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Pirelli and the Universal Exhibitions: Paris 1900 and Saint Louis 1904

London, 1851. The first ever universal exhibition was held in Hyde Park, attracting about 14,000 exhibitors in sections devoted to raw materials, machines and inventions, manufactured products and the fine arts. This was the first of a long line of World Expos, which are commercial but also cultural events, held periodically in major cities around the world, where countries show off the progress they have made in industrial production, and in science and technology. The Paris International Exposition was held in 1889, celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution with a tower standing more than 300 metres tall, built by Gustave Eiffel. We know that Giovanni Battista Pirelli was there at the event. He wrote a letter to Giuseppe Borghero, the director of the Pirelli factory in La Spezia where they made submarine telegraph cables, inviting him to visit the sector devoted to electricity: “I have recently returned from the exhibition and you may yourself find that, if you wish to limit yourself to a quick general visit and a more detailed inspection of the mechanical and electrical sector, a week may well suffice.”

Very early on, Pirelli had started showing its products at trade fairs and national events (such as the Italian general exhibitions of 1881 and 1884, and the international bakery and milling fair in Milan in 1897, with a pavilion devoted to electricity), and it took part for the first time in a World Expo in 1900, in Paris. Although the company already had a vast range of rubber articles, it was decided to show only those used in the electricity sector. This was partly due to the lack of space, which, as a brochure pointed out, was something from which “the whole Italian Section suffers”. Samples of all manner of cables were shown at the 10 x 5-metre stand – cables insulated in gutta-percha, in textile materials, in vulcanised rubber, for telegraphs, telephones, electric lighting, and for transporting energy. And then there were submarine cables – with a model of the cable-laying ship Città di Milano on show in a glass case – and underground cables, including a special type used for transporting energy at 2500 volts, which was used to light up 500 lamps on a panel inside the stand, showing how Pirelli cables could carry electrical energy at extremely high voltages. Pirelli and Franco Tosi, a metalworking company at the exhibition with three 1200 horsepower steam engines for power plants, won the Grand Prix awarded by the Expo.

In 1904Pirelli took part in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, under the personal guidance of Piero Pirelli, who went to the United States also so that he could look at American industry and sign new sales and supply agreements. Here there was far more space, as the head of the electricity department of the Expo pointed out in the letter, dated 11 May 1903, in which he invited Pirelli to take part: he presented it as an opportunity that should not be missed, for the space available (500 hectares), which was much more than had been offered by the fairs up to that moment, and for the participation of exhibitors from all over Europe but also from Latin America, Canada, China and Japan, which meant it would be possible to get in touch with representatives from these countries as well as with those from the United States.

At the Saint Louis stand, Pirelli put on a large sample display of its rubber products (technical, sanitary and haberdashery items, toys, coloured balls and a deep-sea diver’s suit) and of insulated electric wires and cables and it was awarded the Grand Prix in the Manufacturing section of the Elastic Rubber and Gutta-percha Industry group, as well as the Gold Medal in the Electricity section of the Telegraphy and Telephony group. The Gold Medal was the highest honour awarded to any of the electric cables companies present, both American and European. A gold medal was also awarded by the Exhibition to engineer Emanuele Jona, who had taken part in the International Electrical Congress, which was held in the city from 12 to 17 September 1904. On that occasion, he had presented some important breakthroughs in the field of very high voltage electrical cables, which had caused a considerable stir in the field of international electrical engineering. As expected, the Exhibition was a great opportunity for establishing important relationships in the sector. The engineer Elvio Soleri, a member of the Italian Electrotechnical Association, wrote to Pirelli saying that “Messrs Holmes Brothers of Chicago wish to enter into relations with you as representatives”, that the Canadian Compagnie Internationale d’Électricité “wishes to enter into correspondence immediately” and that the Ontario Power Co. representative had left his business card.

This led to a whole series of relationships with the world of industry that has continued to this day, also through participation in recent trade fairs and exhibitions of international importance.

