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Jun. 14, 2013

Building the Space Needle

by Julie Leibach

Click to enlarge images
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As great ideas often do, the concept behind Seattle’s Space Needle began as a mere sketch—drawn on a coffee house placemat*, no less. Edward E. Carlson, president, at the time, of Western International Hotels, was the artist. It was 1959, and Carlson was trying to visualize a focal piece for the 1962 World’s Fair, which would follow a futuristic theme called “Century 21” (hard to believe we’re already there, isn’t it?).
 
Carlson’s sketch endured many revisions, morphing from a balloon-like shape to a saucer, thanks to input from lead architect John Graham, who had designed the world's first shopping mall, Seattle’s Northgate. After a near-abandoned search for a suitable building site, investors settled on a 120-foot by 120-foot parcel of land, and construction proceeded speedily, according to the Needle website.
 
The final structure measured 605 feet—a height perhaps unremarkable by today’s soaring skyscraper standards, but enough to earn the Needle “tallest building” status west of the Mississippi at the time. Its foundation penetrates 30 feet below the surface, weighing more than the Needle itself and helping center the building’s gravity five feet above ground. Constructed with double the 1962 building code requirements, the Needle can withstand whipping 200 mile-per-hour winds and has endured several tremors. Meanwhile, “the top house was balanced so perfectly,” according to the Needle website, “that the restaurant rotated with just a one horsepower electric motor.” (Now it runs on 1.5 horsepower.)
 
Completed in December 1961, the Space Needle officially opened in time for the first day of the World’s Fair on April 21, 1962. And the crowds just keeping coming. (To hear SciFri's broadcast about the Space Needle click on the link below. For more facts about the building, click here.)
 
 
*There is some discrepancy over whether the doodle was on a placemant, a napkin, and possibly even a postcard, notes Knute Berger, author of Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle and a guest on the show.
 
RELATED SCIENCE FRIDAY LINK
About Julie Leibach

Julie is the managing editor of ScienceFriday.com. She is a huge fan of sleep and chocolate. Follow her @julieleibach.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

Science Friday® is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

Science Friday® and SciFri® are registered service marks of Science Friday, Inc. Site design by Pentagram; engineering by Mediapolis.

 

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