© 2024 KGOU
Photo of Lake Murray State Park showing Tucker Tower and the marina in the background
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Looking Back, and Up, at a Seattle Icon


We are broadcasting today from the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. And just steps away from this building - right outside - is something that should be familiar to anyone who's ever received a postcard from Seattle; or taken home a pen or a glass, or anything - a tchotchke of any kind. And it's the Space Needle, built in connection with the 1962 World's Fair. It is an iconic part of the Seattle skyline.

And joining me now to talk about the history of the Space Needle and its engineering, its design, is Knute Berger. He's author of the book "Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle." He's an editor-at-large for Seattle Magazine and regular contributor to KUOW, in Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KNUTE BERGER: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

FLATOW: I'm probably old enough remember when that was built in 1962 so...

BERGER: Yeah, it was highly publicized. Its image got all over the world.

FLATOW: And how - it has a unique design to it. Who designed it and why does it have the shape it has?

BERGER: That's a really interesting question. There's - it's actually a complicated story. The chief architect was a man named John Graham Jr., had a large architectural firm. He was mainly known as the man who invented the first really successful shopping mall, which was here in Seattle, Northgate. He had the task of creating the Space Needle. But he - they got stuck on the design. They had a doodle on a napkin. He had a bunch of architects who began looking at a tower-like structure. They were inspired by a tower, a broadcast tower in Germany, in Stuttgart, which had a restaurant on it. And so they knew they wanted an observation deck. But they were kind of open to what else they would do. They thought about putting a planetarium up there and a helicopter pad.

FLATOW: No kidding.

BERGER: Yeah. They considered all kinds of things. And - but they were stuck on coming up with a design that was really a wow design. So John Graham hired as a consultant a professor from the University of Washington named Victor Steinbrueck. He's known locally in Seattle as architect-activist who saved the Pike Place Market. But he was a designer, and he worked on the Space Needle design.

He got stuck. And one day, he was sitting in his home office and he saw - he had a beautiful abstract sculpture by a California artist named David Lemon, and it was feminine figure in complete abstract, reaching up to the sky with this narrow waist and then this tripod legs. And it was called "The Feminine One." And he went, aha, OK, there is a unique shape for a tower.

FLATOW: Wow. If you have a question you want to ask Knute, get up there on our microphones and you can ask it. Where there any engineering innovations that were required to get this to be built? Anything about the revolving restaurant, anything like that?

BERGER: Well, it was interesting because at that time, there were no revolving restaurants.

FLATOW: Oh, well.

BERGER: There had to be an innovation. Yeah, John Graham was actually building a revolving bar in Honolulu, and they thought, well, let's since they had - Graham wanted a flying saucer shape. And, of course, Washington state had kicked off the whole flying saucer craze with the sighting at Mt. Rainier in 1947 that the press had called flying saucer. But it became this kind of iconic idea of what the future would look like. Well, because it was this circular shape, a revolving restaurant made sense. Graham patented a gearing system that allowed you to turn the entire restaurant of 250 people with a one-horsepower motor.


BERGER: And that was built up in Everett, Washington, just north of Seattle.

FLATOW: With a size that drives a washing machine. It's very small.

BERGER: Yes, exactly.

FLATOW: Very small motor.

BERGER: Exactly. They have - the motor in there now is a little bigger, but it only takes one horsepower to turn it.

FLATOW: Wow. We actually - on our website at sciencefriday.com/spaceneedle, we have some photos of it, the under construction, if you want to go over there and look at that. I understand there was something also innovative about having to design telephone, the telephone system network that was there.

BERGER: Yeah. They wanted to be able to have telephones on the tables in the rotating restaurant.

FLATOW: Kind of like they do in big city restaurants.

BERGER: Exactly.

FLATOW: Have a phone at your table.

BERGER: Precisely, and except they couldn't plug the phones in. So they needed wireless phones.

FLATOW: They couldn't plug them in because it's rotating.

BERGER: That's right.

FLATOW: I see.

BERGER: Yeah. And it goes around about once an hour. So what they did was they went to Pacific Northwest Bell and had the engineers there create a wireless telephone. So the Space Needle actually had wireless phones in 1962. You could sit down. You could make a call. There was a radio pickup in the wall, and they would connect you then to the operator so you could call out.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I was - I took a visit to the Space Needle yesterday. And I'm - being a geek myself, I was really enthralled with the technology and just this - the pure nuts and bolts that are holding it together. I remember walking out and seeing this giant nut and - screw and nut holding it - it's bolted to the ground. Of course, being a geek, I wanted to know the size of the wrench it took to do that.


FLATOW: But that seemed to be very, very simple, and it seems to be holding up very, very well.

