In 1893 the organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair were on the horns of a dilemma. They were under tremendous pressure to outdo the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, but try as they might, they couldn’t come up with anything that would rival the Eiffel Tower. Then along came that creative little bridge builder from Pittsburgh. His idea sent everyone spinning.
Gustave Eiffel had built his tower for the Paris Fair of 1889 to honor the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, and in 1893 it stood as a proud reminder to the French that they had done what a world’s fair was supposed to do — capture the imagination of the planet. That, of course, sent the Americans scrambling for an exhibit that was bigger and better.
Finding something that would do the job was a major hurdle for architect Daniel H. Burnham, who was in charge of selecting a project for the Chicago World’s Fair that would put the French in their place. As early as 1891, he complained at an engineer’s banquet about having found nothing that “met the expectations of the people.”
Fortunately for Burnham and the fair, sitting among the audience that day was the owner of a firm that had lots of experience with iron and steel. During the dinner, he was hit with an inspiration and scribbled a design on a napkin and gave it to the befuddled architect...