Science & Technology

June 11, 1957 – First Test of the Convair X-11

Convair X-11

Convair X-11 launch

On June 11, 1957, Convair conducted its first test of the Convair X-11.  A division of General Dynamics since 1953, Convair was famous for its B-36 strategic bomber, the largest land-based, piston-engined bomber in the world.  Convair also pioneered the delta-winged aircraft design used for the F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart interceptors, and the B-58 Hustler supersonic intercontinental nuclear bomber.

Convair’s first X-11 test was a static test.  The rocket was mounted on a stand and the engines fired in place – the first X-11 never left the ground.  Later X-11s in the series were launched successfully.

The X-11 went through several transformations before becoming the basis for the Atlas expendable launch system, which was incorporated as part of the Mariner space probes and the Mercury and Saturn program rockets.  Atlas descendants are currently in use as satellite launch vehicles for commercial and military applications  and for other space vehicles.

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

June 9, 1957 – Mike Wallace Interviews Dr. Ralph Lapp

Ralph Lapp

Nuclear physicist Dr. Ralph Lapp

On June 9, 1957, nuclear physicist, Manhattan Project participant, and advisor to the US War Department Dr. Ralph Lapp appeared on The Mike Wallace Interview on ABC.  In his introduction, Wallace explained that Dr Lapp had given up his research to crusade against nuclear bomb testing, the fallout from which he believed led to unacceptable levels of risk for cancer and birth defects.  There was disagreement within the Atomic Energy Commission and the scientific community over whether fallout was dangerous for the general population and Mike and Ralph discussed this issue in depth.  Other topics covered in the interview included the role of bomb testing as a counter to the military threat of the Soviet Union, how Dr Lapp felt personally about participating in the creation of the atomic bomb, his semi-serious proposal for creating sperm banks, and whether scientists were, or should be, religious men.

Dr. Lapp had the following to say:

On fallout testing: “If I say that the risk of inducing leukemia in a population is 100th of 1 percent, that may seem a relatively small risk.  . .  Although the relative number is small, the absolute number is large . . . a man who holds human life in great regard . . . views the absolute number as most significant.”

On the threat of the Soviet Union: “I have made this statement many times, that if we, the United States, were to cease our tests, unilaterally, I believe it would be interpreted as a weakness by the Soviet Union and I think eventually we would be ground under their heel.”

On his role in the Manhattan Project: “It is difficult to explain to a person who has never done creative research . . . the thrill that you get when you do something for the first time.  I think it is one of the greatest rewards that a scientist can have.  But we did hold meetings . . . when we talked about what the consequences of this would be.  On the basis of the intelligence given to us . . . we felt that we were in a race to beat the Germans to this weapon . . . Our worry was where would the United States be if Hitler turned up with this weapon and we did not have it?”

On the possible conflict between science and religion: “I would like to say that I think both strive for the same thing, which is the search for truth.  I believe that [scientists] are no more or less religious than ordinary groups, but my own feeling is that a scientist ought to be . . . when one penetrates into the mystery of science, you see so much.  The scientist has the key to open the door to a vaster understanding.”

Image Credit: International Magazine Services archive

November 13, 1957 – Gordon Gould Coins the Term “LASER”

Gould’s notarized journal page for November 13, 1957

On November 13, 1957, physicist and boat-rocker Gordon Gould stared at a page of his lab notebook, had a  brain wave, and ran down to a local shop to find a notary.  At the head of this workday’s page he had written, “Some rough calculations on the feasibility of a LASER: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation”.  No one had ever used the term “LASER” before.  Gould wondered if he were to document his work carefully, whether he could patent his new, potentially revolutionary discovery.

An atheist born to Methodist parents, a graduate of Union College and Yale and Columbia Universities, a member of the Manhattan Project until he was expunged for his activities with the Communist Political Association, Gould was a brilliant scientist working in the fields of optical and microwave spectrometry.  He became an expert in the developing field of optical pumping and contacted the inventor of the “MASER” (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) to see if a synthesis of the technologies could produce an optical version of the focused-microwave-emitting device.

Gould’s journal entries on November 16th regarding analysis and suggested applications for the new optical maser constituted the first written prescription for making a viable laser.  He publicized his work initially in a conference presentation in 1959.  Gould’s efforts to join the private sector to construct a working model for the deemed classified invention were frustrated by his prior involvement in the Communist movement.  He fought protracted battles for patent rights to the laser against other researchers working in the field at roughly the same time, but was finally awarded several patents both in the United States and abroad.  His thirty-year patent war was one of the longest-fought efforts in history, and resulted in the registration in his name of 48 patents in the fields of optical pumping, collisional pumping, and their applications.

