Century 21 Exposition opens in Seattle, April 21, 1962

-April 21, 2017

Designed to explore themes such as science, space exploration, and the future, the Century 21 Exposition, also known as the Seattle World’s Fair, celebrated American ingenuity and offered visitors a glimpse at what the future might hold. It ran from April 21 to October 21 of 1962, and hosted nearly 10 million visitors.

Coinciding with the fundraising and planning stages for the Seattle exposition, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first successful artificial satellite, on October 4, 1957. The event marked the start of the Space Race and caught the attention of many in America who had believed that the United States was technically superior to its Cold War rival.

The exposition, the brainchild of Seattle City Councilman Al Rochester, was originally conceived in 1955 to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, also held in Seattle, and would be a “Festival of the [American] West.”

Science suddenly was a hot topic, and the original Western focus for the fair was discarded. According to an article published by the Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest, “American statesmen, scientists, and politicians thus seized upon Seattle's proposed world's fair as one vehicle for responding to the challenges presented by Sputnik.” The federal government was interested in demonstrating the nation’s scientific prowess to the world and so decided to invest heavily in the exposition -- more than $9 million.

Among the five themed areas of the fair were the World of Science and the World of Tomorrow. One of the popular attractions in the World of Science was Boeing’s Spacearium, which housed an audience of 750 and provided a 10-minute “excursion” through the Solar System and the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. In the World of Tomorrow, visitors could ride the Bubbleator, a large glass globe that rose into a honeycomb of cubes that foretold the future.

An ultramodern monorail was developed to transport tourists from downtown Seattle to the fairgrounds. The fair also saw the construction of the iconic Space Needle. Inspired by a recent visit to the Stuttgart Tower in Germany, Edward E. Carlson, chairman of the 1962 World's Fair, had an idea for erecting a tower with a restaurant at the World's Fair. Architect John Graham, Jr., became involved in the planning and proposed making the restaurant revolve so that diners could experience an ever-changing view as they ate. Victor Steinbrueck, another Seattle architect, introduced the hourglass profile of the tower. Construction on the tower began just one year before the fair opened. The 605-foot-tall Space Needle was built to withstand hurricane-force winds and earthquakes, features 25 lightning rods, and has become a symbol of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.

The Space Needle is visible behind a sign for parking for the 1962 World's Fair. Source: Seattle Municipal Archives

On the morning of April 21, several dignitaries, celebrities, and special guests performed or gave speeches at Memorial Stadium, located on the grounds of the 74-acre Seattle Center, the complex that housed the fair. Also on the stage was an electronic countdown clock that President Dwight Eisenhower had started more than two years before to count the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the fair officially began.

At that moment the clock reached zero, President Kennedy, on Easter holiday in Florida, pressed a gold telegraph key to start the fair. According to HistoryLink.org, “the key, festooned with gold nuggets, was the same key that President William Howard Taft had used to open the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle in 1909. This time, instead of a simple coast-to-coast electronic signal, the key triggered a radio telescope in Maine, which picked up an impulse from a star 10,000 light years away. This impulse was directed towards the fairgrounds to start the festivities. The future had arrived.”

After his remote opening of the fair in April, President Kennedy was expected to attend the closing ceremonies on October 21, 1962. He cancelled his visit, however, citing health reasons. It later became known that he had remained in Washington to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A rough archival copy of “The House of Science,” an original film shown at the United States Science Pavilion during the fair, can be viewed here, and a TV commercial promoting the fair can be viewed below.

The building now houses the Pacific Science Center, the first U.S. museum founded as a science and technology center. It was declared a City of Seattle Landmark on July 22, 2010.

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For more moments in tech history, see this blog.
EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note: This article was originally posted on April 21, 2014 and edited on April 21, 2017.

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