AnankeUsing a telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, astronomer Seth Nicholson discovers Ananke, a tiny moon of Jupiter orbiting the huge planet at an average distance of 21 million miles and at a high inclination relative to Jupiter’s equator. Ananke is most likely a captured asteroid or the remnant of a captured asteroid, and other small Jovian moons in the same orbit may be other pieces of the captured (and shredded) body. Ananke is the first Jovian moon discovered in nearly two decades, and it will be over two more decades before another is found.

Weather Radio: all weather, all the time

Weather RadioThe U.S. Weather bureau signs on radio station KWO35, located at New York’s La Guardia Airport, broadcasting weather forecasts primarily for the benefit of pilots. Not targeted for public consumption, the experimental station broadcasts for several hours a day at a frequency of 162.55Mhz, outside of the spectrum reserved for FM radio. A similar station on the same frequency will later sign on at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 1953, again mainly for the consumption of airline pilots. Marine forecasts are added later, and the system helps the Weather Bureau prevent its local forecasters from being overwhelmed by requests for “personalized” weather reports for pilots. These two stations are the precursor for the nationwide weather radio network operated by the Weather Bureau’s successor agency, the National Weather Service.

Weather Bulletin!

Weather BulletinThe U.S. Weather Bureau (forerunner of the National Weather Service) inaugurates the Severe Weather Unit at the WBAN (Weather Bureau-Army-Navy) Analysis Center in Washington D.C. Armed with recent research and decades of past research into the formation and behavior of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, this is the first attempt to offer the military’s growing severe weather prediction capability to the American public. In these early days, before the adoption of specific types of weather watches, the WBAN Severe Weather Unit issues weather bulletins for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms alike; by early 1953, the Severe Weather Unit also issues “outlooks” with more general predictions about the probability of severe storms.

Baptism by fire…and wind

Weather BulletinThe newly formed Weather Bureau-Army-Navy Severe Weather Unit hits the ground running with its first tornado bulletin issued to the general public for portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. This forerunner of the modern tornado watch is a misfire, however: the only two confirmed tornadoes occur, both outside the area covered in the bulletin. Critics within the Weather Bureau express doubt that such bulletins will ever be of use to the public, and may instead spark panic among the public; this attitude will all but disappear within three years.

Tornado Bulletin #2

Weather BulletinThe newly formed Weather Bureau-Army-Navy Severe Weather Unit‘s second attempt to warn the public that tornado formation is possible within a specific area strikes paydirt. Again covering a large area including portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, later expanded to include states esst of this area, this forerunner of modern tornado watches is right on the money, predicting an outbreak of more than 20 tornadoes in Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi and Kentucky. Despite the advance notification, the Severe Weather Unit has work to do in educating the public about its bulletins: over 200 deaths still occur as a result of the tornadoes.

Hook echo: first tornado detected by radar

Weather BulletinUsing a World War II-era aviation radar system, Illinois State Water Survey electrical engineer Donald Staggs makes the first radar-based detection of a nearby tornado, part of a tornado outbreak striking in and near Champaign, Illinois. The “hook echo” is the distinctive radar signature of a rapidly evolving small-scale cyclone developing from the larger radar signature of its parent thunderstorm. Continued observations confirm that this is the “radar shape” of a forming tornado, an invaluable piece of information for forecasters on the forefront of severe weather prediction.

The Severe Local Storms Warning Service

Weather BulletinFormerly the Weather Bureau-Army-Navy Severe Weather Unit, the recently-renamed Severe Local Storms Warning Service (SELS) relocates from Washington D.C. to Kansas City, Missouri. The new location puts the SELS closer to the American midwest, a hotbed of severe weather during the spring months, as well as placing it in close proximity to a major telecommunications hub (at this point, the SELS is reliant almost entirely on teletype transmissions). Additionally, precise definitions of what constitutes a severe thunderstorm (winds in excess of 50mph, wind gusts in excess of 75mph, and hail in excess of an inch in diameter) are established, as well as a concerted effort to target its weather bulletins to more precise geographic regions.

Did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs?

BOOOOOOOOOMM. W. De Laubenfels of Oregon State College submits an article to the Journal of Paleontology, proposing the idea that an asteroid collision with Earth caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. Citing the widespread damage caused by a comet or meteor’s explosion over the ground in 1908 in Tunguska, Siberia, Laubenfels postulates that an actual impact could have displaced enough material to block the sun, wiping out vegetation and smaller animals alike, choking off the dinosaurs’ food supply as well as dropping surface temperatures below survivable levels. At the time of publication, the possibility of an asteroidal collision with Earth is not thought to be a particularly major threat.

