Geeky History

1946

First view of Earth from space

EarthMounting a 35mm film camera into a captured German V-2 rocket launched to an altitude of 65 miles, scientists and engineers at the U.S. Navy’s White Sands Missile Range capture the first photo of Earth from space. (The previous highest-altitude photos taken were from a hot-air balloon in 1935, from an altitude of less than 14 miles, although at that altitude the photos did reveal the curvature of the Earth.) The rocket and camera are destroyed when they fall back to Earth, but the reinforced film cartridge survives. This is the first of many such experimental flights carried out at White Sands.

1947

Earth from a hundred miles up

EarthContinuing experimental photography from captured German V-2 rockets, scientists and engineers at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range capture a view of Earth from space at an altitude of 100 miles. Though the V-2 is capable only of ballistic suborbital flight, an automated camera on the rocket captures the curve of the Earth before falling back to the surface. As with earlier experimental unmanned flights in 1946, also using captured V-2 rockets, the rocket and camera are destroyed upon impact with the ground.

1949

Captain Video…and his Video Rangers!

Captain VideoThe first-ever American-made science fiction television series, Captain Video And His Video Rangers, debuts on the DuMont Television Network. Originated live from a studio in New York City, the series is aimed squarely at younger viewers, but in years to come the show will enjoy scripts written by such science fiction luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Vance, Robert Sheckley, and James Blish. The series runs five nights a week for six years.

1950

First US television ratings

TVThe A.C. Nielsen Company publishes its first-ever television ratings in the United States, compiling data collected over a “sweep month” running from early April through early May of 1950. The top TV program at the time, according to Nielsen’s data gathering, is Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater. The Nielsen ratings and data collection methodology will attract controversy for decades to come, and will spell doom for many shows with small but loyal followings.

1951

Ananke

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.

CONELRAD

CONELRADAs a response to early Soviet atomic weapon tests, President Truman orders the initiation of the nationwide CONELRAD (Control of Electromagnetic Radiation) system, designed to limit the number of actively broadcasting radio stations whose signals could be used by enemy bombers to home in on and attack population centers. Designated AM radio stations would pass along emergency signals to smaller stations downstream, which would then begin a complex cycle of broadcasting emergency information to the public and then shutting down to allow another station to broadcast the same information; it is hoped that the rapidly shifting radio signals will prevent an invading enemy from finding viable targets. With its operating strategy assuming nuclear-armed Soviet bombers, CONELRAD will be rendered obsolete by the rise of the intercontinental ballistic missile by the end of the decade, and will be replaced by the Emergency Broadcast system in 1963.

1952

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.

Douglas Adams, galactic hitchhiker, born

Douglas AdamsFuture Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy writer/creator Douglas Adams is born in England. Demonstrating an early ability to write short stories with a hint of the absurd, Adams would find himself a member of the renowned Cambridge Footlights theatrical comedy group in the early 1970s, leading to his “discovery” by Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. (Adams would become one of only two people outside of the core six-man Python troupe to contribute any scripted material to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and made a few appearances as a guest cast member.) He would go on to contribute radio comedy sketches to various BBC Radio shows through the 1970s, until the premiere of his own project, the science fiction comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, put him on the map.

More about Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in the LogBook

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.

Man will conquer space soon

Collier's, March 22, 1952Collier’s Magazine publishes an extensive pictorial article with text by space pioneers Wernher von Braun and Willy Ley, and illustrations by Chesley Bonestell, positing a future with plane-like spacecraft making routine trips to orbiting space stations. The article suggests that the station could be a reality in ten years and “twice the cost of the atom bomb” if the public shows its support for space exploration. Though spaceplanes and stations are more than a decade away, the Collier’s article is a seminal moment in the space age.

1953

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 Quatermass Experiment: Contact Has Been Established

The Quatermass ExperimentThe BBC airs the first episode of Nigel Kneale’s trend-setting science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment, starring Reginald Tate as Prof. Bernard Quatermass. Broadcast as a live play with minimal footage from other sources played back during air, this is also one of the earliest BBC drama productions archived on film, and one of the final drama productions to use the BBC’s vintage 1930s Alexandra Palace facilities.

