Seattle's great science renaissance

As the Pacific Science Center gears up for its half-century birthday, Mossback digs into what caused Seattle's scientific love affair and what it means for the city now.
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The U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) during the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.

As the Pacific Science Center gears up for its half-century birthday, Mossback digs into what caused Seattle's scientific love affair and what it means for the city now.

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.

The Federal Pavilion itself was a hit. Lines were long, people loved the exhibits and the architecture. Minoru Yamasaki had set out to build a kind of secular temple with gothic "space age" arches and pools and white shimmering stone and concrete. It was consciously crafted to be a kind of sacred space, a precinct of intellect. Canadian architect Warnett Kennedy described the complex as "poetry in architecture," and the general public embraced it as the kind of modernism even the common man could love. It had the power of a cathedral, and it dazzled inside and out. Remember that woman who went back to "read the fine print?" You couldn't ask for more.

The pavilion was influential too. Robert Moses, maestro of the 1964-65 New York world's fair, insisted that the federal government fund his fair and build him a science center too (he eventually got one). Magnuson said he hoped the Science Center would be a model for similar ones all across the country. The New Yorkers loved the uplift of the pavilion in Seattle. Officials for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey tapped Yamasaki to build the World Trade Center twin towers. Yamasaki agreed to work on the World Trade Center before the Seattle fair had even ended.

Standing next door to Seattle's science hall at Century 21 was the Christian Witness Pavilion, an exhibit that seemed to say, "Don't forget religion!" Probably the most influential religious leader to visit the fair was the Rev. Billy Graham was probably the most influential religious leader to visit the fair. He was not happy with the Witness Pavilion, which he felt didn't reach out to ordinary people and featured a film that was too abstract. He damned it with faint praise as "interesting and unique."

He did like the Science Pavilion, however. The Seattle Times ran a picture of him playing on a gyroscope there. Century 21's Louis Larsen was Graham's escort at the fair and remembers Graham spent a long time gazing at the Science Pavilion's gothic arches. Graham mused that they could be put anywhere and still be outstanding. He wanted to know what would become of the pavilion after the fair. Larsen imagines that Graham was thinking, "My God this would make a great church!"

Science did prove more popular at the fair than religion. Surveys taken indicated that the Federal Pavilion was a huge hit, the Christian Witness Pavilion a flop. Though the Christian Witness Pavilion was torn down, the temple of science stayed. The federal government decided not to tear it down or turn it into a post office; the feds leased it to its new, private non-profit owners for $1 per year, and they kicked in a $100,000 grant to help fund the new center in its efforts to train teachers and engage students. A board of trustees for the new facility was quickly assembled that included Nobel prize winners, university presidents, and business leaders.

Science became an official part of Seattle civic life, along with the zoo, the library and museums. Today the Science Center hosts over 1,000,000 visitors a year, and reaches another 300,000 with off-site programs. The city bought into, indeed banked on, the Cold War vision of technology, science and innovation, all of which played a prime role in the development of Pugetopolis. If we were about the aerospace and defense industries in 1962 (along with fisheries and forestry), we've since expanded into high-tech, bio-tech, medical research and public health.

The commitment to the value of science was also a statement about our commitment to the universal language of science and its unifying effects, a concept caught in Lawrence Samuel's book, Future: A Recent History. He quotes astronaut John Glenn in 1962 speaking to the United Nations: "As space science and technology grow...and become more ambitious, we shall be relying more and more on international teamwork." 

Science and technology are unifiers, not dividers. For a city devoted to being "world class" and having a "knowledge-based" global economy, they are essential. We've also raised to celebrity status some prime spokespeople for the value of science, from Bill Nye to Cliff Mass, one the star of a kid's TV show who takes on evolution skeptics and the other a meteorologist who uses his bully pulpit to promote better math education. In 1962, Seattle was unusual in featuring science so prominently in the urban master plan. The Pacific Science Center is the institutional manifestation of these ideals.

In 1971, the Science Center gave a major award to anthropologist Dr. Margaret Mead, who came to town to talk about the past and future of cities. This was at a time when cities were often struggling, trying to rediscover or regain their souls in the wake of industrialization, modernization, even decay. Century 21 was a counterpoint to "urban decay" and the loss of character and meaning. "We've discovered what is a city without a soul," Mead told the Seattle Times. "We've built quite a few, although I don't think any were built before the Industrial Revolution." The Times story about Mead continued:

"Science and scientists should be made a part of life, a part of the city's fabric, [Mead] said, something that had not always been done.

Seattle has done better than most in that regard, Dr. Mead said. And the way Seattle has made science a part of the community through the Pacific Science Center is, at least in part, 'a forerunner of what we need to give soul to cities.'"

There is a spiritual dimension to the secular temple: a commitment to the process of seeking the truth that is knowable and sharable, and that we can instill in our children. So, here, you can add science to the scenery, walkability, bike lanes, arts, arenas and mass transit as essential ingredients to the good urban life.

Much of what Seattle is and aspires to be is rooted in these values. The development of South Lake Union, adjacent to Seattle Center, is a living expression of the role of science in urban incubation; so too the sprawl of the University of Washington campus and its desire to be a more densely populated knowledge community. This is not to suggest that all technological or scientific work and the businesses they spawn are inherently moral or good. As Billy Graham pointed out, human nature must be still reckoned with.

The idealism of Century 21's embrace of science is poignant; it is hard to escape the thought that the Pacific Science Center would likely never be built today. The bipartisan commitment? We're a nation polarized. Federal funding? The budget is facing radical cuts. Scientific authority? White guys in white coats are no longer demigods. A secular temple instead of a faith-based initiative? The very concept of secularism is under attack in the "values" debate.

Imagine going to Congress for a science center today. It's likely that, if by some miracle it were even earmarked and funded, it would have a wing attached devoted to "balancing" Creationism with Darwin, or a Hall of Global Warming Denial. Still, the Science Center exists today in this city, and science is embedded in our civic soul.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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