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Ford Mustang, 50 years on

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Built on an ash heap, the 1964 New York World's Fair promised a brightly coloured, joyful, peaceful future. Two years later, the crowds were gone and the ledger books showed it to be a financial boondoggle.

The fair was as tumultuous as the rest of the 1960s, a heterogenous mixture of triumphs and blunders. The Beatles showed up, briefly. There were protests and sit-ins. Some of the pavilions were poorly constructed, requiring vendors to scramble for space elsewhere. A mighty Saturn V rocket teased toward the day when a man might take that first step for mankind. Non-functional turbine cars were teased, and at the same time the wraps came off the Ford Mustang, a machine that on 16 April celebrates a half century as a wheeled icon.

It was a bumptious, messy, vibrant affair, a glorious jubilee of Americana – a place where you could not turn around without somebody trying to sell you a Belgian waffle. The 1964 New York World's Fair got many things right and many things wrong. Here is a sampling of items from either column.

General Electric Fusion Reactor

(Courtesy Bill Cotter)

(Courtesy Bill Cotter)

Just two years after the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis, the public was still being presented with the kinder face of the atomic age. Mutually assured destruction and contamination was one thing, but what of harnessing the furnace of the sun for peace?

In the General Electric Pavilion, an extremely ambitious science experiment let the crowd look directly at a thermonuclear fusion reaction. A miniscule amount of deuterium gas was heated in a controlled magnetic field to a temperature of 50m degrees Fahrenheit, whereupon the atoms fused with a loud bang and a flash.

While presented as a limitless source of power, to-date fusion reactors still require more power to operate than they produce.

Kodak Instamatic

Kodak was heavily featured at the fair, from the world's largest photographs displayed on enormous billboards at the company's pavilion, to tiny souvenir flash cameras available for $8. They also revealed their latest creation, the Instamatic.

A cheap, easy to use point-and-shoot camera, the Instamatic was an instant success and went on to become a household name, selling 50m units in under a decade. However, the advent of digital photography would drive Kodak into bankruptcy in 2012, even as millions downloaded apps to make their digital snaps look like the inexpensive film originals.

Norge Dishmaker

(Courtesy Bill Young)

(Courtesy Bill Young)

Over at the unfortunately named World of Gas exhibit, fairgoers were treated to a view of the kitchen of the future. Items such as a circular rotating refrigerator and ultrasonic dishwasher promised labour-saving through technology.

Nothing, however, was quite as revolutionary as the Norge Dishmaker. This device took dirty plastic plates and cups, ground them up and washed the resultant pellets, and then remoulded fresh dishware as needed. Interesting, yet hardly environmentally sensitive, and it never caught on.

DuPont Wonderful World of Chemistry

(Courtesy Bill Cotter)

(Courtesy Bill Cotter)

Envisioning a world where almost everything was composed of artificial materials, DuPont's pavilion featured a musical revue extolling the virtues of chemistry, and a science-based “molecular magic show”.

While materials such as Nylon and Teflon are household names today, the same cannot be said for the company's Corfam. This was an artificial leather introduced at the show and, while durable, it lacked breathability and reportedly caused unbearable itching.

TWA supersonic transport

(Courtesy Bill Young)

(Courtesy Bill Young)

While Concorde would eventually succeed – and then fail – in showing the possibility of supersonic flight for the public, long-haul carrier Trans World Airlines promised speedy travel even earlier with their concept of the Supersonic Transport (SST).

As one of the long-suffering, coconut-banging servants from Monty Python's The Holy Grail might have pointed out, “It's only a model.” TWA eventually signed on to Concorde, but then cancelled their order, and finally went belly up in the early ‘00s.

Futurama II Computerised Highway

Emboldened by the success of its 1939 World's Fair showing, General Motors (GM) launched Futurama II, a scaled glimpse through the crystal ball. Some of the predictions, such as a machine that speedily turned virgin rainforest directly into concrete super-highway, do not align comfortably with a Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.

However, the computer-controlled highway of GM's city of tomorrow was not far off the truth. Fifty years later, Google's autonomous cars and Mercedes-Benz's camera-based self-driving technologies have us closer than ever to Futurama's predictions.

Bell Picturephone

Extremely expensive – just a few minutes of airtime cost the equivalent of $120 – and limited in scope, Bell's Picturephone was a relative disaster. Public interest tanked after the fair, and the company pulled the plug on its programme soon afterwards.

However, as Skype and Facetime have proven, it was perhaps simply an idea ahead of its time.

RCA colour television

There can be no argument that the introduction of colour television was a lasting success. While novelties such as three-dimensional flat-screen TVs and new projection methods emerge, the essentials are the same.

At the RCA pavilion, an on-site studio broadcasted to 250 colour monitors throughout the fairgrounds. While adoption relative to black-and-white sets was abysmally low, RCA’s presence in ’64 helped goose sales of colour sets, setting in motion their overtaking of the black-and-white television in raw sales in 1972.

Computerised search engines

Even by the ‘60s, computers were still large, cumbersome and unreliable. NASA's engineers would famously rely on the speed of their fingers on the slide-rule when re-calculating trajectories for the Apollo missions, and the thought of a computer in the average family home, let alone in someone's back pocket, seemed suited to science fiction.

However, the fair brought the public into close contact with the computer in many ways. IBM showed the inner workings of computer logic; NCR let visitors find out facts about historical dates, and peruse a library of recipes; Parker Pens had a machine that matched pen-pals across the US by interest; and there were even computerised home décor suggestions available at the Better Living Pavilion.

Ford Mustang

(Ford Motor)

(Ford Motor)

Not only was the Mustang revealed to fairgoers on 17 April, 1964, but it could also be taken out for a spin. The Walt Disney creation Magic Skyway included Ford convertibles – among them the brand-new Mustang – and the ride shepherded visitors through a wonderland of animatronic dinosaurs and futuristic scenes.

The Mustang was an immense hit at the show, and while there have been various attempts to ruin (Mustang II), or replace (Ford Probe) it, the car endures as a 50-year constant. The latest-generation Mustang has already been revealed, but the car will be present again in New York this week, atop the Empire State Building.

An earlier version of this story stated that TWA "went belly up in the '90s." Though the company entered bankruptcy in 1995, it did not cease operations until 2001. The text has since been corrected.