The first hard disk drive

IBM RAMACIBM announces the IBM 305 RAMAC (Random Access Memory Accounting) mainframe, a computer as large as two refrigerators, containing the new 350 Disk Storage Unit, the world’s first hard disk drive. The nearly-six-foot-high drive consists of a huge metal case surrounding a towering stack of 50 double-sided magnetic platters, adding up to a total capacity of four megabytes. In 1958, IBM will introduce the option to double capacity by adding a second stack of drive platters to the casing. The 305 RAMAC and 350 Disk Storage Unit together weigh over a ton, and are leased to IBM’s clients for $3,200 per month.


Space AgeUnder the direction of President Eisenhower, the U.S. Department of Defense establishes a high-tech think tank, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), to conduct scientific and technological research with both national security implications and purely for technological advancement. The formation of ARPA is a direct response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite, and in the years ahead ARPA will lay the cornerstone of what will later become known as the Internet, as well as making significant strides in space science, though the space-related part of ARPA’s initial charter will later be transferred to a new agency called NASA. As the Cold War heats up, ARPA will be renamed DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and its slate of R&D projects will become almost entirely military-oriented.

Doppler weather radar

Doppler RadarThe U.S. Weather Bureau uses a mobile Doppler radar transmitting and receiving in the 3cm bandwidth to measure wind speeds in a tornado striking El Dorado, Kansas, which kills 13 people living in that city. With Doppler radar’s ability to detect and measure the velocity of wind and rain moving toward and away from the radar itself, it is ideally suited for tornado observations and detection. This mobile radar is later given to the Bureau’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in the 1960s, and is the beginning of a lengthy research program that culminates in the nationwide rollout of Doppler-based NEXRAD (Next Generation Radar) in the 1990s.

The integrated circuit

Jack KilbyImplementing a revolutionary new take on an idea that has existed on paper since the 1940s, recently-hired Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby demonstrates the first fully-functional integrated circuit, with all of the electronic components encased in germanium. While the U.S. Air Force immediately places an order for TI’s new integrated circuits, other engineers continue to refine Kilby’s invention, with Fairchild Semiconductor producing ICs encased in silicon. The move to silicon for ICs leads to smaller electronic devices and the development of microcomputer technology.

The Thousand Foot Radio Telescope

AreciboAfter months of lobbying the U.S. Air Force and the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) for help in funding a large-aperture radar/radio telescope dish for studies of Earth’s ionosphere and the space that lies beyond, Cornell University’s Bill Gordon publishes a report in the journal of the School of Electrical Engineering. Gordon’s report, setting out the basic parameters for the project, includes a reflector dish diameter of one thousand feet – a daunting prospect from a structural engineering perspective. Sites in Texas and upstate New York are considered before a natural limestone “bowl” south of the city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico emerges as a promising candidate site.

Project SCORE: first communication satellite

SCOREWith engineers and ground controllers working under absolute secrecy, the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency launches the Atlas rocket-based SCORE satellite, an experimental communications satellite capable of recording four-minute audio messages from the ground for later playback to another part of the world. Though the first communication transmitted to Earth by SCORE is a message from President Eisenhower wishing listeners a peaceful Christmas, there’s little doubt that it’s a thinly-veiled military hardware demonstration. SCORE remains in orbit for only a few weeks before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Weather radar, pre-Doppler

WRS-57 consoleThe U.S. Weather Bureau installs the first WSR-57 weather radar in what in intended to eventually be a network of weather radars spanning the entire country. Derived from World War II radars, the WSR-57 is first installed at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida, where it offers as much as two days’ advance notice of storms approaching the Florida coast in the years before weather satellites. This radar remains in service until 1992, when it is literally ripped off the NHC’s roof by the winds of Hurricane Andrew. It is later replaced by a WSR-88 NEXRAD radar, though by that time satellite imagery has become the primary means of remotely detecting major tropical weather events.


Tiros-1The very first weather satellite, TIROS-1, is launched by the United States. Built under contract by RCA, the nearly-300-pound satellite’s black & white cameras offer the first view of Earth’s cloud systems and weather patterns from orbit. Tiros-1 remains operational for just 78 days, but proves the viability of relying on satellites for weather observation and forceasting.

