Assessing Technology Introduced At 1962 Seattle World’s Fair

Oct 9, 2012

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The event gave visitors a peek at how they might communicate and use something called a computer in the 21st Century. Ahead a look at some of the technological innovations unveiled at Seattle's Space Age Worl'ds Fair. KUOW's Harriet Baskas and Jack Straw Productions reports.

During the 1962 World’s Fair, the future was front and center. Astronaut John Glenn had just orbited the earth and NASA was ready to launch the first communications satellite that could both send and receive signals.

That satellite of course is the TELSTAR. 170 pounds of complex electronic equipment that receives signals beamed from earth, magnifies them 10 billion times and rebroadcasts them back to earth.

When Telstar first launched, on July 10th 1962, only audio signals of phone calls were bounced between earth and space.

Stein: "And then a few weeks later, they did a television bounce. Most of Europe got to see scenes of America and most of America got to see scenes of Europe."

Becker: "And it broadcast scenes from the fair."

Historylink staff historians Alan Stein and Paula Becker wrote The Future Remembered – The 1962 World’s Fair and its Legacy. They say that first live international TV broadcast was a very big deal.

Stein: "This was huge. The fact that people could see this while it was happening."

Becker: "Because it was broadcasting scenes like Rockefeller Center and Mt. Rushmore and to have the fair be one of those American iconographic things that was broadcast [although the fair had only been open – for what three months –] that was really important..."

Satellite technology was definitely 21st Century. The fair also promised technological changes for daily living here on earth.

Archvie Audio: "Century 21… how will life be in the 21st century?"

In the Bell Systems Pavilion, lovely young ladies informed fairgoers that just dialing a phone number was old-fashioned. Call-waiting, call-forwarding and phones that had their dials replaced with push buttons were around the corner.

Archive Audio: "Hi! This is the Bell System’s new touch tone dialing. With this indicator you see how many seconds you save in the new way."

For those on the go, there was the Bell Boy -- later known as the pager.

Archive Audio: "When someone calls and you are out, you can be reached by dialing your Bell Boy code number. (Buzz). When you get a signal on your bell boy you can go to a phone and call your office or home one and get the message."

Stein: "It was this big, hurky device. It was about the size of a TV remote. about twice as heavy."

And all it did was rattle in your pocket when somebody wanted to contact you. This was brand new.

Of course, cellphones made pagers obsolete. But those original models are still around: at Seattle’s Museum of Communications.

Museum volunteer Rich Barger worked at regional phone companies for 45 years. He says Seattle World’s Fair officials were the first to be issued pagers.

Barger: "It showed the public that hey, here’s what’s coming. It’s going to be available very shortly. So it was a good marketing ploy."

The museum also displays the first cordless phones. They were invented to solve a problem at the revolving restaurant on top of the Space Needle, says Knute Berger, author of Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle.

Berger: "They wanted to have phone service at your table because that’s what every great fancy restaurant – you could phone from the table. With cords it wouldn’t work. So they actually had the phone company – Pacific NW Bell - actually invented a form of wireless phone that connected the phone to a radio transmitter that then connected you with an operator so you could have a cordless phone at your table while you were rotating and you could make a call. And that was one of the first times that was ever done."

New technology was also featured in General Electric’s Home of the Future exhibit. There, a perfectly coiffed homemaker had conveniences that included a push button sink, remote control draperies and a computer with access to an entire library. All things, it turned out, homeowners could soon have.

Becker: "That’s the thing about this fair. The future seems not so far away."

Historylink’s Paula Becker says even though this World’s Fair was billed as space age, the technological dreams presented were really quite grounded.

Becker: "At the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair the future felt more like a road we were already on. So it’s less foreign less predictive and more like something we’re on our way to."

Archive Audio: "As the present unfolds, see what the future holds… You’re elated... fascinated..."

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio