“As our knowledge of the universe in which we live increases, may God grant us the wisdom and guidance to use it wisely.”
– John Glenn, in a quotation inscribed on the cyclorama wall at the original COSI
Squeals fill cavernous rooms as children run around touching exhibits of scientific curiosity. Parents watch, and occasionally, their gazes wander toward bits and pieces of knowledge that until moments ago was unknown to them. A pair of 20-somethings hold hands, sitting comfortably, bathed in the glow of an enormous screen that illuminates the world of possibilities lying within a single atom. And in another section of the facility, a little girl stares into the vast expanses of the great beyond – to space, or at least its approximation – and in that instant, her shiny eyes change and deepen, for within her mind a fundamental shift has begun to take place. The world that she has known just expanded 1,000-fold, and innocence has been replaced with an unquenchable drive to understand the universe in which she lives.
And what will become of her? Will she be the next Einstein? The next Marie Curie? The next Leonardo DaVinci?
But that’s the whole point of the Center of Science and Industry, or as it’s more commonly known, COSI, a compound featuring interactive exhibits open to the public, which is now coming into its 50th year of operation in Columbus as one of the country’s most celebrated science centers.
And it all started, like one tiny little atom, with the dream of one man.
Sandford N. “Sandy” Hallock II was a lifelong lover of science, and according to his son, an insatiable “tech geek.” When he was 15 years old, he wrote his own science radio talk show and made and sold crystal radio kits. He wrote for the Air Force newspaper during his service and enjoyed visiting science centers all around the country, but in 1957 he encountered the institution that would inspire him to build COSI; the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. When he returned home, he was dead set on building something like it in the capital city.
“There is a natural inquisitiveness built into all of us,” Hallock wrote in his original 1958 proposal for COSI, which today hangs up in an exhibition at the entrance to the center. “Even though the sign says ‘wet paint,’ the natural inclination is to find out for ourselves. So it is with science. The average person would like to come face to face with scientific and industrial developments, and virtually touch them or operate them, if it were possible.”
Hallock sent his proposal to friend and business acquaintance Herschel Stephan, President of the Franklin County Historical Society, which was housed in the county’s crumbling Memorial Hall building at 280 E Broad St. Stephan took the proposal to the Board of Trustees, which then proposed COSI to the Franklin County Commissioners. They had been looking for a way to fix up Memorial Hall, and COSI seemed like it could be the answer. With a little help from Preston Wolfe, publisher of the Columbus Dispatch, and financial backing from Walter English of the Historical Society’s Board of Trustees, the Commissioners decided to allocate the money to renovate Memorial Hall and build the center in 1962. Hallock was named the Executive Director of COSI, and construction began.
When it finally opened on Easter Sunday 1964, COSI was a two-story, 40,000-square-foot facility with six employees, presenting only a fraction of the exhibits the center houses today. Attractions on display included a replica doctor’s office from the 1800s and the iconic Foucault’s Pendulum that was set in motion to open the center, which is currently encased in glass in the exhibition alongside the original proposal. About 5,000 people attended the opening, paying 25-50 cents admission, and by the end of the year, it had welcomed more than 136,000 attendees.
“None of the staff, including myself, had ever worked in a museum before,” wrote Chuck O’Conner, the VP of exhibits for COSI in 1966, in the Handbook for Small Science Centers. “We didn’t know what not to do. We tried lots of ideas, and COSI grew rapidly. Soon a volunteer core of teenagers and a women’s association far outnumbered the COSI staff.”
COSI was moved in 1999 to its current location at 333 West Broad St. The 320,000-square-foot facility is an extension of the old Central High School building. The design, created by reknowned architect Arata Isozaki, is inspired by a mathematical structure called a Clothoid, and the building’s integration of the old structure is meant to show the evolution from past into future. It is home to the WOSU TV station, countless exhibits, an enormous theater complex, live feeds through the Association of Science and Technology Centers, and also houses a number of labs conducting actual scientific research, all viewable by the public. To date, more than 30 million people from all over the world have visited COSI.
“We’ve been around for a long time,” said Jaclyn Reynolds, spokesperson for COSI. “It’s been a big part of our history here in Columbus, and we’ve inspired a lot of different people to go into science careers. That’s a big part of our mission. We want to make sure that people are inspired and want to learn a little bit more about their world.”
To celebrate their half-century anniversary on March 29th, COSI will be showcasing BLAST, a number of ’60s- ’70s- and ’80s-themed events that take place on the grounds, including sharing past attendees’ memories of COSI, a DJ-led karaoke session, a performance by the band Hat Trick, and a massive party with food, drinks, and dancing. According to Reynolds, there will also be an exciting announcement that evening. The celebration will focus on the nostalgia of the place – to everyone whose hair was raised by an electrostatic generator or who clapped for basketball-playing mice. But it’s also about giving a nod to all the staff volunteers who have kept the center in operation, who have made COSI such an inspiring place to visit.
“Everyone that works here has such a passion for what we do, and we have so many long-term employees who have been here for the long haul and work every day to make sure that the guests have a great experience and learn a lot,” she said. “There are 50 volunteers on the floor on any given day. They really are a big part of our life here, and we really couldn’t open the building without them. They run our shows, they interact with our guests. They have really great passion.”
BLAST will take place the evening of March 29th at COSI on 333 West Broad Street. For more detailed information about times and ticket prices, or about exhibits at COSI, visit www.cosi.com.
A Generation of Geeks
COSI’s website features a “digital scrapbook” in which past attendees can post their own stories about COSI, called myCOSIstory. Here are a few selections they’ve collected so far:
“In the sixth grade, I told my parents that I hated science. In what is still referred to today as an epic parenting win, my parents made me volunteer as a Summer Workshop volunteer for “just one” summer. It took only a couple of weeks before I was hooked; and I ended up volunteering every summer and Camp-in season I could until college. I’ve been living and breathing science ever since, I couldn’t imagine life any other way.”
–Kristi Ammons, Shaker Heights
“I think my COSI experience had a lot to do with my success as an adult. I was shy when I began to volunteer, but I learned to speak publicly. I later became a teacher – I do not think I would ever have been able to take on this profession without my early experiences in successful public speaking. I also developed close friendships with other volunteers, which made me feel that being a “science geek” was cool and gave me courage to continue to pursue sciences as an adult. COSI also helped my confidence and interest in sciences continue to grow. I completed a BA in biology and an MSW and PhD in social work with emphasis on social policy analysis and program evaluation. My analytic, statistical, and evaluation skills helped me get the job I presently have. I am not sure how my future would have evolved without COSI, but I do know I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
– Christina Bruhn, Chicago
“COSI had a profound effect on me, as a regular visitor on school and family trips. Thanks to the impression COSI made on me, I am now a museum curator! I dedicated myself to museum work while still in high school, and have been working in museums across the country ever since. I was very fortunate to be able to return to Ohio in 2013 when I took a position with the Ohio Historical Society. Also, my great uncle was a child survivor of the Titanic disaster, and seeing the Titanic exhibit at COSI with my family on a return trip to Ohio was powerful. I grew up hearing his firsthand stories of that night, and to be able to see the exhibit and actually touch a piece of the ship was incredible! Thanks COSI and happy birthday!”
_– David Dyer, Columbus, Ohio (Ohio Historical Society) _