Nikola Tesla and Abraham Lincoln – The World’s Fair Connection

Though Nikola Tesla was born only nine years before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and half a world apart, there nevertheless are an uncanny number of connections between the two great men. One of them involves a World’s Fair (two, actually).

Nikola Tesla’s first big break in the war of the currents with Thomas Edison was at the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Up to this time Edison dominated the growing electricity business with his direct current (DC) systems. But DC had some severe limitations and Tesla favored his own alternating current (AC) system. Edison brutally protected his DC turf with a campaign to discredit AC, even supporting the development of the first electric chair to show how dangerous AC could be.

But Tesla had teamed up with George Westinghouse and the combination of Tesla’s AC system and Westinghouse’s business acumen allowed them to win the bidding to light up the Chicago World’s Fair – the first attempt to electrify at this scale. It was a huge success.

Chicago World's Fair 1893

The World’s Fair grounds were designed by some of the greatest architects of the time, including Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead. The canals, pools, and massive buildings – the White City – were tremendous, but the centerpiece was a 65-foot tall sculpture called the Statue of the Republic (nicknamed “Big Mary”). With its stone base it stood 111-feet high over the Grand Basin.

Lincoln Memorial

The connection to Abraham Lincoln? Well, “Big Mary” was designed by none other than Daniel Chester French. French, of course, went on to design the seated statue of Abraham Lincoln that dominates the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, Daniel Burnham, the architect who supervised the design and building of the Chicago World’s Fair and who selected French to design “Big Mary,” was also on the Lincoln Commission tasked with designing a fitting memorial to our 16th President. Burnham strongly lobbied for another architect, Henry Bacon, to build the Lincoln Memorial. In fact, Bacon did design and build the Greek Doric temple that houses French’s famous statue and serves as one of the world’s most visited monuments.

Meanwhile, French’s original Statue of the Republic was destroyed by fire only two years after the fair ended. French was later commissioned to create a smaller version – only 24-feet high and gilded in bronze – for the 25th anniversary of the fair. Appropriately, it now stands on the site of the original World’s Fair Electricity Building, the place where Nikola Tesla first brought alternating current into the modern world.

Tesla exhibit 1893 World's Fair

Oh, there’s another World’s Fair connection between Nikola Tesla and Abraham Lincoln. I’ll talk about that in a later post. 🙂

David J. Kent is a lifelong Lincolnophile and is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s interest in science and technology. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and an ebook Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time.