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How Sputnik 'beeped' Seattle into the 21st century

Fifty years ago, the launch of the first satellite changed the world, but one of the places that felt the impact most was Seattle. Not only did the orbiter alter the city's course, it influenced the generation of world-shapers that includes Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
Friendship 7 on display at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. (University of Washington)

Friendship 7 on display at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. (University of Washington) None

Sputnik I. (NASA)

Sputnik I. (NASA) None

Thursday, Oct. 4, marks the 50th anniversary of a major event: the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite. It's an important anniversary in the history of science and technology, and it launched the Space Age. It also had an enormous impact on Seattle, with reverberations that continue to play a huge role in shaping the modern city, and the world.

In the 1950s, Seattle civic leaders began to explore the idea of hosting a world's fair. The concept was to bring the post-war city out of regional isolation, spur downtown development, and reclaim Seattle's role as a major Pacific Rim player. The idea, too, was that business, trade, and tourism generated by a fair could unhook Seattle from the Boeing boom-and-bust cycles and make the city less dependent on government largesse and defense contracts.

A couple of anniversaries suggested expo opportunities: 1959 would be the 50th anniversary of Seattle's first world's fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909; another peg was the centennial of completion of the boundary survey between the United States and Canada in 1861. Another concept was a "Festival of the West." But for the first American world's fair since World War II, those hooks were a bit of a yawn – especially in a comparatively small, isolated provincial port city. Not much "squeal" factor, as they say in the expo business. The whole thing was an iffy proposition.

But then the Cold War intervened to give the fair new life and a rationale. As Murray Morgan wrote in his instant history of the 1962 fair, Century 21: The Story of the Seattle World's Fair, in a chapter called "Saved by the Beep-Beep-Beep":

On October 4, 1957, there occurred far from Seattle an event destined to change the nature and, it can be argued, to make possible the success of the Seattle World's Fair. Russian scientists launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik I, a one hundred and eighty pound sphere which, circling the earth bout every ninety minutes in an elliptical orbit, went "beep ... beep ... beep ..."

The space race was on.

Suddenly, Seattle – an aerospace city – could become a shining beacon in the battle with the Soviets for scientific, technological, and space supremacy. This would be a battle for the future, one in which the U.S. lagged behind the commies. Century 21 became the theme of the exposition. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson told the fair organizers to develop a science focus for the fair. That was key to unlocking federal support from Congress and the Eisenhower administration. It worked. University of Washington history professor John Findlay, who has an outstanding chapter on the fair in his book on Western cities, Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture After 1940, lays it out this way: After the Sputnik launch

... American scientists and statesmen hastened to embrace the [Seattle World's Fair] as one vehicle for responding to the challenge of Sputnik. And once the federal government had begun to invest heavily in the fair, other participants were drawn to Seattle's exposition. By heightening cold war tensions, then, Sputnik ensured the transformation from a "Festival of the West" to "America's Space Age World's Fair." ...

... Leading scientists spearheaded America's reaction to Sputnik. They shared the nation's concern about ranking behind the Soviet Union in an important respect, and they wanted to ensure that the fame of Sputnik did not eclipse their own achievements. ... The nation's scientists and Seattle's [businessmen] proved to be a powerful team. Together they secured ... [federal money to build] a NASA display and a $10 million United States Science Exhibit. ...

... The theme of science sold the federal government on Seattle's exposition, and the fair in turn sold science to the American people. The many arguments in favor of federal participation portrayed government [spending on Seattle's fair as a] timely investment in national security. In hearings before the House Committee on Science and Astronautics and in publicity about the exposition, congressmen, scientists, and promoters explained how Sputnik had demonstrated that America's "very survival during the next century depends upon how well we develop our scientific resources."


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