PacSci Memories: Les Blackwell Reminisces About the World’s Fair

Attendees at the 1962 World Fair
Attendees of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair started with a film in the Eames (now PACCAR) Theater, then they went one-way through the Pavilion. Directly in the middle of the experience, there was a resting courtyard that was open air and decorated with art and had places to rest. Much later, this area would be glassed in and made into exhibits halls, which is now known as Building 3 or the Kiewit Pavilion. Pacific Science Center Archives.

I was there when you opened in April of 1962 as a member of a National Science Foundation (NSF) research team from the University of Washington’s sociology department whose mission was to find out what people learned during the Seattle World’s Fair after going through the Pacific Science Center buildings. The Pacific Science Center was beautiful beyond words both inside and out. The pools and the arches drew people there like magic. The insides were as majestic as the outside with the big hall showcasing a large variety of science exhibits. And the Center was the jewel of the Seattle World’s Fair. The Center sparkled and shined like no other place on the fairgrounds.

It was a major NSF grant to ascertain what people learned after going through the Center. My wife was a graduate student in the department, an administrator of the grant, and hired me and another friend to supervise two teams of researchers to interview people who want through the Center. However, we had problems in design and execution. First, people at the fair did not always go through the main front door, they would meander in the side doors which were less busy than the main doors. These good folks also left through other exits when they got tired, which made our questionnaires unusable. Another intricacy was that my team (and the other team) was composed of University of Washington undergraduate girls. On one of our first days to do some questioning of people flowing through the Center, we collected a good amount of questionnaires. Things were looking good. That afternoon back on campus we looked at the questionnaires and started to analyze the data. One thing stood out—the questionnaires were completed by a majority of young men between the ages of 20 to 30 years old. How did this happen? Well, given that our researchers were young women and we had told them to find someone who had finished the tour, they found the young men. So we had to go back to the drawing board and redesign how we selected our subjects. Still, it was a fun time and we worked in one of the most beautiful buildings on the fairgrounds.

The Pacific Science Center was one of the main attractions at the fair and we had dignities from around the world come through the exhibits. We never asked them to do a questionnaire as they always went through with special tour guides and security. But my team and I were there to watch the excitement. Another exciting day in the large hall was at the display of baby monkeys being raised by their real mothers (control) and other baby monkeys being ‘raised’ by surrogate doll moms who basically did nothing (experimental). It was a crowd-pleaser display of some sort of scientific methodology. One afternoon my team was in the large hall when one of the mother monkeys with child escaped the display. She was frightened of course of the crowds and immediately after exiting the display leaped to a ladder attached to the wall that went up to the upper section of the building. The mom and child climbed nimbly up the ladder and stayed there, perusing the crowd below. I sent one of my team to inform the main office of the problem, meanwhile one of the Center’s security guards found another ladder to gain access to the one reaching the ceiling and began to climb after the pair. Partway up he pulled out his revolver. The crowd below went wild and yelled at the security officer which only scared the monkey further up the ladder. However, the officer had another idea and that was to bang the revolver against the side of the metal ladder that he and the monkeys were on–and bang he did, several times. The mother monkey did what she might have done in the jungle, she raised her tail and deposited her thoughts on the security guard below to the delight of the crowd and my team. We eventually closed the hall down, cleared out all the people, and let the scientists coax their monkey pair down and back into the exhibit where they were safe.

The Pacific Science Center was and will always be in a special place in my heart. It was a summer of delight as we tried to find out what people learned about science. We didn’t learn what we intended but we did learn a lot and found out that the people from around the country and world loved the displays and buildings. It will always have a special place in my heart after all these years. What a wonderful place to have the Pacific Science Center and the memories of it.

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About the Author

Les Blackwell was teaching at an elementary school in Issaquah at the time of the World’s Fair. In 1966 he started doctoral work at the University of Washington and was one of the first graduate students (even before faculty) on campus to use a time-share computer at Palo Alto, marking the beginning of the computer age. Two years into my studies, Western Washington College of Education (now Western Washington University) needed for an instructor of media for the Education Program, and for two years he taught at ‘Western’ while still studying at UW. Les explains, “The Pacific Science Center did have an effect on me. Receiving my doctorate (1970) I then taught at Western for 35 years and started the department of Instructional Technology for the College of Education. It was the golden age of computers and the Pacific Science Center was an important motivation in my studies.