Three decades ago, a group of amateur scientists came up with an idea for a new museum, one that would stand out from the harbor's industrial blight, a place where children could grab, prod and poke exhibits and occasionally be electrified by science.
It was a quite a gamble for science buffs who were best known for their collection of antique telescopes. But it paid off: Today marks the 30th anniversary of their dream, the Maryland Science Center. In the past three decades, thousands of youngsters have visited the center to learn the names of the stars, to dig for fossils and to touch a charged silver ball that makes their hair stand on end.
Once the lone tourist attraction on the harbor's shore, the Maryland Science Center has become a city landmark and a symbol of the transformation that turned a working port into Baltimore's Inner Harbor, a booming tourist area that pumps tens of millions of dollars into the city's coffers annually.
"No one on staff understood that there would be a Harborplace, that there would be an aquarium, that it would be like this," said Pete Yancone, director of education and a 30-year employee of the museum. "But it was exciting because we were making something new."
When the Science Center was erected on the site of a former fish oil refinery in 1976, it was one of the few new things at the harbor, said Martin L. Millspaugh, the former chief executive of Charles Center-Inner Harbor Management Inc., the company that led the revitalization.
The museum's parent organization, the Maryland Academy of Sciences, was founded in 1797. Early members, including Johns Hopkins and Enoch Pratt, inspected mineral samples, fossils and stuffed birds in Baltimore parlors.
When tobacco distributor Allan C. Davis joined the academy in 1925, events had dwindled to a monthly lecture, and the collection consisted of a few old telescopes, according to his obituary in The Sun. Davis eventually became president of the academy and led the effort to create a science museum at the harbor.
Although the plan to reinvent the downtown area had been in the works since the mid-1960s, the new museum predated Harborplace and the National Aquarium. A bottling plant and trucking terminal still operated at what is now Rash Field and gusts of spice wafted over from the McCormick's spice factory, Millspaugh said.
"Pratt Street was full of abandoned buildings and broken-down saloons," said longtime civic leader Walter Sondheim. He recalled standing on the balcony of the newly built museum with developer James Rouse, debating where Harborplace should be built.
Despite an innovative approach to science and a state-of-the-art planetarium, only 12,000 visitors -- mostly students on field trips -- visited the Science Center during its first year, spokesman Chris Cropper said.
The museum faced many challenges during the early years. Few visitors, from Baltimore or anywhere else, came to the harbor. Parking was limited. The concept of a hands-on science museum was virtually unheard of. "Nobody knew what a science center was," Yancone said.
And then there was the structure itself -- clay-colored, windowless and looking as if it had been plucked from the set of an old science-fiction movie. "The original building represented what I would call the fortress architecture style," said M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp.
Architect Edward Durell Stone, who designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, believed that the museum should not have windows so visitors wouldn't be distracted by views of the harbor, Sondheim said.
Ten years after the museum was built, a $3.8 million project added a sunny cafeteria, a talking dinosaur and the IMAX Theater. The entrance was moved from Light Street to face the water, reflecting changes in tourism brought by Harborplace and the aquarium. Rather than skirting the desolate harbor, herds of visitors made the Science Center part of their day by the water. Yet the museum still trailed other city attractions in numbers of visitors.
Two years ago, to capture a bigger audience and encourage more repeat visits, the museum expanded again. Now a staircase spirals in the airy three-story atrium and life-size dinosaurs stare out over the harbor. Dozens of computers, a hands-on lab and tornado simulator were added in a $35 million expansion.
Last year, approximately 600,000 people visited the Science Center, Cropper said. The National Aquarium, which turns 25 later this summer, boasted about a million more visitors, a spokeswoman said. "It's an uncontrolled experiment," Yancone said, explaining that the Science Center continually reinvents itself to attract visitors and bring them back again.
Yet parents who come to the museum looking for exhibits they enjoyed as children -- the giant talking crab, the hair-raising silver ball and the whisper dishes that bounce words across the room -- won't be disappointed.
The museum has preserved a few old favorites, but now they're surrounded by high-tech wonders. Storm clouds swirl over a globe showing current weather patterns. A harp with invisible strings creaks, groans and tinkles when visitors wave their hands through beams of light. A computerized voice announces the height of visitors standing on a certain spot. When the same child lines up to be measured again and again, the voice says, "I see you're enjoying this."
This week, siblings Curtis, Cameron and Callie Brown from Tucson, Ariz., launched balls into a Rube Goldbergian contraption, then wiggled their hands in a miniature tornado. Dives Richards of Baltimore and her four children had their photo taken with a dinosaur, then e-mailed it to Dad from one of the museum's computers.
Luke Karavan, 5, of New Jersey, clicked on pictures of dinosaurs, identifying them as carnivores or herbivores. In a nearby terrarium, a toad stared unblinking at mother and child, and a monitor lizard snoozed under a tunnel.
In a room dedicated to the human body, Spencer Green squeezed his eyes shut and laid still as his mother pressed a red button. Hundreds of nails slowly emerged from the board beneath him, lifting the giggling 7-year-old four inches in the air.
"It doesn't hurt, but it kind of tickles," Spencer said.
Janet Green said that Spencer and his brother, Jesse, 9, were fascinated by the museum.
"They want to touch and play with everything here," said their mother, who was visiting from Delaware. "I'm trying to get them to go back to the hotel and get in the pool, but they want to stay here."