Improvements in communications are often some of the most fascinating innovations showcased at World Expos, offering visitors a vision of a future where interactions across the world will be quicker and easier. This was the case as early as the first Expo – the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London – where an early version of the fax machine was on display.
Based on Alexander Bain’s 1842 invention, the model at Expo 1851, known as an ‘image telegraph’, was presented by Frederick Bakewell. It used synchronised rotating cylinders with a stylus to transmit images via an electric current. In comparison to existing electrical communications systems, Bakewell’s machine allowed the transmission of a ‘facsimile’ of a full image, including handwriting and drawings, rather than simply coded text (such as Morse).
Bakewell’s image telegraph impressed the public by making live demonstrations at Expo 1851, but it would take several years for the technology to become commercially viable and feasible. By the 20th century, the fax represented a revolution in business and personal correspondence due to its ease and rapidity, only to be surpassed in recent years by the internet.
The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) is the intergovernmental organisation in charge of overseeing and regulating World Expos, Specialised Expos, Horticultural Expos and the Triennale di Milano.