Q&A with author Charles Pappas
Editor's note: Charles Pappas was kind enough to answer some questions about how his book “Flying Cars, Zombie Dogs & Robot Overlords: How World’s Fairs and Trade Expos Changed the World” came to be.
eConnections: How did you get interested in the history of trade shows?
Pappas: When I first came to work for Exhibitor, I took over the Archive history column that appears in the back of the magazine. Until then, I figured trade shows were basically industrial Velveeta -lacking any kind of spice or flavor. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I started researching the column, I stumbled on forgotten gems like the Radio World's Fairs that took place in New York in the 1920's. They drew upwards of 175,000 attendees, and grew so unruly, the city had to call in special detachments of police to control the mobs. Or the National Orange Show, in San Bernardino, CA, which actually attracted crowds of 400,000 in its heyday in the 1940s, and later became the launching pad for The Rolling Stones’ first American tour.
Then there’s shows like the IFA (Internationale Funkausstellung, or International radio exhibition) in Germany. Albert Einstein helped inaugurate the 1930 IFA, and then three years later, Adolph Hitler exploited the show to endorse the Nazis’ Volksempfänge radio receiver that could receive only local German or Austrian stations. At some point, I just got it that the trade show industry was a kind of Silk Road the most fascinating parts of history had traveled down.
What prompted you to write a fun book like “Flying Cars, Zombie Dogs, and Robot Overlords: How World's Fairs and Trade Expos Changed the World”?
Because the industry is so much more than drayage, teardown, and pallets – and nobody seems to know it. It’s where you have shows that address every conceivable need and niche of life – like the Divorce Fair, where the exhibitors are lawyers, real-estate agents, and therapists, as well as private detectives, and DNA labs offering paternity tests. And DefCon, the show for computer hackers, where they had a traditional game called Spot the Fed, where attendees were challenged to flush out the government agents lurking among them. Add to that shows for lotteries, tarot cards, GI Joe, marijuana, stress, cookbooks, makeup, toilets, kosher food, and even bloodstain-pattern analysis, and you start to feel like Alice in Wonderland.
More seriously, when you throw world’s fairs into the mix -because they’re really just trade shows on steroids and Red Bull- trade shows are a force for progress often and change always. Whether it’s X-rays at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898, the Ferris wheel and Aunt Jemima Pancakes at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, or the VCR at the International Consumer Electronics show in 1970, trade shows are where the future goes to be seen.
How long did it take you to write?
That’s a two-answer question, in a way. I collected information for nearly fifteen years, while doing the Archive column. Then I began writing the book in earnest. It took me slightly more than a year to complete. But I really wish I had at least two more years to work on it because each story easily had a dozen fascinating detours I could have taken.
How did you source your information?
Mostly what you’d expect -hundreds of books and articles, of course, but the fun part is when you start digging past the easy Google search. There’s the contemporary media accounts, for instance, of attendees mobbing the Steinway & Sons piano exhibit at the 1867 Paris Exposition, Thomas Edison battling it out via exhibit showmanship with Nikola Tesla at the 1893 Chicago fair, or the 100,000 visitors gawking at both the newfangled airplanes and sumptuous (if doomed) balloons at the First International Exhibition of Air Navigation show in Paris in 1909.
The real pleasure is when you uncover primary sources, like the archives of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, the Chicago Auto Show, and Otis Elevator Co. (who, BTW, have some of the best shots of the Eiffel Tower, since they installed some the elevators in it.). Every so often I connected with someone like Robert Hedin, whose ancestor, Alexander Anderson, introduced Puffed Rice cereal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis.
In all of these there’s often a sense of forgotten monuments buried not by earth but by time. And I was fortunate enough to see them.
What are the main things the differentiate trade shows today from those from history?
Technology. I was at the Interbike International Expo in the early 2000s, when I saw an exhibitor leap on and over his reception table to grab a guy who photographed his gear system for bicycles. He yanked the camera out of the attendee’s hands, and erased the pictures. Now, it was conventional wisdom that industrial spies would routinely perform such competitive intelligence at Interbike, so the response wasn’t completely over the top.
But today? You’d have to assault anyone with a cellphone. Which would be everybody.
It’s much more than just cell phones, tough. Social media changes pre-show -, at-show, and post-show marketing. and NFC and RFID allow interaction, lead gathering, and attendee monitoring on an unprecedented scale. Augmented reality and virtual reality change the game for showing equipment and processes too cumbersome or complicated to bring to the show floor. Of course, it all still comes down to making that face-to-face connection in the midst of a live experience.
What event impressed you the most?
The Mock Prison Riot, absolutely.
It’s held in a former prison built in 1866 in Moundsville, WV, where Charles Manson’s mother was once jailed. Every year, about 1,000 law-enforcement attendees from across the country come to the prison to test out new technologies, like holsters that automatically load a guard’s gun when he draws it, and stab-resistant body armor. But where other shows limit you to looking at the products and listening to the spiels about them, at the Mock Prison Riot you get to try them out on people. Dozens of college students are recruited to don prison uniforms and take part in scenarios –riots, escapes, hostage-taking- where the attendees can grab the tech they see in booths and put it through its paces to see if it works as advertised. I took part in it, and if my bruises are to be believed, the show is the best example of the power of trade shows and live demonstrations I’ve ever seen.
The photos are terrific. Where/how did you find them?
Many are from the Library of Congress, while several others are from corporate sources – Kimberly-Clark Corp. and General Motors, to name a couple. A few I found in libraries, historical centers, and museums. The Queens Museums in New York, for example, has a one-of-a-kind selection of photos from Salvador Dali’s “Dream of Venus” exhibit at the 1939 world fair that, even today, would be considered avant-garde.
Some are from industry companies and figures, like Art Guild, Inc., and Clay Wilkening, of what became Exhibitgroup-Giltspur. Private collections provided perhaps the most intriguing material, Like Robert Hedin’s, whose ancestor, Alexander Anderson, introduced Puffed Rice cereal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. My all-time favorite, though, might be the picture Jack Masey gave me of a giant geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller in 1956 for Jeshyn International Fair in Kabul, Afghanistan. It was part of Masey’s private collection, who ran national exhibitions for the United States in the Cold War years creating what analysts called the most effective exhibits of that era.
Jack just recently died, and I think it needs to be said he was a neglected giant who understood the value and power of exhibitions.
What do you hope readers will come away with from the book?
I’d like everyone in the exhibit industry to sit back and realize “You make history.”