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.
Crosscut archive image.

Sputnik I. (NASA)

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.

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."

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.

But it was also fun-loving and gaget-oriented. There were atomic cars, video phones, spaceships and astronauts, an entertainment zone called the Gayway, all of which stuck in youthful imaginations and filled our heads with Jetsons fantasies.

While the dream of a scientific career wasn't ignited in my breast – despite the fair's and my parents' and teachers' best efforts – it did reach some people. The most intriguing cases are Paul Allen and Bill Gates, both of whom visited the fair as kids and both of whom continue to change the world with their business and charitable efforts. A "priceless gift" indeed.

Allen made his career and fortune in technology and new science ventures, and he is continuing to transform Seattle Center (Experience Music Project and the Science Fiction Museum), the surrounding neighborhood (South Lake Union), and is preserving high-tech artifacts of the Space Age (the Cinerama movie theater). Could it be that the Boeing Spacearium helped ignite his passion for space travel, which includes Allen's funding of the first privately built suborbital human-carrying spaceship, SpaceShipOne?

Certainly, the mission of the fair is deeply ingrained in his intellectual DNA. His Web site states: "Since his youth, the infinite possibilities of science have always inspired and challenged Paul Allen. That fascination has manifested itself into a host of ground-breaking initiatives that may prove to have dramatic implications for human progress."

The fair P.R. people couldn't have stated their mission better – nor had they a better student. Unless that was Bill Gates. Of course, he was only 6 years old in 1962, but a precocious six. The fair was likely his first exposure to computers. Gates remembered the fair as "a huge event, a neat deal."

Here's the relevant section from Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry – and Made Himself the Richest Man in America, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews:

The [fair's] vision of the future was strikingly like the one an adult Bill Gates would see and sell twenty and thirty years later. Spurred by the Kennedy-era push for scientific achievement, the U.S. Science exhibit had as an official goal "to stimulate youths' interest in science," and hammered it home with film and exhibits on everything from genetics to space travel. ...

... Among the computer exhibits were the giant IBM machines set up to translate words spoken into a microphone or calculate space satellite trajectories and the American Library Association's UNIVAC that stored "quotations from great books, gazetteer information, and bibliographical material." The "World of Tomorrow" included the office of the future, "a complete communications center with devices that project micro-mail, automatic transmission machines for correspondence, and machines that communicate with one another to exchange information, freeing man for more creative pursuits." And the General Electric Pavilion presented "General Electric Living," featuring "color television projected on large wall surfaces, the electronic home library, movies that can be shown immediately after they are taken ... and the home computer for record-keeping, shopping, and check writing." Although the adult Bill Gates would eventually work on projects that mirrored every one of these uses and would even team up with General Electric on a computer project called "Homer," what impressed the six year old Bill Gates that went fast: the mile-long Monorail and the Wild Mouse ride.

Ah yes, the Wild Mouse, the German roller coaster that was a fair fixture, its diminutive cars tossing riders about as they shot around nearly 90-degree turns at top speed. Maybe if Gates adopted the GE agenda for home computers he also gained his appreciation for sports cars and a fast-moving information highway from this memorable fair ride. And lest you think the Monorail isn't fast, take a look at this film, which gives you a front-seat ride and a tour of science exhibits. Yes, people really did dress up to go out back then, and the Monorail did seem to whiz along.

Sputnik had many other impacts on American science, technology, and speed. One was instigating the founding of the government's Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA, the guys who developed the Internet, which, as we know, Gates has exploited, along with countless other entrepreneurs.

With little doubt, Gates and Allen, like many of us, internalized the Sputnik-inspired messages of the fair and began to expect a technological future like the one it promised. Now that we're well into Century 21, it is rather remarkable just how much did come true. And Gates' and Allen's tech fortunes, and the fortunes spawned by their fortunes, have spread into areas that are shaping more than technology, including world-shaping philanthropy (no Sputnik, no Gates mission to eradicate malaria?) and city-shaping influence (no Sputnik, no Silicon Forest?).

Without Sputnik's beeping, the fair might never have happened. As Murray Morgan wrote, "Seldom have so many doubts been so widely held by so many people about an enterprise that eventually succeeded." But much of its success lay well into the future – and still does. The six-month fair that closed 45 years ago this month may have been ephemeral, but not so its influence.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.