In 1973, Gould founded Optelecom, which became a successful fiberoptic communications manufacturer.  Ever the free spirit, he left the company in 1985 because it was “boring”.  He was elected to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1991, and passed away in 2005 at the age of 75.

November 12, 1957 – Moorpark First Town Powered by Nuclear Energy

On November 12, 1957, the small town of Moorpark, California, became the first town in the United States to be entirely powered by electricity generated from a nuclear reactor.  At 7:30 PM, the lights went out for all 1100 residents of the rural Ventura County burg; twenty seconds later, when they came on again, history had been made.  Local farmers and townspeople, shop owners and newspaper editors, all had different reactions to the new technological marvel.  Barton Miller, Moorpark’s postmaster, was “pretty excited”.  “My wife and I drove up on a hill that night so we could see the town all lighted up.”  Grocery store owner Ruben Castro experienced the event as a “mystery”.  He admitted, “I didn’t know anything about atomic power, other than it was used for a bomb.  I guess I should have been happy that we were using this warlike energy for peacetime purposes.”  Whitaker’s Hardware owner James Whitaker felt let down by the whole event.  “It was very undramatic.  We were like, ‘Oh, so what.'”  An editor of the local newspaper was downright suspicious.  He accused the power company of indulging in “hocus-pocus” in a column titled, “Interesting No Doubt, but Partially Phony”.

Credibility and wider interest came with television coverage two weeks later on Edward R. Murrow’s See it Now program.  The footage obtained by a New York reporter and three-man camera crew put Moorpark on the map.  “We were more impressed with being on national television than about the event itself,” said resident and featured homeowner Charles Sullenbarger.

The Moorpark experiment had originated from President Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, which sought commercial uses for the new atom-splitting technology developed for military applications.  All through the 1950’s, the federal government encouraged the national power industry to take advantage of nuclear power as a cleaner, more efficient alternative to fossil fuels for generating electricity.  Moorpark’s “nuclear-flavored electricity” was generated from a small reactor in nearby Simi Hills, operated by Atomics International, a division of North American Aviation, which eventually became Rockwell International.  Southern California Edison transferred the 6500 kilowatts of energy generated by 20,000 kilowatts of nuclear reactor heat to the entire town for only about one hour, although the reactor continued to fill part of the town’s electricity needs for years.  “It was a very successful experiment,” A.C. Werden Jr., an Edison engineer explained, “We proved we could do it.  We could furnish electricity to a community from a nuclear reactor.”

Hardware-purveyor Whitaker’s slightly humorous, slightly ironic assessment of Moorpark’s scientific milestone illustrated the disconnect that can exist between visionaries and grass-roots folks.  “There was a feeling around town that the whole thing had been much overrated,” he explained.  “It was just a short little zip on TV.”

Atomics International reactor control room, 1959

Atomics International reactor control room, 1959. Photo: EnviroReporter website

November 3, 1957 – Sputnik 2 Sends First Living Animal into Orbit

Monument to Laika, Moscow

Monument to Laika, Moscow

On November 3, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched their second Sputnik earth satellite from an ICBM R-7 platform.  The 13 foot high, 2 foot diameter capsule contained compartments for radio transmitters, a telemetry system, a programming unit, regeneration and temperature control systems, scientific instruments (including photometers to measure ultraviolet and x-ray solar radiation), and in her own separate padded and pressurized cabin, a part-terrier, part-Samoyed female dog named Laika.  Other than hitchhiker microbes, no living animal had ever blasted off into space before little 13-pound Laika (which meant “Barker” in Russian) went up, fitted with a harness, electrodes to monitor her condition, and supplies of oxygen, food, and water.

With Sputnik 1 still orbiting Earth, transmitting radio signals and ICBM nightmares across the globe, Sputnik 2’s successful launch introduced an even greater level of perceived alarm and threat by Cold War antagonists to the USSR’s new space supremacy.  Sputnik 2 did not carry out its mission entirely as planned, however.  While the satellite-bearing rocket achieved earth orbit, where it successfully jettisoned its nose cone, a portion of the rocket called “Blok A” did not separate, inhibiting the thermal control system.  Vital thermal insulation was torn loose during the nose cone separation as well, and Sputnik’s internal temperatures soon reached 104°F.

Sputnik 2’s fate to burn up in earth atmosphere reentry occurred on April 14, 1958, after 162 days of circling the globe.  The original plan for Laika – painful for all animal-lovers everywhere to contemplate – was for her to provide information for a limited period of time on the effects of space flight on living beings, through monitoring her vital signs.  After ten days, she was to be euthanized by lethal medication-supplemented food.  Once sent into orbit, she could never return.  But after the early loss of her capsule’s thermal insulation, Laika was only able to survive for a few hours before succumbing to the heat and stress.  Her death was a small, but significant tragedy on the road to man’s Race to Space.

