The 1950s
The 1950s
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Science & Technology in The 1950s

Looking at the Past Through the Lens of Science & Technology

Was the Eisenhower era the best of times for science, or the worst? It's true that the science of the Fifties gave us the most awful weapon ever developed. The hydrogen bomb cast the shadow of nuclear Armageddon over the world. But research in other areas, often also spurred by military concerns, brought advances that directly affected the daily lives of people across the globe. In medicine and electronics, innovations that came to fruition in the Fifties offered mankind tremendous benefits… starting with the computer you're staring at right now.

The Hydrogen Bomb and Atomic Power

Even as scientists were working on the original atomic bomb, which the US dropped on Japan to end World War II, they were also looking into the possibility of an even more powerful explosive device, known as the "Super" or hydrogen bomb. The atomic bomb's energy came from fission, the splitting of the atom; the Super instead used the energy released when atoms fused together, as they do inside stars. Fusion only occurs at temperatures so high that they never occur on earth. But scientists realized that a fission bomb could create those kinds of temperatures. If they could find a way to maintain this heat long enough to set off fusion, they could dramatically multiply the explosive force of the bomb; a Super could be thousands of times more powerful than the A-bombs that ruined Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Most scientists favored building the original atomic bomb, but they were split over the Super. Albert Einstein opposed its development. So did J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had led the Manhattan Project that developed the A-bomb. Others who knew about the project thought it would be morally wrong to create a bomb that could destroy an entire city, or more, in a single blast. But Edward Teller, another prominent atomic scientist, worked on the Super and lobbied hard for it. So did some military men. Those in favor of developing the Super argued that the Russians would certainly work to develop the technology, and that the Americans couldn't risk letting the USSR develop a monopoly on such dangerous weaponry. In January 1950, President Truman, despite his "grave reservations," decided to go ahead with development of the H-bomb40.

Enormously complex mathematical calculations were required in order to properly design the device. The problem was too vast for mechanical calculators, so atomic scientists turned to a new machine based on vacuum tubes. Efforts to improve these machines pushed forward the development of what came to be called "computers."

By 1 November 1952, researchers were ready to explode the first Super, now known more officially as the hydrogen bomb. The result of the test, conducted at Eniwetok Atoll in a remote location in the South Pacific, exceeded all expectations. The fireball let loose was five miles high and four miles wide. Eniwetok Atoll was simply gone, leaving only a deep crater in the seabed. Less than a year later, on 12 August 953, the Soviets set off an H-bomb of their own in Siberia. The Americans and Russians, along with the British and French, would continue to test ever more sophisticated bombs through the rest of the 1950s.

The flipside of this awesome destructive power was the prospect of cheap energy. During the 1950s, America also made strides in that direction. In 1954, President Eisenhower himself broke ground for the country's first full-scale nuclear power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The plant began supplying power to the Pittsburgh area two years later. Optimists saw an era when electricity would be "too cheap to meter."41 Pessimists saw the possibility of a catastrophic accident. What happened was a little of both. Nuclear power showed promise in the 1960s, and numerous plants went into operation. But in 1979, at the Three Mile Island plant outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a serious accident led to the emergency evacuation of surrounding communities and fear of a devastating release of radiation. Further development of nuclear power in the United States virtually ended.

It Is Rocket Science

Research into rockets during the 1950s had a military purpose. The Germans had experimented with ballistic missiles during World War II and both the Americans and Soviets wanted a rocket that could carry bombs into enemy territory without requiring human pilots to fly them on airplanes. One of the greatest shocks of the decade hit Americans on 4 October 1957. That day, scientists heard a high-pitched radio beep being broadcast from overhead. It was Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth, and it was passing over the United States every 92 minutes as it whizzed around the planet at 18,000 miles an hour. And it was a Russian creation.

Sputnik (the word meant "fellow traveler") was the size of a beach ball and weighed 184 pounds. It was followed less than a month later by a bigger satellite that carried a live dog into space. Americans were stunned. The nation had lost its lead in technology to its mortal enemy, the Soviet Union. Many feared that if the Soviets had rockets that were capable of launching a satellite into space, the same rockets could be used to rain death down upon the Untied States from the air.

