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Streamliners: America's Lost Trains | Article

World's Fair

The Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, all jagged edges and bold colors, invited visitors to take a peek at the future. Inspired by the skyscrapers of New York, the exposition buildings housed machines and technology demonstrating what Americans could expect on the other side of the Great Depression. Life, the Exposition proclaimed, would be smooth and easy, and the technology to make it so would be accessible to everyone.

A scene from the World's Fair, where a GM diesel engine caught Ralph Budd's eye, Burlington Northern Santa Fe

The 1933-1934 World's Fair's context -- the Depression -- makes its success seem somewhat baffling today. With so many people out of work, impoverished, even starving, how could they look at displays of shiny gadgets and feel hopeful? In fact, the most famous song of the Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" singled out train technology as an achievement of the past with no bearing on the present, or promise for the future:

"Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?"

Yet sociological studies conducted in the Midwest at the time of the exposition concluded that the "'hypnotizing promise of more and more things tomorrow' advanced by America's 'machine technologies and rising standard of living'" was a source of optimism for even the poorest Americans.

The Century of Progress Exposition capitalized on this sentiment. Though a handful of exhibits recalled Chicago's frontier past (the exposition was initially conceived as a celebration of Chicago's 100th anniversary), the Fair overwhelmingly looked to the future. An experimental kitchen full of labor-saving devices promised easier times ahead for American housewives; not only would food be plentiful, but its preparation would be efficient, modern, and aesthetically improved.

What sparked the public's imagination the most were new possibilities for rapid mobility. During the early 1930s, some people would spend weekends at airports, attracted by airplanes' speed and their limitless potential for travel. The Century of Progress Exposition put the promise of the airplane on the ground. While the Goodyear Blimp, the symbol of the Fair, hovered overhead unnoticed, visitors ogled Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion Car No. 3 and Chrysler's Airflow in the "Wings of a Century" exhibit. In the end, these early streamlined vehicles inspired little more than curiosity in the general public; their expense and oddness proved prohibitive, and neither was a commercial success.

One World's Fair visitor was inspired by something he saw there: When Ralph Budd, president of the Burlington Railroad, saw the General Motors diesel engine on display, he suspected that he may have found the answer to his railroad's problems. He sought to combine the energy efficiency of the diesel with the lightweight stainless-steel railroad cars ed Budd's Philadelphia manufacturing company was building for him.

In 1934, streamliner trains arrived -- those "wingless airplanes on tracks," as one of their designers called them -- and the forward-looking streamlined ideal caught fire. Completed in time for the second half of the World's Fair, two trains belonging to competing railroads exerted a hold on the public that would affect not only advertising and industry but also the perception of motion and modernity. In a 1940 article, Businessweek said that when the Union Pacific M-10,000 and the Burlington Zephyr "'made their bow at the Chicago Century of Progress, something clicked in the mind of Mr. Average Man, and the streamlined era had arrived.'"

These trains did not look like each other, but neither did they look like any trains that had come before them. While the Union Pacific M-10,000 had legions of loyal followers, it was the Zephyr that broke records and dazzled crowds. As it arrived at the World's Fair on the heels of its spectacular Dawn-to-Dusk Run, the crowd actually surged forward to touch it. A star was born.

The impact of the exhibits at the Chicago World's Fair would last long after the gates closed in 1934. The sleek, simple lines of the machinery on display would soon be incorporated into the design of everyday products and, thanks to the streamliners, the romance of the rails would return to America.

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