More about The Quatermass Experiment in the LogBook

The Quatermess Experiment: Persons Reported Missing

The Quatermass ExperimentThe BBC airs the second episode of Nigel Kneale’s trend-setting science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment, starring Reginald Tate as Prof. Bernard Quatermass. Broadcast as a live play with minimal footage from other sources played back during air, this is one of the earliest BBC drama productions archived on film, though BBC technicians opt not to preserve any further episodes of this series.

More about The Quatermass Experiment in the LogBook

Quatermass: Very Special Knowledge

The Quatermass ExperimentThe BBC airs the third episode of Nigel Kneale’s trend-setting science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment, starring Reginald Tate as Prof. Bernard Quatermass. This episode was not archived and does not exist in the BBC’s archives.

More about The Quatermass Experiment in the LogBook

Quatermass: Believed To Be Suffering

The Quatermass ExperimentThe BBC airs the fourth episode of Nigel Kneale’s trend-setting science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment, starring Reginald Tate as Prof. Bernard Quatermass. This episode was not archived and does not exist in the BBC’s archives.

More about The Quatermass Experiment in the LogBook

Quatermass: An Unidentified Species

The Quatermass ExperimentThe BBC airs the fifth episode of Nigel Kneale’s trend-setting science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment, starring Reginald Tate as Prof. Bernard Quatermass. This episode was not archived and does not exist in the BBC’s archives.

More about The Quatermass Experiment in the LogBook

Quatermass: State Of Emergency

The Quatermass ExperimentThe BBC airs the sixth episode of Nigel Kneale’s trend-setting science fiction series The Quatermass Experiment, bringing the six-part story to a close. The success of the series prompts the BBC to request a sequel series from Kneale. This episode was not archived and does not exist in the BBC’s archives.

More about The Quatermass Experiment in the LogBook

1954

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.

Gojira

Gojira!The first Godzilla movie, Gojira, debuts in Japan. Directed by Ishiro Honda and starring Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi and Akihiko Hirata, the film is intended to be an allegory to the ravages of the atomic bomb rather than the beginning of a franchise (though the door is clearly left open to a sequel by dialogue at the close of the movie). The franchise proper will not begin until the first sequel five years later. In the meantime, an American dub of the movie attracts worldwide attention to Gojira, eventually rechristening the character Godzilla for much of the world.

More about Godzilla in the LogBook

Stage 7: The Secret Weapon Of 117

Gene RoddenberryThe TV anthology series Stage 7 presents the first television script written by future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, The Secret Weapon Of 117. Ricardo Montalban stars as one of a pair of aliens trying to assess whether or not Earth has the technology to retaliate against infiltration and invasion by their species.

1955

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.

1956

Godzilla, King Of The Monsters!

GodzillaThe first Godzilla movie, Gojira, is re-released in America, dubbed into English with additional scenes starring actor Raymond Burr, as Godzilla, King Of The Monsters! Despite the quite noticeable differences between old footage and new, the movie proves popular, and sparks the western world’s obsession with Toho Studios’ signature creation. It is also just the first of several attempts to westernize the Godzilla mythos (chiefly for American audiences).

More about Godzilla in the LogBook

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.

1957

Sputnik ushers in the space age

SputnikThe Soviet Union launches the world’s first artificial satellite, the short-lived Sputnik, which transmits a steady signal from orbit that can be tracked by radio. The reaction in the United States is one of alarmed paranoia, since the launch of an orbiting vehicle demonstrates technological capabilities in excess of what is needed to launch missles from the USSR toward American soil. Sputnik’s launch is the Soviet Union’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year, an international scientific event during which the United States has also promised to launch a satellite.

Sputnik 2

Sputnik 2The Soviet Union launches the Sputnik 2 satellite, this time with the first life form from Earth to reach orbit. A dog named Laika is strapped into the satellite, where she has air and food (though only a limited supply, with no provision for a safe return to Earth), but Laika dies within hours due to overheating from the stress of launch and the unfamiliar sensations of zero gravity, making her the first living thing from Earth to die in space.