Sputnik 2 Module

Sputnik 2 Module. Photo: Raumfahrer.net

November 2, 1957 – Asian Flu Documentary Airs on ABC

Asian Flu patients in Sweden. Photo: WNYC, NYPR Archives

Asian Flu patients in Sweden. Photo: WNYC, NYPR Archives

On November 2, 1957, the ABC television show Johns Hopkins File 7 aired a documentary on the deadly influenza pandemic striking millions around the globe.  In the episode titled “Asian Flu”, host Lynn Poole and expert epidemiologist Dr. Charlotte Silverman traced the origins and spread of the H2N2 virus, first discovered in 1933.  Dr Silverman, chief of the Division of Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases for the Maryland Department of Health, advised viewers how to avoid contracting the virus.  Actors demonstrated the debilitating symptoms of the grippe, as it was called then, and animation sequences depicted the effect of vaccines and antibodies (the “good guys”) against viruses (the “bad guys”).  Dr. Silverman made reference to antibiotics, “the new miracle or wonder drugs”, but explained that they were ineffective against influenza (and all other viruses).

Johns Hopkins University created more than 700 educational television films from 1948 to 1960, which aired on the ABC, CBS, and the former Dumont television networks.  They are currently collected in the university’s Sheridan Libraries.  The Johns Hopkins Science Review, one of the programs to air the films, was the first university-based series to appear on a national network and also be broadcast overseas.

The Asian flu pandemic of 1957 was a serious public health menace.  By the time it had circled the globe, roughly 70,000 Americans had died, among over 2 million victims world-wide.

October 31, 1957 – Tragic Power Failure at Minnesota Hospital Spurs Life-Saving Invention

Dr. Walter Lillehei and young patient with portable, battery-powered pacemaker invented by Medtronic’s Earl Bakken. Photo: University of Minnesota Archives

On October 31, 1957 – Halloween! – a rolling blackout across parts of Minnesota and western Wisconsin left Minneapolis’ University of Minnesota Hospital without power for three hours.  The hospital never anticipated such a dire emergency; two separate power plants provided electricity for the facility and it seemed unlikely that both sources could fail at the same time.  One of the most tragic consequences of the hospital’s power loss was the death of a young post-heart surgery patient, whose life was being sustained by an externally-powered heart pacemaker.

When the blackout hit, all the children in the cardiac recovery unit – whose large, cart-borne pacemakers were plugged into wall sockets  – were immediately at great risk.  The children in the unit were temporarily dependent on pacemakers as part of University of Minnesota heart surgeon Dr. C. Walter Lillehei’s new life-saving efforts to surgically treat children affected by blue baby syndrome.  While police officers parked their cruisers outside hospital windows, aiming their headlights inward to provide light, doctors scrambled to administer medication that would hopefully substitute for the inoperative pacemakers.  Their efforts were successful for all but one of the fragile patients.  The trauma of the baby’s death spurred Dr. Lillehei to consult with Earl Bakken, electrical engineer and founder of Medtronic, the then-fledgling medical device development company.  Lillehei asked Bakken, who was still running Medtronic out of his garage, if he could design a portable pacemaker that ran on a battery.  Bakken went to work.

Earl Bakken. Photo: (c) 2009 IEEE

His first design, based on a six volt automobile battery, produced more power than needed.  Then, Bakken remembered a recent article in Popular Electronics about a new metronome circuit and had a brain flash – “a metronome has the same rates as heart rates,” he realized.  The metronome circuit also had a size advantage – it could fit in a box about the size of a paperback book, and sit in bed beside the patient.

Bakken created a prototype and tested in on a dog in the hospital’s laboratory.  It worked.  Bakken headed back to the garage to make another unit for human patients.  When he returned to the hospital the next day, his first unit was already in use in the surgery recovery room.  “There was a child in there with this pacemaker connected to him . . . What a great feeling that is to see here’s something we made with our own hands keeping this child alive, ” he said.  Concerned that the initial prototype wasn’t really ready for the critical job of supporting human life, he asked Dr. Lillehei why he hadn’t waited for Bakken’s more carefully constructed second unit.  According to Bakken, Lillehei replied, “Well as long as this battery-operated pacemaker was available he wasn’t going to risk losing another child to a power failure.”

Bakken was modest about his new invention, claiming that the rapid advances in heart surgery in the 1950’s would inevitably have led to the portable pacemaker’s development.  He acknowledged that the Halloween blackout had highlighted the urgency of creating such a device.  Out of tragedy, and thanks to Dr. Lillehei and Earl Bakken, heart surgery patients young and old now stood a better chance of surviving to lead long, productive, and healthy lives.