The 1950s Science and Technology: Topics in the News

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The 1950s Science and Technology: Topics in the News

FROM COLOR TV TO MAGNETIC TAPE, TRANSISTORS TO TRANSATLANTIC CABLES
THE COMPUTER COMES OF AGE
COMPUTER LANGUAGE: A NEW WAY OF COMMUNICATING
EXPLORING THE NATURE OF HEREDITY
FOSSIL DATING: EXPLORING GEOLOGIC AGES
THE H-BOMB: EXPANDING THE ATOMIC AGE
ICBM: LONG-RANGE BOMBING CAPABILITY
JET AIRCRAFT: FLYING AT THE SPEED OF SOUND
LPs AND "45s": MORE FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE
SPUTNIK AND THE SPACE RACE

FROM COLOR TV TO MAGNETIC TAPE, TRANSISTORS TO TRANSATLANTIC CABLES

During the 1950s, technological innovations resulted in the rapid improvement of mass communication. By the end of the decade, television had replaced radio, newspapers, and magazines as the primary source of entertainment and information for most Americans. Advancements in electronics made television sets affordable and thus available to almost everyone in the United States. For years, electronics engineers had been developing systems for sending and receiving broadcast signals in color. On January 1, 1954, the Tournament of Roses Parade, originating in Pasadena, California, became the first national coast-to-coast "colorcast," or television programming broadcast in color. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) established a color network of twenty-two cities, to which the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) sent the equipment needed to receive the color signal. The parade was presented by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Despite the momentous nature of the event in broadcasting history, only several thousand viewers across the country had the equipment to see this groundbreaking telecast.

Occasionally during the early 1950s, television series were shot on film and edited before being broadcast. I Love Lucy (1951–57), a classic situation comedy, is the most famous of the era's filmed television shows. At the time, many TV programs were presented live. Any and all mistakes occurring during the broadcast, from technical glitches to actors forgetting or misreading their lines, were seen by audiences. During this original transmission, a television monitor on which the program appeared was used to film the program. Called kinescopes, these films were used to rebroadcast the program in different time zones. Kinescopes usually were visually fuzzy and second-rate in quality. However, the evolution of high-quality magnetic tape (a ribbon of thin plastic employed in the use of magnetic recording, the process by which sounds and images were inscribed onto the tape) allowed for the taping of television shows. If an actor forgot a line, the scene simply could be retaped. The footage was edited during the postproduction process and could be rebroadcast at the convenience of the television network.

In 1947, Walter Brattain (1902–1987), John Bardeen (1908–1991), and William Shockley (1910–1989) of the Bell Laboratories created the first transistor. Their discovery was one of the most significant developments in twentieth-century technology, and it resulted in the birth of a multibillion-dollar industry. Transistors soon were employed in a variety of products, from computers and television sets to hearing aids. The device allowed for the development and mass-marketing of small, portable radios (commonly known as transistor radios). In 1959, almost half of the ten million radios produced in the United States were powered by transistors. Seven years earlier, Western Electric engineers had even produced a transistor wristwatch. It was presented as a gift to Chester Gould (1900–1985), creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip. (In 1946, Gould had equipped his fictional crime-busting hero with a special two-way, voice-activated video phone worn around the wrist.)

Telephone communication improved greatly during the decade. American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), the British Post Office (which ran the British telephone system), and the Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation sponsored operation of the first transatlantic cable line to be used for telephone communication. It consisted of two specially coated and insulated 2,500-mile-long wire bundles laid along the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. One was used for eastbound communication, the other for westbound. The cable was designed to carry thirty-six telephone conversations at a time, and up to 1,200 calls per day. It was built at a cost of $40 million. By 1956, it was possible for Americans and Europeans to telephone one another using this system. However, phone calls were expensive. Cable calls cost $12 during the day and $9 at night for three minutes of connection time.

Finally, in 1950, the Aircall Corporation of New York marketed a radio pager (beeper). The first person to be paged was none other than a physician on a golf course!

THE COMPUTER COMES OF AGE

The first commercial computers went on sale in the United States in the early 1950s. Originally, they were designed as powerful calculators. Not surprisingly, in 1951, the U.S. Census Bureau became the very first purchaser of the UNIVAC I, the initial digital computer available on the commercial marketplace. The UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) was nothing like the personal computer (PC) of today. It measured fourteen feet by seven feet by nine feet, the size of a small bedroom. A set of five thousand vacuum tubes made it operable. Its internal memory was one thousand words. Software (stored programs) existed only in a primitive form. At the time, social observers predicted that by the year 2000 perhaps fifty of these huge, expensive machines would be in use! It was thought that only the governments of affluent nations, major corporations, and well-funded scientific organizations would be able to afford computers.

Major changes were made in the computer between 1950 and 1959. The development and availability of the transistor led to the replacement of vacuum tubes in the computer's processing unit. Transistors also made the computer easier to miniaturize, allowing its imposing size to be reduced without any loss of function. Another important change involved the development of software. The introduction of magnetic-core memory increased the internal information-storage capacity of a computer about eightfold. This innovation allowed computers to remember more complicated routines of calculation.

The advent of the computer age inspired anxiety in many who viewed computers as bewildering and frightening machines that had the potential

to run amok and take power over their creators. Additionally, it was feared that the employment of computers might have a devastating impact on the economy. If a handful of computer-literate individuals and their machines could replace thousands of clerks, typists, and bookkeepers, where would these newly jobless workers find employment?

These fears were contemplated and scrutinized in popular culture. The Desk Set, a comedy which opened on Broadway in 1955 and became a motion picture two years later, was the story of an efficiency expert who installs a computer in a broadcasting company's research department. The department's workers cringe at the thought of being replaced by a machine and assume that they soon will be unemployed. A primary "character" in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), one of the most celebrated films of the late 1960s, is a computer named Hal that manipulates and outwits astronauts on board a spaceship. In countless films and television show episodes, computers were portrayed as monstrous machines that comically malfunctioned, resulting in their uncontrollably spewing out thousands of computer cards. Many people who acknowledged the benefits of computerizing some functions were still intimidated by computer technology. They feared they would never learn the language to communicate in a computerized world. Television shows satirizing computers often featured flustered characters who failed in their attempt to operate the machine and haplessly scampered about as punch cards spewed across the office.

On the night of the 1952 presidential election, Americans were allowed to glimpse the manner in which computers eventually would affect their lives. Until this election, voting returns were counted by hand, precinct by precinct. This was a long, tedious process that sometimes lasted for days. Furthermore, election predictions were unsystematic and untrustworthy. With the growing popularity of television, an expectation arose that the election's winner could be determined and announced to viewers within a reasonable amount of time. For this purpose, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) approached Remington-Rand about employing their adding machines during its election coverage. In return, CBS would advertise the company's products. A company employee suggested that CBS instead utilize a different Remington-Rand product: its new UNIVAC computer. Since computers themselves were so new, no one ever had tried to enter the massive amounts of data involved in predicting a national election. Additionally, newscasters doubted the computer's accuracy. Observed CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite (1916–), "Actually, we're not depending too much on this machine. It may turn out to be just a sideshow…"

Just to be safe, three computers were employed on the night of the election. The primary machine was shown on television. A second checked the results from the first. The third was ready for use on a standby basis. At 9:00 p.m., after tallying and analyzing three million votes, or 7 percent of the total votes, UNIVAC predicted that Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), the Republican Party candidate, would win in a landslide over Adlai Stevenson (1900–1965), his Democratic opponent. It predicted that Eisenhower would win forty-three states, for a total of 438 electoral votes. Having such a prediction so early in the election was deemed impossible. CBS decided to withhold announcing the information, to avoid embarrassment in case it was incorrect. Meanwhile, analysts and programmers busily set out to determine what had gone wrong with UNIVAC. The computer's mathematical formulas were revised and revised again and, at 10:00 p.m., UNIVAC declared that each candidate would win twenty-four states (in 1952, the country consisted of forty-eight states; Alaska and Hawaii had not yet achieved statehood), with Eisenhower earning 270 electoral votes to 261 for Stevenson. CBS broadcast these figures. By 11:00 p.m. it became obvious that the computer's original figures were closer to the truth. The network finally admitted that UNIVAC had made the earlier prediction, but it had not been considered credible. The final count: Eisenhower won 442 electoral votes. UNIVAC's accurate prediction so soon after the polls closed fascinated many Americans, and only hinted at the power and potential of the computer.

COMPUTER LANGUAGE: A NEW WAY OF COMMUNICATING

The advent of computers during the 1950s brought about the need for a way to "communicate" with computers to tell them what to do and how to do it. The solution was computer language. Advances in computer languages made it possible to program computers so that their functions became varied enough to appeal to a broad range of users. These changes began to occur during the decade.

Computer languages were based on a system of logic and mathematics called Boolean algebra. Using a simple numbering system, Boolean algebra allows computer programmers to talk to their machines in terms the machine understands. All communication is expressed by employing a set of switches operated by electric current.

Formula Translation Language (FORTRAN), introduced in 1956, was a computer language that allowed scientists to program computers. Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL) was developed for computers used in business. A language called LISt Processing (LISP) was employed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 1950s to develop computers that would respond intelligently to commands.

EXPLORING THE NATURE OF HEREDITY

Scientifically, sex has a single purpose: to pass on one's genes to future generations. The genes are the basis of heredity. Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is located in the nucleus of cells. In turn, the DNA is packaged into structures called chromosomes. Every species of animal and plant has a certain number of such chromosomes within each of its cells.

A Secretary's Job in a 1950s' Office

Before the introduction of word processors and copying machines, offices were far more labor-intensive places. The simple chore of typing a letter was demanding because errors were difficult to correct. One innovation that addressed this problem was a product called Liquid Paper (sometimes referred to as "white out"), which allowed secretaries to paint over errors before retyping. Another was correction paper. When a mistake was made, the typist backed up, inserted correction paper, and retyped the misspelling so that it would be "whited out" and therefore difficult to see. Then the secretary typed again, correcting the error.

Two types of copying machines also were introduced: the thermofax, which copied on coated paper; and xerography, which copied on plain paper. With regard to duplicating documents, a necessity in most any office, these machines greatly simplified a secretary's job.

In the early 1950s, very little was known about genes and how they function. Within the realm of genetics, the decade's major achievement was determining the structure of DNA, which allowed scientists to conclude that DNA contained the code for genes. Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), working at King's College in London with Maurice H. F. Wilkins (1916–), studied DNA by bombarding molecules with X rays and reflecting the resulting images onto a photographic screen. American biochemist James D. Watson (1928–) and English biophysicist Francis H.C. Crick (1916–) took these findings and determined that DNA is composed of four bases (adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine) attached to a sugar-phosphate backbone. Furthermore, they determined the manner in which these bases interact. These discoveries gave birth to the field of molecular biology, in which researchers try to determine exactly which genes cause certain characteristics in living organisms.

In 1956, researchers Joe Hin Tjio (1919–2001) and Albert Levan (1905–) concluded a study in which they took photographs of many cells in the human embryo. Their efforts proved that such cells have forty-six chromosomes each, and germ cells have twenty-three chromosomes. Three years later, another researcher, Jerome Lejeune (1926–1994), completed a study of individuals affected with what then was known as mongolism (and today is called Down's Syndrome, a condition which develops during pregnancy and is characterized by mental deficiency and some recognizable physical characteristics). Lejeune found that children suffering from Down's Syndrome had forty-seven chromosomes instead of forty-six.

FOSSIL DATING: EXPLORING GEOLOGIC AGES

During the 1950s, scientists made important advances in their ability to accurately date ancient rocks and fossils (remains of plants or animals that have been preserved in Earth's crust). Long after an organism's demise, the quantity of radioactive elements remaining in its dead carbo-based tissue can be measured and compared to nonradioactive material to determine how long it has been since the organism's death. However, standard radioactive dating processes such as carbon dating, discovered in 1948, would not work on most fossils. The reason: fossilized remains contain very little carbon, if any.

Sexism and Science

Without doubt, Rosalind Franklin's studies of DNA were a key factor in determining its structure. However, her colleague, Maurice H. F. Wilkins, reportedly resented Franklin. Allegedly without her permission, he gave her research findings to James D. Watson and Francis H. C. Crick.

In 1962, Wilkins, Watson, and Crick received the Nobel Prize for their contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin did not receive credit for her input. She had developed cancer and reportedly died a bitter and lonely person at age thirty-seven in 1958.

The only methods of dating fossils in the early 1950s were crude. A scientist might date a new specimen based on a general knowledge of the time period in which it originated. Or the scientist might know the location of the fossil when it was recovered, and guess its age based on an estimation of how long it took layers of earth to form over it. Such estimates were not very accurate.

To determine the age of rocks and fossils, a group of geologists and physicists at the University of California-Berkeley devised a new radioactive-potassium dating system, which proved much more reliable than previous measures. As it decays, radioactive potassium forms a gas known as argon. Because the potassium is also found in small amounts in rock, it was theoretically possible to measure the amounts that had been converted to argon. This measurement was difficult, but by using painstaking extraction methods and a highly sensitive monitoring device called a mass spectrometer, the Berkeley group succeeded in developing an acceptable method.

THE H-BOMB: EXPANDING THE ATOMIC AGE

The H-Bomb (or hydrogen bomb) was the product of scientific research that evolved after the development of the A-Bomb (atomic bomb), which had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan near the end of World War II (1939–45). Atomic bomb technology is based on nuclear fission (the splitting of the atom, resulting in the release of massive amounts of energy). However, H-Bomb technology is based on nuclear fusion (the joining of atoms, which also releases massive amounts of energy). The H-Bomb can release even more energy than the A-Bomb, but it requires considerably more force and power to detonate.

The awesome, destructive capacity of the A-Bomb shocked the world, and there was a heated debate concerning the morality of its use. The thought of an even more powerful weapon was repugnant to many people, who were frightened by the potential that some day a bomb capable of destroying all civilization might be developed. Nuclear scientists were divided into two camps: those who opposed the development of nuclear power for weaponry, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967); and those who favored perfecting the H-Bomb, led by Edward Teller (1908–). This debate was fueled by the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.). In 1948, the Soviets successfully tested an A-Bomb. The following year, reports of their substantial progress in developing an H-Bomb reached the United States. These events caused President Harry S Truman (1884–1972) to side with Teller. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, had been the head of the Manhattan Project, which had developed the atomic bomb during World War II. He had come to believe that nuclear power only should be employed for peaceful purposes. However, his friendships with liberals during the Red Scare that swept across America during the early 1950s resulted in his being labeled a security risk. Oppenheimer was not allowed to continue his scientific inquiry in this direction.

H-Bomb development progressed, and in November 1952 a crude version was exploded on Elugelab Island in the Pacific. The Soviets followed with a more sophisticated device, which they tested in August 1953. In March 1954, the United States tested the first H-Bomb capable of being dropped from an airplane onto an enemy. The result was that both superpowers could threaten to shower each other with awesomely destructive bombs. The scientists had done their work. It now was up to the diplomats and politicians to argue over how the power to destroy the world would be used.

Electronics: A New Kind of Plaything

During World War II (1939–45), physicist Willy Higginbotham helped develop a radar system for the B-29 bomber and contributed to research on the atomic bomb. After the war, he worked at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a center for nuclear research on Long Island, New York, operated by the U.S Atomic Energy Commission. As director of the instrumentation division, Higginbotham decided to concoct something interesting for visitors to view as they toured the laboratory. In 1958, he took spare parts from equipment around his office, hooked them together, and created a game. On a five-inch screen, he electronically drew a tennis court. A bouncing dot of light represented the ball. On each side of the gadget were two controls, a button and knob. When the button was pushed, the ball moved across the court; the knob controlled the ball's speed. Higginbotham saw no commercial application for his concoction. Even if he had, he could not have patented it because he was a U.S. government employee and he had created his game on government time. Unknowingly, Higginbotham's creation would, decades later, revolutionize the entertainment industry. He had invented the world's first video game!

ICBM: LONG-RANGE BOMBING CAPABILITY

"ICBM" stands for Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, a long-range missile whose operation depends upon the scientific laws of flight trajectory (the curved path that a body, such as a rocket, takes as it soars through space). The ICBM concept was born during the 1950s, when the United States worked to develop new and more powerful bombs to maintain its military superiority over the Soviet Union. As the arms race progressed, it became clear that a new, highly effective delivery system for warheads had to be developed.

From the late 1940s on, both the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a frantic race to be the first to develop rockets capable of delivering atomic weaponry from domestic launchpads to strategic enemy sites. Both sides were quick to develop short-range rockets, which were useful on battlefields but not for exploding an atomic or hydrogen bomb on an enemy half a globe away. The Soviets produced the first ICBM, with a 6,000-mile range. This "Sapwood" rocket was operational in 1957. The Americans were already testing the "Thor" and "Atlas" ICBMs, and were developing the "Minuteman" rocket.

JET AIRCRAFT: FLYING AT THE SPEED OF SOUND

In the 1950s, more Americans than ever before traveled by air for business and pleasure. Also during the decade, jet aircraft replaced slower, propeller-driven planes. In the military, the change was swift; in civilian aviation, it took place more slowly.

During World War II (1939–45), the United States government accelerated research and development of high-performance jet aircraft in order to counter the German air force's jet fighters. While American pilots never flew jets during the war, the U.S. Air Force tested a number of jet and rocket-powered planes from 1942 onward. The jet age began in America on October 14, 1947, when a Bell X-1 rocket plane, piloted by Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager (1923–), reached a speed of 964 miles per hour at an altitude of 42,000 feet. The Bell X-1 demonstrated that aircraft could fly faster than the speed of sound (760 miles per hour at sea level) without disintegrating. Still, jet aircraft lacked the range and engine life of propeller aircraft.

During the Korean War (1950–53), the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy employed large numbers of jet (as well as propeller) aircraft. Most American fighter planes were jets, but none of them (including the Lockheed P-80 "Shooting Star," the North American F-86A "Sabre," and the Grumman F9F-2 "Panther") could fly at the speed of sound in level flight. American bombers were powered by either piston engine or turboprop (a jet turbine driving a high-speed propeller). The lone American multi-engine jet bomber employed in the war was the B-45 "Tornado." The large strategic jet bombers, the Boeing B-47 and B-52, became operational in 1951 and 1952, but they did not see combat in Korea.

Initially, U.S. commercial airlines did not have much faith in the reliability of jet-powered aircraft. For one thing, the DH.106 "Comet I," the first commercial jet aircraft (operated by Great Britain's de Havilland aircraft company), was earning negative publicity. Early models suffered from structural problems that resulted in fractures in the fuselage. Then on January 10 and April 8, 1954, two "Comet I" jets crashed in the Mediterranean Sea, forcing de Havilland to temporarily ground its fleet until diagnostic technicians could uncover the plane's structural flaws.

In spite of these problems, officials at the Boeing and Douglas aircraft companies remained convinced that the future of commercial flying would include jet aircraft. Boeing developed what eventually would become the first American passenger jet, the Model 707. The earliest competitor to the 707, the Douglas DC-8, also competed for commercial contracts. Pan American Airways gave the industry a vote of confidence in 1955 when it purchased a number of Boeing 707s and DC-8s, the latter of which it planned to use for its new, nonstop transatlantic flights.

The jet age in commercial aviation had arrived. By decade's end, transcontinental jet passenger aircraft (along with supersonic fighters in the military) were the norm in aviation.

LPs AND "45s": MORE FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE

During the 1950s, emerging technology revolutionized the record industry. Until June 1948, home listening to recorded music required a forgiving ear and a vivid imagination. At the time, records were all ten or twelve inches in diameter; they were nicknamed "78s," because they played on Victrolas (record players) at 78 revolutions per minute (rpm). These records broke easily. They scratched at the slightest touch, which made them skip during playback. They quickly wore out after repeated play. By today's standards, their sound quality was terrible.

In 1948, Columbia Records introduced unbreakable, scratch-resistant (but far from scratch-proof) vinylite records in ten and twelve-inch versions that played at 33 1/3 rpm. At the most, about four minutes of material could fit onto each side of a "78." Columbia's records could hold twenty-five minutes worth of music on each side. For this reason, they were called long-playing records, or LPs. Meanwhile, RCA-Victor marketed 6 ⅞-inch discs called "45s," because they played at 45 rpm. Generally one song, running from between two and three minutes, was recorded on each side of a "45." Still, they were an improvement over 78s because they were more durable and offered superior sound quality. A "45" was further distinguished from a "78" and LP by the hole in its center, which was one-and-one-half-inches in diameter; "78s" and LPs had only quarter-inch spindle holes. During the 1950s, LPs (albums) and "45s" (singles) became the record industry standard.

SPUTNIK AND THE SPACE RACE

On October 4, 1957, Americans were shocked to learn that the Soviet Union, their nation's foe in the ongoing cold war, had successfully launched the Sputnik satellite. The event predated a similar planned U.S. launch by several months. The Sputnik was a small metal ball that did not do much of anything. It weighed 185 pounds, measured twenty-three inches in diameter, and orbited Earth every ninety minutes. It carried two tiny radio transmitters that produced a repetitive beeping noise as it traveled. Yet Sputnik demonstrated that the Soviets were capable of producing rockets that also could send nuclear weapons through space. As the satellite circled Earth, Americans looked skyward in wonder and fear. Many were convinced that Sputnik presaged a Soviet atomic attack.

The United States quickly responded to the Soviet launch. In 1958, the government created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In 1958 and 1959, America launched nineteen satellites. Both nations attempted to launch a satellite into lunar orbit, in order to

study the moon's surface. Both the Soviet Metcha (or Lunik) and the American Pioneer IV missed the moon and went into solar orbit, where the Sun's heat eventually turned them into cinders. In 1959, the Soviets achieved a lunar orbit with its Lunik III.

Animals also played important roles as passengers on these early satellites. They were employed to test the effects of outer space on living organisms. These animal visitors to outer space were named and celebrated. In 1958, the Soviets launched a dog named Laika. The following year, the United States sent two monkeys, Able and Baker, into space.