Fifty years ago, the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair gave visitors a peek at how they might communicate and use something called a computer in the 21st Century. Many of the technological innovations that were unveiled are common place — and even outdated — today.
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.
A news clip explained: “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.
“And then a few weeks later, they did a television bounce,” says Historylink historian Alan Stein. “Most of Europe got to see scenes of America and most of America got to see scenes of Europe.”
“And it broadcast scenes from the fair,” adds colleague Paula Becker.
The pair wrote “The Future Remembered — The 1962 World’s Fair and its Legacy.” They say that the first live international TV broadcast was a very big deal.
“This was huge,” Stein says. “The fact that people could see this while it was happening.”
“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 three months — that was really important,” explains Becker.
Satellite technology was definitely 21st Century. The fair also promised technological changes for daily living here on earth.
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.
“Hi! This is the Bell System’s new touch tone dialing,” a guide would excitedly point out. “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.
“When someone calls and you are out — you can be reached by dialing your bell boy code number,” a promotional ad said. “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.”
“It was this big, hurky device,” Stein says. “It was about the size of a TV remote. But 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, cell phones 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.
“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.”
“They wanted to have phone service at your table because at 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.
“That’s the thing about this fair,” Becker says. “The future seems not so far away.”
She says even though this World’s Fair was billed as Space Age, the technological dreams presented were really quite grounded.
“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.”
KUOW’s series marking the 50th Anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair was produced in collaboration with Jack Straw Productions with funding support from 4 Culture.
Special thanks Tom Stiles and the staff and volunteers at Seattle’s Museum of Communications