Countdown to Maker Faire: The Unisphere

The Unisphere

World Maker Faire New York 2014, which opens on Saturday, is held on the site of the New York World’s Fair of 1964, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.  As Make: CEO Dale Dougherty pointed out, it’s fitting that WMFNY has inherited that space, because it shows how much has changed in 50 years. Back then, the World’s Fair let corporations and governments tell the people of the wondrous new technologies that would affect their lives.  Today, we the people are using World Maker Faire to tell each other how we’re using technology, and it’s the corporations and governments who are trying to keep up.

This shift in power might have been foreseeable in the 1964 World’s Fair, when a relentless polymath (and grandfather of the Maker Movement) named Buckminster Fuller wanted to use technology in a way no one could have imagined.

Back when the World Fair was being planned, the developers knew they wanted to have as the centerpiece of the fair a giant globe, surrounded by orbiting satellites, to symbolize the recently born Space Age.  Called the Unisphere, this 120 foot stainless steel globe still stands a 5 minute walk from the Maker Faire grounds.

The Unisphere
The Unisphere, symbol of the 1964 World’s Fair, right next to 2014 World Maker Faire NY.

When Buckminster Fuller heard about this, he had immediate ideas for how to use the Unisphere.  His plan was to festoon the globe with small electric lights, as many as could fit.  They were to be clumped in groups of red, green, blue and white, (similar to the standard RGB triad of nearly all color televisions) , and true to the 1964 Fair’s themes of the future, they were to be controlled “by computer”.

Fuller’s hope was that the lights could be programmed to change the globe to display different pieces of information.  Want to show world population? Adjust the lights to show a range of colors from red (in heavily populated east Asia) to blue (in sparsely populated places like Alaska).  Just about any type of statistical information, from agricultural to zoological, could be displayed in the lights of the Unisphere.  Fuller’s personal wish?  He wanted to use the white bulbs to display how the glaciers of the Ice Ages moved across the Earth

Unfortunately,  Fuller’s dreams were a little too grand for the time.  Computers and control systems of the time might have been able to turn the Unisphere into a giant display, but they were prohibitively expensive, and Fuller couldn’t cut through all the red tape to get the access he needed.

Nowadays, lighting up the Unisphere to display Fuller’s dream probably could be done with a truckload of LED ropes and a gross of Raspberry Pis, along with the ancillary wireless networking and the monumental task of programming the whole thing.  What’s preventing someone from doing just that? Probably the thing that bothered Buckminster Fuller: red tape.

What would you do with the Unisphere?

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Patrick is an editor at MAKE. He is the author of the books Environmental Monitoring with Arduino, Atmospheric Monitoring with Arduino, The Science of Battlestar Galactica, and This is What You Just Put In Your Mouth. He has sworn to defend mankind against the eventual rise of the killer bots.

View more articles by Patrick Di Justo


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