Above and beyond: the science and technology of the 1950s

Continuing our series of articles researching the most significant inventions and scientific discoveries in each decade over the last 150 years we look at the decade where the world recovered from the aftermath of world war two, the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union would escalate and Rock-n-Roll would come to the fore, the nineteen fifties.

The rivalry between America and the USSR would yield a number of inventions and breakthroughs as the two giants sought to out-do each other. No scientific achievement in the cold war can match the space race and the 1950s saw the first hurdle reached in the race to reach the stars.

Space Exploration

On the 4th of October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into an elliptical low Earth orbit where it was visible from all around the Earth and its radio pulses were detectable from the ground.

The history of the Sputnik project began in December 1954 when Soviet rocket engineer Sergei Korolev proposed the development of an artificial satellite. Whilst initial efforts to create a satellite sought to incorporate more sophisticated scientific equipment, fearing the USA would reach space before them, the USSR created a simpler satellite equipped with a basic radio transmitter and successfully launched it in October 1957.

Sputinik 1 Model

Science & Technology

Despite the focusses of the cold war there were a number of developments in other areas of science and technology in the 1950s that would have a significant impact on future decades

In August 1958 Texas Instruments radio engineer Jack Kilby assembled his first prototype integrated circuit, more commonly known as the microchip. Whilst it would be a long time before this technology would be perfected and receive a patent the US air-force would order a series of prototype integrated circuits for their molecular electronics program.

Earlier in the decade, in 1954, Italian and German Chemists and later Nobel laureates Giulio Natta and Karl Ziegler developed Polypropylene which would go into large scale production by Italian firm Montecatini in 1957. Polypropylene is used in a huge number of products from textiles such as thermal underwear, to reusable plastic containers and electrical equipment such as loudspeakers.  With so many applications it’s easy to see why Polypropylene is one of the most important and profitable plastics with over 45 million metric tons synthesised in 2008 alone.

Medical Science

The nineteen fifties brought us a number of significant advances in the field of medical science. In 1952 American medical researcher and virologist Jonas Salk developed and tested the first vaccine for polio. The vaccine consisted of an injected dose of various strains of inactivated polio virus and would take a number of years of testing before it was ready for mass usage. It received a large scale test in 1954 at Arsenal Elementary School and the Watson Home for Children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and would prove to be effective in treating most forms of polio. Salk’s vaccine would receive a licence in 1955 and was followed by large scale children’s immunization campaigns.

In 1958 medical doctor Rune Elmqvist and surgeon Åke Senning designed the first implantable pacemaker.  Although the first device failed after 3 hours and the second after two days, Arne Larsson, the world's first implantable pacemaker patient, would go on to live to the age of 86. Larsson went through 26 different pacemakers during his life and outlived his surgeon and the men who designed his pacemaker. 

First Implantable Pacemaker 

Let us know your thoughts

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As part of our 150th anniversary celebrations, we're giving away over £1000 worth of British inventions. You can find out full details and how to enter our free draw here.


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