Transit Visions: Futurama
Worker installing Futurama Model, 1939. Courtesy of General Motors
General Motors’ Futurama exhibition, designed by Norman Bel Geddes, was by far the most popular attraction at the 1939 World’s Fair. Even on rainy days there was a long line. Seated visitors moved on a conveyor belt over highly-detailed scale models that created the illusion of looking out an airplane window flying over an imagined American future, circa 1960. According to the 1939 guidebook, the amazingly detailed model contained, “approximately 500,000 individually designed houses; more than a million trees of eighteen species; and 50,000 scale-model automobiles, of which 10,000 are in actual operation.” In this utopian future, gleaming skyscraper cities were connected to vast suburbs, productive farmland and pristine wilderness by a nationwide network of highways. It showcased what GM considered a better world – living in spacious suburban homes, commuting quickly to work in the city, and enjoying vacations in the country.
Line Outside General Motors Building, 1939. Courtesy of General Motors
General Motors was not just trying to sell cars. They were pitching the idea of a future where the landscape was transformed by the automobile, while advocating government funding for the necessary infrastructure. After glimpsing the future, visitors viewed the latest models of Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, LaSalle, Oldsmobile and Pontiac for sale.
The exhibition’s visual effects wowed fairgoers. Viewers sat in six-foot tall, high-backed chairs, moving at 102 feet per minute along a 1600 foot conveyor belt and traveling decades into the future over the course of a 15 minute ride. Pre-recorded audio messages guided them along the journey.
Visitors on Conveyor Viewing the Futurama Model, 1939. Courtesy of General Motors
The designer Normal Bel Geddes imagined that a highway system would bring the country closer together, helping “people of various classes and regions—the workers, the intellectuals, the farmers, business men—get to know each other better and to understand each other’s problems.” Unfortunately, the new suburban communities of the 1950s and 1960s often exposed racial and economic disparities rather than alleviating them.
Seen by 28,000 people per day and a whopping 26 million visitors by the conclusion of the fair, Futurama sparked a post-war dialogue about highway planning that eventually led to the approval of the Federal Highway Act in 1956, bringing about fundamental changes to the American landscape. By the 1964 World’s Fair, the changes were evident: While most 1939 fairgoers arrived by subway and caught a train home for only five cents, by 1964, cars were an indelible part of American life and consumer culture.
Aerial View of the World’s Fair Marina Parking Lot, 1964. Courtesy of the New York Public Library
To learn more about the evolution of transportation, visit the new Transit Museum exhibition, Traveling in the World of Tomorrow: The Future of Transportation at New York’s World’s Fairs, on view in Grand Central Terminal through November 2nd.