Tech shows started with GM’s Motorama

With the CES show, such as it was, behind us for another year, it’s left me wondering if this sort of exposition will ever happen again. I hope it will. It’s also got me started thinking about the history of tech shows and how one tech show really started it all.

OK, so it wasn’t just one.

If you really want to trace the history of people going to a show where technology was displayed, you have to go to the truly amazing World’s Fairs and Expositions of the 19th century. People came from all over the planet to see electricity in action and some, like the Chicago Exposition of 1893 were absolutely legendary. At that event, millions of people saw electricity for the first time and watched how machines could do seemingly anything. But these shows really focused on the impact of technology on industry, not necessarily on how tech would change for the average person. If you want to look at the first “consumer electronics” show where regular folks got to see their own futures, you really need to look at Motorama.

Motorama and the future of… the future

Motorama started in 1953 as an evolution of the General Motors exhibit at the New York Auto Show. The latest GM cars traveled to several cities all across the country and along with them traveled displays of the latest technology coming in “the future.”

Tucked in with the turbine cars and other tech that never arrived were things like seat belts, antilock brakes, automatic climate control, and several other things that we take for granted today. Even more interesting was a 1956 prediction that a TV screen mounted in your car would help you navigate from place to place… with the help of a uniformed officer giving you voice directions through the car’s speakers. I guess it’s just too much to think that those wacky 20th century folks could get GPS perfectly right.

To get a real taste of what Motorama was about, check out this film. Yes it’s true, you can find anything on YouTube. This is an original production that folks at Motoramas actually saw. Despite the poor quality of the transfer you really get a feel for the tech of the time.

I especially like the “futuristic” freeway interchanges where you didn’t even have to stop before getting on the elevated highways. In 1956, most people had never seen what we today call a highway. Their idea of traffic was a stop sign. One can only wonder what they’d think of the traffic around a typical CES show.

Tech shows in the 2020s

As I write this, it’s a little hard to know what tech shows will be like in the near future. I think there’s still going to be a demand for people to actually see things with their own eyes. People will continue to want that. Obviously we have to think more about safety in the future than we did in past years.

It’s almost a cliche. I keep saying, for several years now, that the CES show’s bloat is out of control. The goal for this year was to actually make the show bigger, but obviously that didn’t happen. Let’s hope that next year brings us an opportunity to come together safely. Hopefully we can experience the kind of joy that people in those Motorama shows felt those many years ago.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.