It featured a soaring, circular edifice with sections leading up to the sky. Plans called for a four-hour school day. If anything, school days are getting longer, not shorter, with the emphasis on preparing for test taking and afterschool tutoring.
With all the pluses and minuses of the fair, perhaps its greatest legacy is the fairgrounds itself. World’s Fair President Robert Moses wanted to reuse the 1939 site so he could finish what he started out to do then — develop Flushing Meadows as a great urban park.
And even though the 1964-65 fair lost money, Moses squirreled away $1.5 million from assets for park improvements instead of using it to repay the debts of the fair.
The legacy lives on.
This is the ninth in a series of stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows.