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":
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
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.
... 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."
So the fair was given life by Sputnik, and the fair in turn changed the city. It brought Seattle publicity, major amenities, served as a major recruiting tool for Boeing, which brought new engineering talent to town. It reshaped the central city and gave us major institutions and landmarks like the Space Needle, the Pacific Science Center (formerly the U.S. Science Pavilion), and the Seattle Center grounds that are as used today as they were during the fair. (It did not, however, get us off the government dole or provide the cushion from Boeing's booms and busts.)
But there were other important influences. The late-1950s debate about science and science education and its critical role in keeping America competitive continues to this day. It is still a centerpiece of debate over legislation like No Child Left Behind, the WASL test, and the educational activities of groups like the Gates Foundation. A Sept. 25 article in The New York Times, "When Science Suddenly Mattered," talks about Sputnik's influence on science in the classroom. Today's concerns echo the alarm of the Sputnik era.
John Findlay describes the importance science leaders placed on engaging America's youth post-Sputnik:
Youth constituted one resource that needed particular attention, as an official from the Atomic Energy Commission told local backers of the fair: "If out of this Exposition, a few thousand young people are stimulated into taking up science careers, you have provided this government with a priceless gift."
Lots of kids were blown away by the Century 21 Exposition. I was one of them and remember the excitement of the Boeing Spacearium "trip" to the sun and – even better – being able to see real American space capsules, like John Glenn's Friendship 7, which had just returned from space missions. The fair was in the middle of the space race, and as soon as they were available, NASA shipped returning space capsules for exhibit, remembers Jay Rockey, the "man who invented Northwest P.R."
Rockey, still active and currently with Rockey Hill and Knowlton, was director of the public relations division of the fair. He remembers the sensation made by the visit not of Elvis but of the Russian cosmonaut Gherman Titov, the second man to orbit the earth. Rockey recalls taking Titov to dinner at Canlis and presenting him and his wife with a necklace featuring a miniature Space Needle that lit up. It charmed the pair. Even in the "heat" of the Cold War, science and technology exchanges (and a gourmet dinner) offered a route to detente.
Enough can't be said for science education linked to adventure and showmanship. The U.S. Science Pavilion was pretty high-minded in a way that seems absolutely refreshing today in a country where some politicians are cowed by creationists and governed by an administration regarded by many (including Nobel winners) as anti-science. I have a post card sent by a fairgoer in 1962 writing to friends in California. The author says: "One needs a 'brain-stretcher' in some of the buildings." It was called "the thinking mans world's fair," and its propaganda was high-minded propaganda.
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