London, 1851. The first ever universal exhibition was held in Hyde Park, attracting about 14,000 exhibitors in sections devoted to raw materials, machines and inventions, manufactured products and the fine arts. This was the first of a long line of World Expos, which are commercial but also cultural events, held periodically in major cities around the world, where countries show off the progress they have made in industrial production, and in science and technology. The Paris International Exposition was held in 1889, celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution with a tower standing more than 300 metres tall, built by Gustave Eiffel. We know that Giovanni Battista Pirelli was there at the event. He wrote a letter to Giuseppe Borghero, the director of the Pirelli factory in La Spezia where they made submarine telegraph cables, inviting him to visit the sector devoted to electricity: “I have recently returned from the exhibition and you may yourself find that, if you wish to limit yourself to a quick general visit and a more detailed inspection of the mechanical and electrical sector, a week may well suffice.”

Very early on, Pirelli had started showing its products at trade fairs and national events (such as the Italian general exhibitions of 1881 and 1884, and the international bakery and milling fair in Milan in 1897, with a pavilion devoted to electricity), and it took part for the first time in a World Expo in 1900, in Paris. Although the company already had a vast range of rubber articles, it was decided to show only those used in the electricity sector. This was partly due to the lack of space, which, as a brochure pointed out, was something from which “the whole Italian Section suffers”. Samples of all manner of cables were shown at the 10 x 5-metre stand – cables insulated in gutta-percha, in textile materials, in vulcanised rubber, for telegraphs, telephones, electric lighting, and for transporting energy. And then there were submarine cables – with a model of the cable-laying ship Città di Milano on show in a glass case – and underground cables, including a special type used for transporting energy at 2500 volts, which was used to light up 500 lamps on a panel inside the stand, showing how Pirelli cables could carry electrical energy at extremely high voltages. Pirelli and Franco Tosi, a metalworking company at the exhibition with three 1200 horsepower steam engines for power plants, won the Grand Prix awarded by the Expo.

In 1904Pirelli took part in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, under the personal guidance of Piero Pirelli, who went to the United States also so that he could look at American industry and sign new sales and supply agreements. Here there was far more space, as the head of the electricity department of the Expo pointed out in the letter, dated 11 May 1903, in which he invited Pirelli to take part: he presented it as an opportunity that should not be missed, for the space available (500 hectares), which was much more than had been offered by the fairs up to that moment, and for the participation of exhibitors from all over Europe but also from Latin America, Canada, China and Japan, which meant it would be possible to get in touch with representatives from these countries as well as with those from the United States.

At the Saint Louis stand, Pirelli put on a large sample display of its rubber products (technical, sanitary and haberdashery items, toys, coloured balls and a deep-sea diver’s suit) and of insulated electric wires and cables and it was awarded the Grand Prix in the Manufacturing section of the Elastic Rubber and Gutta-percha Industry group, as well as the Gold Medal in the Electricity section of the Telegraphy and Telephony group. The Gold Medal was the highest honour awarded to any of the electric cables companies present, both American and European. A gold medal was also awarded by the Exhibition to engineer Emanuele Jona, who had taken part in the International Electrical Congress, which was held in the city from 12 to 17 September 1904. On that occasion, he had presented some important breakthroughs in the field of very high voltage electrical cables, which had caused a considerable stir in the field of international electrical engineering. As expected, the Exhibition was a great opportunity for establishing important relationships in the sector. The engineer Elvio Soleri, a member of the Italian Electrotechnical Association, wrote to Pirelli saying that “Messrs Holmes Brothers of Chicago wish to enter into relations with you as representatives”, that the Canadian Compagnie Internationale d’Électricité “wishes to enter into correspondence immediately” and that the Ontario Power Co. representative had left his business card.

This led to a whole series of relationships with the world of industry that has continued to this day, also through participation in recent trade fairs and exhibitions of international importance.