BERGER: Yeah, they hired an engineer from Southern California, a guy named John Minasian. And Minasian was an expert in towers, and he built rocket gantries for Cape Canaveral for the Saturn rockets. He also built missile testing gantries for the Air Force at Edwards Air Force Base and broadcast towers. And he contributed pretty significantly to the Needle design in terms of - for one thing, being from Southern California, he'd studied with Richter at Caltech. He said you're going to - we're going to put in a foundation that will stand the test of time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it has been and, you know, you're in a very tectonic part of the world. There are a lot of earthquakes that happen here. I imagine that was taken into account in the design.

BERGER: Yeah. They did wind tunnel test at the University of Washington, and they basically doubled the load so that it was twice the required code at the time. I talked to an engineer who worked on the project says it could - it'll stay standing with a nine point, you know, quake.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, and was it designed with the Cold War in mind? We were right in the middle of the coldest past of the Cold War at that time.

BERGER: The whole World's Fair was part of the national response to Sputnik. It received federal funding because the scientists in the U.S. wanted a science fair. And the Eisenhower administration thought that was a good idea.

FLATOW: There had just been won in Belgium, right, a few years beforehand?

BERGER: That's right. 1958.

FLATOW: And had a big - if I remember correctly - had like a big atom as its symbol. And so the scientists wanted something that compete with that.

BERGER: That's right. And the U.S. scientists had been very disappointed in the '58 Brussels fair because they felt the Russians had outshone us in terms of science. And they said we need to do something. And the Seattle guys came along and said, we want to do a fair. You want a science fair. That's what this will be about. The Space Needle was designed to be a symbol of the kind of uplift that science and technology represented to the world.

When they broke ground on the Space Needle, it was literally the same time that the Berlin Wall was being built. And it became this kind of symbol about the difference between us and the Soviets. They were putting up barbwire. We were putting up a vista to the world.

FLATOW: Talking with Knute Berger on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow here at - in Seattle at the Pacific Science Center right next to the Space Needle. If it were to be built today, would anything be built differently about it, structurally or design-wise or is it almost a perfect needle?

BERGER: You know, I asked the engineer who's still alive who worked on it. I asked him that exact question. I said what would you today? And he said, basically, we wouldn't anything different. He said we could take some of the weight out of it. They overbuilt it. He...

FLATOW: Yeah. It's solid.

BERGER: It's very solid.

FLATOW: Very solid.

BERGER: Although it's one of the first questions people ask when they see is is it going to fall over?

FLATOW: Is that right?

BERGER: Yeah. People - I think it's because of the wasp waist and then the way it flares out with this platform on top. People have the sense that it's delicate, which is a great design element.

FLATOW: Were things added during the years or was it the same thing that we've...

BERGER: Things have been added during the years. There is what's called the SkyLine level, which is a public event space built at the 100-foot level. They've also built a building kind of around the base that has the gift shop. Otherwise, it's pretty much intact.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And it was built with the science fair in mind as part of a larger ground. Part - it would fit into the larger works of the whole world's fair here.

BERGER: That's right. It was actually late coming in the fair. They realized in the process, they needed a symbol for the fair, and they didn't have one. They didn't have a means of financing it. They didn't have a location for it. The Space Needle is where it is because the city managed to find a small piece of property that they could sell to a private developer to build the Space Needle. And it happened to be the perfect spot.

FLATOW: You talked about the structure itself having a very feminine shape to it. But anybody who has looked at this thing swears that it looks like a UFO at the top there landing or taking off.

BERGER: Yeah. Well...

FLATOW: Is it done on purpose?

BERGER: Yes, it was. In fact, John Graham - when the guys would come to him with designs - one of his - one of the things he constantly was exhorting them is he'd sat about the top — he'd say more disc-y, more disc-y. It needs to be more disc-y. He really wanted that flying saucer shape and some - if you look at some of the rejected designs, you'll see that some look like bagels and some look like, you know, Buck Rogers things. I mean, it just...

FLATOW: So why did he want it? Was it just the era that was happening in? I remember the '50s were filled with sightings of flying saucers, things like that.

BERGER: It was the - the theme of the fair was the space age, so we were going into space. Who had the best technology in space? It was the aliens who were visiting the Earth.


BERGER: It was the UFO. It represented these advanced civilizations that were doing what we aspire to. So it just became a kind of symbol for that. But it also had that connection with Mount Rainier. And one of the great views of the Space Needle is on a day when the clouds are there and you can see it literally just kind of hovering above the crowds and you can't see the base.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

BERGER: That's like one of those fabulous views.

FLATOW: It was a fabulous view yesterday, and I appreciate it and it took me that many years to get up there and see it. I'm glad I did. Thank you very much, Knute, for joining us today.

BERGER: Thank you.

FLATOW: Knute Berger, he's author of the book "Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle." He's an editor-at-large for Seattle Magazine and regular contributor to KUOW right here in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.