Fire the laser!

Ted MaimanAt the Hughes Research Laboratory in California, physicist Ted Maiman conducts the first completely successful laser demonstration, resulting in a brief pulse fired through a ruby. Though the concept of lasers had been published in the 1950s, Maiman is the first to develop a fully working test article. Within a few years, similar ruby lasers are used for numerous military applications, as well as early holography. Maiman’s test laser, when demonstrated again at a conference in 2010, is still operational.

Building Arecibo

AreciboProposed and designed by Cornell University, and funded by the Adavanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), the Arecibo Ionospheric Research Center – a thousand-foot radar and radio telescope dish – begins construction in a natural limestone bowl south of Barrio Esparanza, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Construction will take over three years, at a cost of nearly $10,000,000, with a steel feed receiver structure supported in mid-air over the parabolic dish by some five miles of steel cables. Facilities are constructed for scientists visiting the eventual facility, and additional facilities are constructed to shape aluminum into the mesh structure of the telescope dish on-site, a more economical approach than having those parts of the telescope shipped in from outside. Though conceived and pitched as a means of studying the ionosphere, with possible defense applications such as missile detection, the Arecibo facility will makes its best known contributions to astronomy after it opens.

Echo 1

ECHO!!!The experimental communications relay satellite Echo 1 is launched into orbit by NASA. A 100-foot metalized Mylar balloon, Echo 1 is a demonstration of passive signal relay, carrying no powered transmitters of its own; its reflective surface simply bounces signals back to Earth. Microwave signals, radio, telephone and TV signals are all successfully relayed via Echo 1; it remains in orbit for four months.

Courier 1B

Courier 1BThe U.S. Air Force launches the first active-relay communications satellite into orbit, Courier 1B (the original Courier 1 having been lost to a faulty launch vehicle earlier). Unlike the reflective Echo 1 satellite, Courier 1B uses power from the solar cells covering its spherical casing to reboost and retransmit the signals it receives from Earth. Once again, a message from President Eisenhower is transmitted, this time to be received by the United Nations. Clourier 1B remains functional for just over two weeks before a glitch renders it useless.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the second experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-2. Though almost identical to its short-lived predecessor, TIROS-2 is outfitted with a new stabilization system which uses detection of Earth’s magnetic field to properly orient the satellite. TIROS-2 functions successfully for just over one year.

Sagan: let’s terraform Venus

Carl SaganIn the journal Science, Carl Sagan proposes an audacious scheme to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere of Venus, making it habitable for humans. His plan involves depositing algae colonies into the planet’s clouds to begin converting the planet’s carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen, and the idea is years ahead of its time (and will later prove to be impractical when more direct studies are made of the Venusian atmosphere).

Time to take longer strides

John F. KennedyAt a special joint session of Congress called to discuss “urgent national needs,” President John F. Kennedy sets a new goal for NASA (which has only just put a single American astronaut into space): “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Kennedy requests that Congress pass space-related budgets totaling half a billion dollars for 1962 alone (encompassing not only the Apollo program, but nuclear rocket development, weather satellite development, and communication satellites).

Gravitational assist

Mike MinovitchRecent Jet Propulsion Laboratory hire Michael Minovitch submits the first of a series of papers and technical memorandums on the possibility of using carefully-calculated gravitational assist maneuvers to speed transit time between celestial bodies while requiring minimal engine/fuel use. Where most previous scientific thought concentrated on using engine burns (and a lot of fuel) to cancel the effects of a planet’s gravity, Minovitch demonstrated that gravity could be a big help with a carefully calculated trajectory. Though nearly every planetary mission since then has capitalized on Minovitch’s research, it was initially rejected by JPL. Minovitch’s calculations are later revisited by Caltech grad student Gary Flandro, who flags down a particular combination of Minovitch’s pre-computed trajectories for a “grand tour” of the outer solar system, a mission which will eventually be known – in a somewhat scaled-down, less grand form – as Voyager.


TIROSNASA and the United States Weather Bureau launch the third experimental TIROS weather satellite, TIROS-3. Further refinements to the basic TIROS satellite system are made, but one of the satellite’s two television cameras fails within days of going into service. TIROS-3 proves the future life-saving potential of weather satellites by giving Earthbound meteorologists advance warning of the formation and strengthening of Hurricane Esther well before it makes landfall on the east coast of the United States. TIROS-3 is operational for less than a year.

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