Essay: I think We Have A Light Out!


I Think We Have A Light Out!

by Craig Bavaro

THE SPECTACULAR LIGHTING EFFECTS of Unisphere included hundreds of lights marking the capitals of the countries of the world. After the Fair those lights were extinguished never to be lit again. Why were the capital lights not retained after the Fair was over?

The true story of the capital lights can be revealed here for the first time. Recently discovered documents in the New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation archives housed at the New York Public Library reveal that the capital lights had major issues before the World's Fair even opened!

During the period after construction of Unisphere was completed in late 1963 and prior to the opening of the Fair's first season it was discovered that a number of the capital lights would no longer illuminate following the long and snowy winter of 1963/1964. The World's Fair Corporation had accepted ownership of Unisphere from US Steel and, as the legally responsible owner of the globe, had their maintenance staff check all of the wiring to make sure everything was properly connected from the control board located in the electrical vault beneath Unisphere up through the base. After verifying that everything checked out they contacted US Steel for help. After much back-and-forth about the proper voltage needed to make the lights work, US Steel agreed to hire a crane to inspect the lighting fixtures themselves.

Much to their dismay they found that some of the Southern Hemisphere light fixtures were full of water! This ultimately caused the wiring leads in some of the fixtures to corrode and thus the lights stopped working. Further complicating the matter was the fact that groups of lights were wired in a continuous circuit like a set of Christmas tree lights, where if one connection was broken the whole circuit wouldn't light (US Steel actually used this very analogy to explain the design).

This design flaw caused four of the nine circuits on the globe not to light! In an effort to resolve this most unfortunate situation, US Steel quickly came to the conclusion that this was an isolated issue with the seals on the affected fixtures and they made the necessary repairs to put all of the circuits back in working order. Everyone involved at US Steel heaved a huge sigh of relief and World's Fair officials accepted their explanation and repair without question in the rush leading up to the opening of the Fair. Crisis averted ... Or so they thought.

Lights representing the
capitals of the countries of the world
appear as pinpoints of light
on the surface of Unisphere
in this photo of the
armillary sphere at dusk.

SOURCE: Commercial Transparency by Photo Lab, Inc. Washington, D.C.

Fast-forward to just before the opening of the second season of the Fair and, once again, World's Fair officials found themselves with a partially dark globe after another long snowy winter. It was a well-known fact that the Fair's coffers were running low and budgets were strained after the disastrous attendance of the 1964 season. The Fair once again contacted US Steel and implored them to hire another crane to inspect the lights. This time there was much back-and-forth about a design flaw (as alleged by the Fair Corporation) versus improper maintenance (as alleged by US Steel). After Fair officials pointed out how bad it would look for US Steel and their heavily promoted, high profile symbol to be partially dark, US Steel finally agreed to pay the cost for another crane to inspect the lights. To no ones surprise, once again, the electricians discovered that a number of lights across the globe were filled with water and the contacts had again corroded. US Steel made the necessary repairs and the lights came back on across the globe in time for the reopening of the Fair.

But that's not the end of the story. After the second set of repairs were made and the Fair reopened, Fair officials decided to have one of the broken light fixtures sent to their lighting consultants at the firm of Hamel & Langer to analyze why the lights kept failing. Unfortunately the report they received back was not a good one. Much to the horror of Fair officials, the consultants found that poor design and shoddy construction were the main reasons for the failures and, as such, the fixtures were wholly inadequate for the type of outdoor lighting used on Unisphere. The primary flaw being the use of various types of incompatible metals that lead to a corrosive reaction on the wire leads and the seals once the fixtures were exposed to the harsh elements of a New York winter.

Now Fair officials were in a real quandary. Do they dare go back to US Steel and try to get them to pay for a whole new set of redesigned lights with the Fair's closing in sight? Or should they just hold their breath hoping that the lights would stay on until the Fair closed? Unfortunately, Fair officials made the mistake of sitting tight. Of course shortly after the Fair reopened a report was received advising Fair officials that all of Northern Europe had gone dark! At this point there was much discussion amongst various Fair staff about raising the voltage on the lights to cause them to cut over to the backup bulbs in the fixtures. It may be recalled that self-replacing bulbs in the light fixtures was an innovative design feature that US Steel proudly touted every chance they got. However there was a very real fear that they might end up damaging the fixtures further thus causing more or all of the lights to go out on Unisphere. Once again Fair officials decided to hold their breath and ignore the blackout in Northern Europe in the hope that it wouldn't spread to the rest of the globe. While there is no indication in the files that more lights went out or that any further action on this matter was ever taken, it's safe to assume that the saga of the malfunctioning lights is why the capital lights were disconnected after the Fair was over, never to be seen again.

On a side note, all but one light was fixed in the final repair; that being the light for Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. This was due to the high wind conditions on the day the repairs were made. The repair crew was concerned that they could not safely repair this particular light. Fair officials reluctantly accepted this in light of the fact that the electricians were all aware of a recent fatal accident involving one of their own in the equipment vaults beneath Unisphere. It appears that the deceased either fell from the ladder climbing out or the hatch cover unexpectedly slammed shut on him as he was climbing up thus causing him to fall to the concrete floor below. It was noted in the official report that the tragedy could have been averted if he had been wearing a safety harness as required and if the spotter at the surface had not momentarily walked away from his post at the fatal moment. As to the Kenya light situation, Fair officials actually wrote a memo that they distributed amongst themselves stating they doubted anyone would notice the burned out light except someone from Kenya! And, if they did, the Fair could simply put out a statement that it "just burned out."

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webmaster's note: As you might guess, Craig's special interest is in the workings of the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair Corporation. He has made a number of trips to the New York Public Library to research the Corporation and we are all the beneficiaries of those trips through Craig's essays at nywf64.com. "Thank You" Craig, for your time and effort to research and report on the Fair's records. These rarely before seen documents help to present a more complete picture of the Fair that would otherwise never be known!

Craig has been a valuable contributor to nywf64.com over the years. You might also wish to explore Craig's excellent memoir titled A World's Fair Odyssey & An Afternoon of Delight about Flushing Meadow Park as it was in the mid 1970s and his well-researched essays from the World's Fair Corporation archives including An Almost Fond Farewell - the story of the decision to save a handful of pavilions after the Fair ended, What to do with All of These Records? - the story of how the Fair's archives were donated to the NY Public Library and We're Going to Need Some Really Detailed Models - the story of the scale models of the Fair. Craig has also contributed some spectacular aerial photographs of the Fair that can be viewed at The Fair from the Air. You can contact Craig via email.

You may also be interested in viewing Treasures of The New York Public Library Video Series: The New York World's Fair, 1939–40 which talks about the preservation of the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair Corporations records at the New York Public Library.

March 17, 2017

© Copyright 2017 Craig Bavaro -- do not reprint without permission.

 

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