President Eisenhower, as usual, tried to calm the "wave of near hysteria" that Sputnik set off in America. The development, he assured Americans, had no military significance. "One small ball in the air is something which does not raise my apprehensions, not one iota," he said.42 But public concern only mounted when, in December 1957, the US tried to launch a tiny 3-pound satellite. But the Navy Vanguard rocket disintegrated on the launch pad, and newspaper headlines labeled the failed test "kaputnik," "flopnik," and "stayputnik."43

Eisenhower was right about the military significance of Sputnik. He knew from secret U-2 spy plane intelligence that the Soviets were not developing a dangerous lead in ballistic missiles. In the years ahead, American scientists caught up to and quickly surpassed their Soviet rivals. In 1958, Eisenhower centralized all space efforts in a civilian agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Some think Eisenhower missed an opportunity in one area of the space race. At the time, the public was clamoring for a better educational system. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act less than a year after the Sputnik launch, increasing federal spending to promote education in science, engineering, and foreign languages. But because the bill allocated only $1 billion over seven years, it had minimal real-world impact in improving American education. "American education languished," writes Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose, "with incalculable results."44

Miracles of Medicine

12 April 1955, a historian noted, "was one of the most exciting days of the decade."45 People drove around honking their car horns, church bells rang, and some schools let students out early to celebrate. What had happened? It was the day that researchers announced that the Salk vaccine had proven effective in preventing polio. Science had conquered a dreaded disease that had, time and time again, swept through the country with devastating effects. Many Americans thought of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, crippled by polio, who had died exactly ten years earlier.

Poliomyelitis is a contagious, unpredictable viral infection that can cause temporary or permanent paralysis, deformity, or death. An epidemic in 1950 afflicted 32,000 children. Another in 1952 made 58,000 ill and killed 1,400. Dr. Jonas Salk, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, developed a vaccine from killed viruses. His efforts were furthered by the 100 million Americans who contributed to the March of Dimes, a charity that was started in 1938 specifically to find a cure for polio. Salk began a program of inoculations in 1954, and once the vaccine's effectiveness was shown, widespread vaccination virtually eradicated polio. By 1962, just a few years after the vaccine was introduced, only 910 cases were reported nationwide.46

Medical science was also moving forward on many other fronts. Researchers developed new antibiotics to treat a whole range of infections diseases. They invented antihistamines to remedy the effects of allergies. Meprobamate, the first tranquilizer, began to be marketed in 1955 under the names Miltown and Equinil, kicking off a deluge of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. One of the most notable new drugs of the period was the birth control pill. Approved for use in 1960, the Pill would change the lives of millions of women and contribute to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

The fight against heart disease moved forward with new techniques for open-heart surgery. Doctors could implant artificial valves and pacemakers to keep heart patients alive. Vaccines for whooping cough and diphtheria helped restrict those diseases, which had killed many children during earlier decades. The average life expectancy reached nearly 70 years by 1960, up from only 63 in 1940. Because of improved nutrition, children in the Fifties grew up taller and stronger than their parents.

Not everything was rosy, however. Cancer remained a mysterious affliction for which there were few treatments. Medical care was expensive, and many citizens lacked medical insurance. President Truman's proposal for a national health insurance plan died in Congress. When Eisenhower put forth a much more modest program to help private health insurance companies, the American Medical Association, a doctors' group, raised the fear of "socialized" medicine. The plan failed to pass and the problem of Americans lacking health insurance continues today.

Transistors Change the World

We take computers so much for granted today that it's hard even to imagine a time when they didn't exist. The closest thing to a computer in 1950 was the Electrical Numerical Integrator And Calculator or ENIAC. Constructed out of 18,000 vacuum tubes and consuming about 180,000 watts of electrical power, the ENIAC was capable of multiplying numbers rapidly… and not much more.

Work on the hydrogen bomb was not the only factor that pushed scientists to increase the capacity of the computer. With the rapid growth in population, the U.S. Census Bureau wanted a new machine for tabulating its data and in 1951 took delivery of a Universal Automatic Computer or UNIVAC, the first commercial computer. In 1952, CBS borrowed UNIVAC and used it to correctly predict Eisenhower's victory over Stevenson from the early results of the presidential election.

Computers would have remained massive and ungainly contraptions if not for the invention of the transistor in 1947. Scientists at Bell Laboratories used the electrical conductive properties of crystals to put the function of a vacuum tube into a solid-state device. The first transistor-based computer arrived in 1955. In 1958, Jack Kilby, a scientist Texas Instruments, found that arrays of transistors would work even better if packed onto a single wafer of semiconductor material. His invention of the integrated circuit set the computer industry on the fast track.

So what were computers like by the end of the Fifties? By modern standards, pitiful. Digital Equipment Corporation's state-of-the-art PDP-1 stored data on punched paper tape and had a memory of 9 kilobytes (though it could be upgraded to 144 kilobytes). In modern terms, this memory is ludicrously tiny—a single average-size photograph stored in your computer requires about 1,000 kilobytes. In spite of its limitations, though, customers at the time thought the machine was worth its price tag: $120,000. And it was used to play the first ever video game, called Spacewar!

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