I came across a large display model of this stamp a while back and got curious about it: I'm an historian of science at the University of Oklahoma, and the whole "arrows to atoms" motif as the state's semi-centennial motto came as a surprise to me. Not ever having thought of my adopted home state as particularly nuclear (next door New Mexico, on the other hand, yes!) -- especially as a key marker of state identity -- I wondered what the connection was. The advance of military technology from one form of indigenous American offensive thrust to a later version? New ways of picturing "Boomer Sooner"??? A timely shout-out to 50s rocker extraordinaire, Wanda Jackson -- Oklahoma's gift to rockabilly and female sass -- whose 1957 rendition of "Fujiyama Mama" was a cultural high point? (sample lyric: Well you can say I'm crazy, so deaf and dumb! / But I can cause destruction just like the atom bomb!). For more, see the always on-top-of-it conelrad, in their "Atomic Platters" section (and to hear the song itself, listen to this radio track.)
It turns out that this was one of the promotional themes for the Semi-Centennial Exposition, the Oklahomarama -- where you could visit the "Foodarama," a "Motorama," an "International Photorama," and "Soonerama Land," according to the Oklahoma Historical Society: you just knew Oklahoma was on the verge of something big with that many "ramas" going on, right? But what about the atoms? That had a newsy hook -- the award of a 16-ton "nuclear reactor for teaching purposes" to Oklahoma State University -- but it also seems to have had a more expansive interpretation as well, that of crossing the threshold of two "frontiers": as the New York Times put it, "an arrow, to represent Oklahoma's redskin frontier, and a variation of the familiar emblem which symbolizes atomic energy, to suggest 'new frontiers'" (March 24, 1957, p. 135). There was a special exhibit on "The World of Tomorrow" that featured atomic power, and the atomic spirit was made concrete in the form of a 200-foot tower (an arrow pointing upward to: tomorrow? space? heaven?) with a silhouette of Oklahoma's border contained within a giant (outdated) solar system model of "an orbit of golden atoms" which lit up at night (this and more described in the May-June 1957 issue of Oklahoma Today, the Semi-Centennial Souvenir edition.)
It turns out that the emphasis on atomic power was more than just a clever way to hitch Oklahoma's wagon to a radiant symbol of the new horizon, but that the wagon was being driven by corporate and civic leaders who were certain that Oklahoma could capitalize on the changing scientific landscape and get in on the ground floor of a new technology that would bring wealth and prosperity to an undercapitalized state, one of the new kids on the block: hence the creation of the "Frontiers of Science Foundation" in 1956 by Dean A. McGee (of energy industry giant Kerr-McGee -- they were the first oil company, in 1952, to mine uranium and they were the nuclear leader in Oklahoma); E.K. Gaylord, the powerful media boss and publisher of OKC's family-owned newspaper, the Oklahoman; Stanley Draper, manager of the city's Chamber of Commerce; and James E. Webb, who had ties to Washington DC due to his stints as U.S. Director of the Budget and Undersecretary of State under President Harry Truman, currently Chairman of the Board of Republic Supply Co. (a division of Kerr-McGee). The Foundation sponsored a "year-long, full time, all-expense-paid refresher-type-course seminar for high school science teachers" and "was first in the nation to go into a statewide testing program to identify youngsters of outstanding ability," reported an article in Oklahoma Today in Spring of 1958. They explained to their readers that this group, driven by a "strange, new, fascinating vision of a New West and the New Frontier of the Mind," had flown around the country making contacts, soliciting advice, and that there was:
"hardly a major nuclear plant, research center or policy-shaping government body in America which hasn't been literally overwhelmed by this 'big bunch of men from Oklahoma' who came dropping in out of the sky to ask the questions the scientists have been so eager -- and fighting so much public apathy elsewhere -- to answer."
