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20 Awesome Things People Saw at the 1964 World’s Fair

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It was 50 years ago today that the 1964–'65 World’s Fair opened in New York City, bringing a plethora of innovative exhibits to Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in Queens. But by the time it closed in October 1965, it was considered a massive money pit, losing millions of dollars for New York City. Still, there were plenty of modern marvels for people to see during its two six-month runs. Read on for a glimpse at 20 of the coolest exhibits and rides that were on display.

1. "It’s A Small World"

This beloved attraction debuted along with other popular Disney rides like “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” and “The Carousel of Progress.” The boat ride was part of the UNICEF exhibit, and became a runaway success: More than 10 million visitors gawked at Disney’s audio-animatronic dolls in the two seasons that it was open. (We’re guessing they also left with the iconic theme song stuck in their heads for days to come.)

2. The Unisphere

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Many of the structures erected for the fair were torn down once it closed in October 1965, but this enormous steel sculpture—which has since been featured in Men In Black, Flight of the Conchords, and more—still stands. Fun fact: The globe’s three rings are meant to evoke the first NASA satellites to orbit the earth.

3. The Panorama of the City of New York

Image Credit: Queens Museum

New York City is rendered in miniature in a 9335-square-foot model of the five boroughs, with teeny versions of icons like the Empire State Building. Visitors to the exhibit took a nine-minute simulated “helicopter ride” (which cost 10 cents) that gave them a bird’s-eye view of its scope. After the fair, the model remained in the New York City Building, which eventually became the Queens Museum.

4. World’s Fair “Bluebird” subway car

Visitors to the fair could get there in style: In 1963, the New York City MTA commissioned special turquoise and gray cars to run along the 7 line to Flushing Meadows–Corona Park. A ride from Times Square to Queens in the “Bluebird” cars cost 15 cents.

5. Jet packs

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An exposition that was devoted to showcasing future technologies was bound to get some predictions wrong. Case in point: jet packs. Although fairgoers saw guys zooming around the grounds on the futuristic vehicles, they never quite took off in the mainstream.

6. Belgian waffles

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American audiences were introduced to this sweet treat at the Seattle expo in 1962, but NYC is where they exploded in popularity. The secret to their success: Brussels transplant Maurice Vermersch and his wife Rose treated the waffles like dessert, slathering them in whipped cream and strawberries.

7. Michelangelo’s Pieta

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The Vatican lent Michelangelo’s original 15th-century sculpture so that it could be displayed at the fair, but it came with a barrage of security measures: The piece was surrounded by guards and bulletproof glass, and visitors could only see it by standing on a moving walkway that traveled at about two miles per hour.

8. The Ford Mustang

Sports-car enthusiasts had another roadster to salivate over after the Ford Motor Company introduced the now-iconic Mustang at the fair. Thanks to the model’s novelty and its affordable base price (around $2300), the Mustang went gangbusters, with more than 400,000 sold in its first year.

9. The World Trade Center

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Architect Minoru Yamasaki began dreaming up a concept for the first World Trade Center in 1962, and in 1964, a scale model of his now-iconic Twin Towers was presented at the fair’s Port Authority Building (along with a model of the PATH railway tubes). Construction on the towers began two years later, with the buildings completed in 1973.

10. RCA color TV studio

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During the 1939 World’s Fair, RCA brought TV technology to a mass audience; for the 1964 expo, they topped that experience by debuting color television in an interactive studio. Instead of seeing a familiar program, fairgoers who visited the RCA Pavilion actually saw themselves in living color on TV screens.

11. Futurama II

General Motors debuted this attraction at the 1939 expo, but presented an updated ride for the ’64–’65 fair. This version of a “future of reality” predicted that there would be colonies on the moon and commuter spacecraft, underwater hotels, and covered moving walkways in the not-too-distant future. At least they were optimistic.

12. Picturephone

We take Skype and FaceTime for granted now, but in 1964, the technology that allowed people to see the person on the other end of a phone call was brand new. Bell Laboratories debuted its first picturephone at the fair, and visitors could test the device at calling stations that were connected to similar devices at Disneyland in California.

13. Live animals

In the Africa Pavilion, visitors got up close and personal with native animals like gorillas, giraffes, and lions. Over at the Florida exhibit, meanwhile, dolphins performed tricks during a special show, while seals demonstrated their ability to juggle.

14. Sinclair Dinoland

The Sinclair Oil Corporation sponsored this pavilion, which featured life-size replicas of nine different dinosaurs. Some of them had moving parts; the 20-foot-high Tyrannosaurus Rex model, for instance, opened and closed its fearsome jaws. Visitors could take home a miniature plastic model of a Brontosaurus, which also doubled as Sinclair’s logo, for 50 cents.

15. New York State Pavilion

Architect Philip Johnson’s iconic towers may be in ruins now, but they were among the most dazzling structures when the fair opened. The Tent of Tomorrow was particularly impressive: It had a brightly colored fiberglass roof and an enormous map of New York State, made from more than 500 mosaic panels.

16. Spanish artworks

The Nobleman with the Hand on his Chest, via Wikimedia Commons

Both classic and contemporary pieces by some of Spain’s most famous artists were on display. After much dispute, one of El Greco’s 16th-century masterworks (The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest) was displayed, along with work by Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez. On the modern side, visitors could see paintings by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, and Joan Miró.

17. Port Authority Heliport

Helicopters actually landed on the roof of this 120-foot-high attraction, where visitors could see a 13-minute film chronicling the history of transportation in New York City. (In fact, the Beatles got to Shea Stadium before their famous 1965 concert by landing here.) The structure also had a restaurant, Top of the Fair, serving lunch and dinner (for $2.95 and $4.95, respectively) alongside panoramic views of the city.

18. U.S. Royal Ferris Wheel

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A giant Ferris Wheel shaped like a tire may not have been as cool as futuristic exhibits or jet packs, but it did prove incredibly popular with visitors. More than two million people took a ride on the 80-foot-tall attraction, including Jackie Kennedy and her children, according to Uniroyal.

19. Shea Stadium

Technically, the New York Mets’ brand-new stadium wasn’t part of the expo, but visitors could check out the 55,000-seat venue as they took the 7 train to the fairgrounds. The Amazin's played the Pittsburgh Pirates during the inaugural game on April 17, 1964, but ended up losing by one run.

20. IBM computer technology

The IBM Pavilion (itself a marvel designed by Charles Eames for Eero Saarinen’s firm) featured several exhibits showcasing state-of-the-art functionality, including a proto-Google that, when given a particular date, could pull up an event that happened on that day. Another installation, the People Wall, used hydraulic lifts to create an immersive theater experience for an audience of 500.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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