In October, the Pacific Science Center will turn 50 years old. It was on October 23, 1962 that the U.S. Federal Science Pavilion was converted to the private Pacific Science Center. Though we commonly talk about Seattle Center as a part of the legacy of the world's fair, the fair's legacy would have been huge even if the Science Center was the only surviving pavilion — bigger than many a fair's contribution to civic life. The Science Center stands today as a secular temple to the truth and its pursuit; it teaches and engages our children, it wows us with exhibits from robotic dinosaurs to King Tut and even brings us Laser Floyd.
Century 21 was unique in its earnest efforts to be educational and to get middle class Americans thinking about technology, the future and careers in science, math and engineering. Computers like the UNIVAC answered fairgoer's questions and basic research exhibits were presented alongside NASA space capsules and virtual tours of the universe.
At the time, science was not only key to progress, but to our survival. Advancement would win the Cold War, bring prosperity, give new hope to the world. Boeing used the fair to recruit engineers and had an office adjacent to the fairgrounds for that purpose. Inspire the kids, hire their dads.
The effects come across on postcards sent from the 1962 fair. One fairgoer named Patti wrote, "I went through the Science Pav. for the 2nd time today — had to go back to read the fine print." Yet another, presumably from a student to a professor, at the Catholic Marquette University: "Dear Father...The U.S. Science exhibit is out of this world." The fair was intended to get the public excited about something beyond the Gayway amusement park and these random postcards suggest that that mission was accomplished.
We also know it had a deep impact on some who have gone on to be important figures in science and technology; Paul Allen for one, who has said the Science Center was an influence.
The experience of the fair convinced many of the civic leaders who created it to transform the Federal Pavilion into a permanent Science Center; something dynamic that would teach and keep up with the times. Among the entities that had been imagined for the new civic center was a planetarium — the top of the Needle was even proposed as a location.
The fair did leave behind many facilities, from the new Opera House to the Coliseum, Arena and Playhouse. But it was science that was the soul of the fair, and the source of its funding. Without federal funding for a science pavilion, Century 21 would have been little more than a state fair, perhaps not unlike the anemic Oregon Centennial Exposition of 1959, a lightly attended regional event that was more about wagon trains than rocket ships.
As Murray Morgan wrote in his history of how Century 21 came to be, the fair was "saved by the beep-beep-beep" of Sputnik, a 1957 event that unleashed a massive federal effort to push science and technology forward and that truly launched the space race. And it was Warren G. Magnuson, the powerful Democratic senator from Washington, who steered Seattle organizers to give the fair a science theme. Seattle needed federal funding to be taken seriously as a fair and it also needed a national purpose to justify world exposition status.
Seattle was already a science and technology town: We had Boeing, the University of Washington, a massive and increasingly high-tech military presence (jets and Nike missiles). The state also had impressive engineering projects at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Columbia River dams had served national purpose.
We also had an opportunity. The American scientific community was pushing the federal government to do more to keep us internationally competitive. They were very disappointed in the American exhibit at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, where the Soviet pavilion featured satellites and the U.S. pavilion had fashion shows and an "America the Beautiful" film by Disney.
The scientific community wanted a culture war shift from style to scientific substance and the head of the National Science Foundation, of which Magnuson was called the "political godfather," had been advocating a science fair, somewhere, sometime soon.
Seattle organizers found common cause with these riled-up scientists, who eagerly latched onto the idea of a science expo in Seattle, putting both their political muscle and collective brainpower into making it happen. Seattle showed up ready to implement an idea whose time had come. It was a happy marriage of brains and boosterism.
To be clear, the federal funding and support for the fair wasn't a case of liberal socialists running wild. It was a Republican governor, Art Langlie, who launched the state's World's Fair Commission and appointed another Republican businessman, Eddie Carlson, to chair it. The fair plan was embraced and supported by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his entire cabinet, including Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who told Magnuson after the review of Seattle's plans, "The cabinet was impressed with the caliber of the scientists who are working with the fair management on the Science Advisory Committee. You Seattle people couldn't have lined up a more impressive list of noted men of in the various fields of science."
It was the Eisenhower administration that requested the fair's unprecedented federal funding. In the end it was upwards of $10 million — more than three times the federal funding granted by Congress for the previous U.S. world's fair, held in New York in 1939.
Of course support was not universal, but it was bipartisan: The torch was picked up by new administrations (Al Rosellini's and John F. Kennedy's), and Magnuson and fellow Democratic Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson played crucial roles. When it comes to the fair and Science Center, it is truly possible to say, "we built that." It was the product of a consensus vision of what it would take to build the future of our dreams.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!