Given the Foundation's mission, it is clear how pleased they were to focus the Semi-Centennial Exposition around their aims, which included a "Frontiers of Science" exhibit of their own and an International Science Symposium. The souvenir Oklahoma Today issue noted with pride that "an actual replica of the Earth Satellite, a model of the Vanguard Rocket to be used in launching the famed satellite, and a Solar Battery in operation" would be key draws for the Frontiers of Science exhibit. The Exposition was scheduled from mid-June through early July of 1957 -- after reading about the Vanguard display, I figured it must have been an incredible let-down a few months later to hear about the US being pre-empted by the Sputnik launch in October of that year, and then of the inability of the US to get a satellite up to answer Sputnik and then Sputnik 2 -- the Vanguard attempt blew up on the launch pad, prompting jeers of "Flopnik" and the like.
But that would be to underestimate the boosterism and savvy of the FofSF bunch! They argued that Sputnik -- "the greatest challenge facing Western Civilization" -- was not to be feared, given that the good guys in white cowboy hats had everybody's back:
"Some have wondered why, after Sputnik went up, President Eisenhower happened to select Oklahoma as the site for his sole major address away from Washington to reassure a worried nation. It was no accident. It was basically a tribute to a small group of Oklahomans who had quietly started three years previous, well in advance of any other state, to fuel up a rocket-powered wagon train out of the New West."
Because of the activities of the FofSF:
"half-a-hundred of the [scientists] whose names have since become almost as familiar headliners as Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield had come flying into Oklahoma from all over the globe for an endless series of lectures, conferences, inspection tours. Men like Dr. Vannevar Bush, considered the 'father' of modern American science; Dr. James R. Killian, M.I.T. president now President Eisenhower's top scientific advisor. . . [all of this had become so common that] the recent visit of one of the greatest scientists of his age, Dr. Niels Bohr, hardly provoked more among the general public than a pleasant nod of recognition. Where a few years back he might have been classed in the same category with a man from Mars, he was now viewed simply, with respect, as one of the 'home folks.'"
I would have liked to have seen a comparison by our state's leaders of where we had landed in terms of our aspirations from the Semi-Centennial to the just-celebrated Centennial. I'm sure that back in the '50s and '60s the efforts of the FofSF helped to identify individuals to help staff a new scientific workforce (and certainly all of this seemed to help James E. Webb, who ended up as the head of NASA), but how it all worked out educationally for future generations seems a mixed-bag from my end. Certainly, I've taught a number of students who had innovative science teachers in high school, but I've heard earfuls over the years from the majority of students who have a long list of grievances about how deficient their science classes were. Maybe 1957 is not so far ago, after all.
And then there's a little matter of a note that President Eisenhower made in that national security speech in OKC, where he called for Americans to close the education gap with the Soviets. He stated that:
"Young people now in college must be equipped to live in the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, what will then be needed is not just engineers and scientists, but a people who will keep their heads, and, in every field, leaders who can meet intricate human problems with wisdom and courage. In short, we will need not only Einsteins and Steinmetzes, but Washingtons, and Emersons."
We hear much the same rhetoric in these parts today about the need for better science education, in pursuit of economic competitiveness and national security. Not so much, however, about the need for Emersons. Maybe that was too radical for 1957. . . and for today.
For more: The city of Tulsa felt left out of all the atomic celebration hoo-ha in OKC, and came up with a twist of their own for a Tulsarama celebration: they would bury a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere [classic photo here] and assorted memorabilia in an atomic-attack-proof vault, to be dug up later for Oklahoma's Centennial celebration in 2007. When the car was retrieved last year, it turned out that two feet of standing water had rusted the car straight through [must-see photo] -- guess it wouldn't have survived a nuclear explosion! (A film reel of the American Petroleum Institute's promotional video, Destination Earth did make it through, though -- here's the scoop. All this via Telstar Logistics, a whole adventure in itself.)
Images: The postage stamp image can be found at http://www.1847usa.com/identify/1950s/1957.htm and the other two at the Oklahoma Historical Society's webpage for the Semi-Centennial celebration, http://www.okhistory.org/semicentennial.html.