Posted on 16/10/2014

World War 2, Jukeboxes and the A Bomb; the science and technology of the 1940s

As part of our 150th birthday celebrations we have been investigating the most significant progressions in science and technology in each decade over the past 150 years. In this article we take a look at the inventions and discoveries of one of the most tumultuous and violent decades in modern history, the 1940s.

The 1940s are most significantly marked by the occurrence and aftermath of the Second World War and this would lead to significant developments of new technologies in computing, nuclear power and jet propulsion as well as a substantial number of inventions without military applications.

Computing in the 1940s

Between 1937 and 1942 at Iowa State University John Vincent Atanasoff and Clifford Berry constructed the Atanasoff-Berry computer which is considered to be one of the first electronic digital computers.  Whilst it lacked key features that would allow it to be fully reprogrammable, it was the first computer to implement binary digits to represent numbers and data and use electronics for calculations rather than wheels or mechanical switches, features which exist in every computer used today.

The first programmable electronic digital computer  was Colossus, Colossus was developed  in 1943 by electrical engineer Tommy Flowers to assist British codebreakers in the cryptanalysis of the German Lorenz cipher, a much more sophisticated cipher than the famous Enigma code. In an effort to maintain project secrecy most of the Colossus hardware and designs were destroyed which prevented many of those involved with the project  receiving recognition for their advancements in digital computing. In 2007 a functioning replica of a Colossus was put on display at Bletchley Park’s national Museum of Computing.

Nuclear advancements

In 1942 Italian physicist Enrico Fermi oversaw Chicago Pile-1 the world’s first man made nuclear reactor. Built in Chicago, Chicago Pile-1 or CP-1 was part of the Manhattan project that would eventually lead to creation of the first atomic bombs, used  at Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.

Fermi described the CP-1 as “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers.” Unlike most future nuclear reactors it contained no radiation shielding or cooling whatsoever. As of 1971 the site of CP-1 was considered a historic landmark and is one of the four registered Chicago history places.

Around the home

As well as the developments in computing and military technology there were a number of advances in the 1940s that entertained the general public and brought some improvements to the day to day lives of the masses.

Developed following advances in radar technology during WW2, 1945 saw the creation of Percy Spencer’s Microwave oven. Employed by American defence contractor Raytheon, Spencer was one of the first to notice the heating effects of high-power microwave beams. The first food purposely cooked by Spencers in a microwave oven was popcorn, followed by an egg.

In October 1945 Raytheon filed a United States patent application for Spencer’s microwave cooking process and would have one installed shortly after in a Boston restaurant

Raytheon’s first commercial Microwave oven, made in 1947, was just under 6ft tall, weighed 750lbs and consumed three times as much electricity as a modern Microwave oven.

In 1948 the world of children’s footwear would become forever changed with George de Mestral’s invention of Velcro. The word Velcro is allegedly a portmanteau of the two French words velours and crochet, translating to velvet and hook.  Initially made out of cotton strips Velcro would later be manufactured using nylon and polyester.

Early in the 1940s Fred and Lucile Morrison became the manufacturers of the first flying disks. In 1948 they teamed up with their business partners Warren Franscioni and renamed the disks flying saucers after the rash of unconfirmed UFO sightings of the era. It wouldn’t be until the 1950 that the flying saucer was be renamed as the Frisbee, after the Frisbie Pie Company.  The invention of the Frisbee would lead to hours of fun and to a series of competitive sports which still go on today.

Diners around America in the 1940s were livened up by the arrival of the jukebox. One of the most popular models of jukebox was the 1946 Wurlitzer Model 1015 which held up to 24 possible selections. The Wurlitzer Model 1015 was designed by Paul Fuller and its iconic design would go on to be a symbol American culture.

Let us know your thoughts

Which of these inventions do you think was the most significant? Let us know your thoughts on our Twitter page @wilsongunn

Wilson Gunn