Expo 2020 Dubai: 18 life-changing inventions unveiled at world fairs

Visions of the future from expos and world fairs past

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Visitors to Dubai Expo this October could not fail to notice the huge Ain Dubai looming over the city’s skyline.

At 250 metres, the world’s tallest observation wheel is a potent symbol of Dubai’s determination to build the biggest and the best.

What they might not realise is that Ain Dubai, or Dubai Eye, has a history that goes back nearly 130 years, to one of the first World Fairs, as Expos were formerly called.

It was in 1893 that the Ferris wheel first delighted visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, and the idea caught on rapidly elsewhere.

Ain Dubai is also a reminder that Expos and World Fairs have long been a window to the future, showcasing innovations and inventions that at the time seemed almost miraculous but are now part of everyday life.

With the countdown to Dubai Expo 2020 now entering the final stage, here are some of the greatest hits from the past, leaving us wondering what new marvels will soon come our way.


Alexander Graham Bell had been granted a patent for his telephone only months before the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

It was the sensation of the 1876 International Exhibition of Arts, Manufacturers and Products of Soil and Mine, to use its official name.

Among the astonished visitors was Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, who exclaimed after a demonstration, “My God, it talks!”

Heinz tomato ketchup

It was also in Philadelphia in 1876 that the world had its first taste of Heinz tomato ketchup. It was first called “Catsup”; the word “tomato” was included to differentiate it from other table sauces. HJ Heinz chose a clear glass bottle to highlight its quality.

The words “ketchup” and “catsup” are possibly derived from the Chinese “ke-tsiap,” a pickled fish sauce, or the Arabic “kabees”, for pickling in vinegar.


The idea that there was a better way to cut grass than a scythe and a pair of clippers first arose in England in 1830, but it was at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 that the world was introduced to the first lightweight practical model – just in time for lawn tennis to really take off.

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’

The 1937 International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, held in Paris, took place under the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and the rise of European fascism.

It was here that the world first saw Guernica, Picasso’s giant canvas depicting the horrors of war on the Basque town of the same name, which was bombed by the Nazis.

Picasso was living in exile at the time, and the painting later toured the world before finding a home today at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid.

Coffee percolator

The French love their coffee, but even the most devoted Parisian caffeine addict could not keep pace with Eduard Loysel de Santais’s Patent Hydrostatic Percolator.

Also demonstrated at Paris in 1855, the machine was reported to have produced 2,000 cups of espresso every hour.

Ferris wheel

Unveiled at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago 1893, it was created by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, a structural engineer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working with the fair’s architects who had asked for an iconic structure to rival the Eiffel Tower from the 1889 Paris World’s Fair.

The Ferris wheel was an immediate hit, attracting nearly 1.5 million visitors, each paying 50 US cents for the 20-minute ride.

It was dismantled after the expo but was later revived for the 1904 Fair in St Louis.


Less dramatic than a Ferris wheel, no doubt, the zip has nevertheless changed everyone’s lives. It was at Chicago 1893 that Whitcomb L Judson unveiled his patented “clasp locker” clothes fastening.

It would spell the end for fumbling with buttons or hooks and eyes. Although the design took some time to perfect, it eventually took off in 1918 and was used on everything from gloves to tobacco pouches. The name “zipper” was not coined until 1926.

X-ray machine

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition, in Buffalo, New York, saw the inventor Thomas Edison demonstrate his X-ray machine.

On September 6, president William McKinley was visiting the fair, only to be shot by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, at the Temple of Music.

Doctors refused to use the new X-ray machine to locate the bullet on the grounds it might be unsafe.

President McKinley’s wound soon became infected and he died two weeks later from gangrene.

Ice cream cones

One of the tasty treats at the 1904 St Louis World Fair was waffles from a Syrian baker, Ernest Hamwi, whose stall was next to an ice-cream vendor, Arnold Fornachou, from Lebanon.

When Fornachou ran out of dishes, Hamwi came up with the idea of folding his waffles while they were still warm and placing the ice cream on top.

And so the ice-cream cone was born. It was established as the official state dessert of Missouri in 2008.

Hot dogs

As well as ice-cream cones, visitors to the St Louis fair were introduced to the hot dog. Antoine Feuchtwanger, a German migrant to the Midwest, is said to have come up with the idea of serving his hot sausages in a bun to avoid burning customers’ hands. He had previously given them gloves, but they kept walking off with them.

It must be said there are other versions of the birth of the hot dog, but this is the most widely accepted.

Theme parks

One of the highlights of the 1933 Chicago World Fair was the Belgium Village, a replica of 30 olde worlde buildings and streets that gave visitors a taste of life in a place they might otherwise never visit.

Among the visitors was one Walt Disney, who saw in the set-up the potential for something bigger and better. Disneyland opened in 1955, complete with a fairytale castle.

Colt revolver

Like it or not, there is no doubt of the impact of the revolver, not only in the American west, but on warfare in general.

First shown at Paris in 1855, Samuel Colt’s six-shooter was, as the name suggests, capable of firing six bullets without reloading.

Good news for the arms industry, less so for the Native American tribes of the USA.

TV broadcasting

Grainy and in black and white, it was at the 1939 World Fair in New York that Americans had their first taste of broadcast television on sets produced by the RCA company, which had a stand at the fair.

Both the opening and closing ceremonies were broadcast by RCA, the former featuring Franklin D Roosevelt, the first US president to be seen on TV.

Air conditioning

Air conditioning was a little known invention until the 1939 World Fair.

That all changed when the inventor William Carrier created the Carrier Igloo of Tomorrow, complete with fake snow.

The building introduced air conditioning to tens of thousands of Americans who realised they need no longer swelter in the country’s hot and humid summers.

Video telephones

Nearly 40 years before Skype, Bell Labs’ Picturephone was introduced at the 1964/1965 World Fair in New York.

Users had to go into a special booth to make and receive a call, and the idea of seeing the person you were talking to never really caught on, not least because the price of a 10-minute call was the equivalent of over $54 today.


It was a team of Canadian engineers who created Imax, or Image Maximum cinema, allowing huge immersive projection.

The format was shown for the first time at the 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan. A specially commissioned travelogue, Tiger Child, was screened at the Fuji Pavilion, at the time the largest inflated structure in the world.

Mobile phones

The “dream phone” was created by the Japanese communications company NTT and shown for the first time at Osaka 1970. This was also the first Expo at which Abu Dhabi had a pavilion.

The clunky handset thrilled more than six million visitors but it would be another quarter of a century before the mobile phone really took off.

Hydrogen-powered car

From the outside it looked like a regular BMW saloon. But the model unveiled at the Hanover Expo in 2000 was fuelled not by petrol, but hydrogen.

It was a vision of the future propelled by the growing awareness of climate change and the need for new sources of clean energy.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles are still in their infancy, and there are estimated to be only 30,000 on the roads today.

Updated: August 11, 2021, 6:20 PM