Vanguard TV-3

Vanguard TV-3The first attempt to launch an American satellite into orbit ends in fire, with the rocket failing to produce enough thrust to take off. The booster falls over and explodes on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, destroying the Vanguard TV-3 satellite, intended to be America’s contribution to the International Geophysical Year. The blame is later placed on the insistence of not using proven military rockets as launch vehicles.

1958

Explorer 1

Explorer 1The United States succeeds in launching its own artificial satellite, Explorer 1, atop a Juno 1 rocket. Instruments developed by Dr. James Van Allen reveal the existence of radiation surrounding the Earth, and the areas of radiation are subsequently named the Van Allen radiation belts. The satellite itself is designed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and remains in orbit until 1970 – just the first hint of JPL’s knack for making spacecraft that last longer than their rated lifespans.

ARPA

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.

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop

Desmond BriscoeThe British Broadcasting Corporation, in order to meet its producers’ requests for more unusual sound effects and music than is presently held in its sound library, establishes the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in room 13 of the BBC’s Maida Vale recording studios. Concentrating on tape manipulation and found sounds altered with analog effects (and only later delving into the earliest waves of analog synthesizers), the Workshop produces music for such legendary BBC productions as The Quatermass Experiment and the theme music for Doctor Who. Founding members include Desmond Briscoe, Daphne Oram and Dick Mills.

More about Doctor Who soundtracks in Music Reviews

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.

Pioneer

Pioneer 2Also referred to as “Pioneer 0”, the Pioneer space probe is launched by the US Air Force, with the intention of sending it to the moon. Just over a minute after Pioneer’s Thor-Able booster lifts off, the first stage explodes, and Pioneer’s short flight ends in the Atlantic Ocean. The next Pioneer space probe will be handled by the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration later in 1958.

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.

Luna E-1 #1

LunaLess than a year after launching the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, the Soviet Union makes its first attempt to launch an unmanned space vehicle toward the moon. The flight of Luna E-1 #1 lasts a mere 92 seconds before its launch vehicle explodes in mid-air. Further attempts will be made by Sergei Korolev’s team of engineers to launch a lunar spacecraft, giving the escalating international space race a new (if somewhat obvious) target for both unmanned and crewed space flights over the next decade.

Project Mercury

MercuryThe newly-formed NASA reveals a bold plan: Project Mercury will be an extensive program to create a vehicle capable of safely sending men into Earth orbit and returning them in one piece. The rigorous selection process to find the country’s first space pilots – astronauts – begins, focusing on combat pilots and especially test pilots with experience in flying unproven experimental aircraft (the Mercury spacecraft will definitely qualify for this description).

Pioneer 1

Pioneer 1The newly-formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration launches its first space probe, Pioneer 1, atop a Thor-Able booster. Intended to image the moon at the infrared end of the spectrum from close range, Pioneer 1 is the victim of a technical error which instead sends it into an 80,000 mile arc which eventually brings it back into Earth’s atmosphere. Its flight lasts just 43 hours, but it does yield some information about the radiation belts surrounding Earth, as well as the first experiment to measure the density of micrometeor impacts registered by an onboard sensor.

Pioneer 2

Pioneer 2NASA launches Pioneer 2, a near-identical twin to the failed lunar probe Pioneer 1 it launched a month earlier. Again, technical errors prevent the probe from entering lunar orbit or, for that matter, even reaching the moon – Pioneer 2 limps into a looping arc, barely a thousand miles from Earth, and returns home to burn up in the atmosphere.

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.

Pioneer 3

Pioneer 3NASA launches the Pioneer 3 space probe, intended – like its predecessors – to visit the vicinity of the moon. Designed to activate a television camera to get the first look at the moon’s far side, Pioneer 3 never reaches its target, only covering a third of the distance between Earth and the moon before it loops back toward Earth and burns up in the atmosphere a day later. Its near-identical twin, Pioneer 4, will be launched in 1959.