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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Innovations, Discoveries and New Views Illustrated

Americans reached new technological highs in the 1960s, as many things that had before been previously only imagined became a reality. The 1960s were the decade that science fiction came true:

Modern science stealing sci-fi ideas at an alarming rate.  Technology was plagiarizing such staples of the sci –fi imagination as computers that could calculate millions of times faster than the human brain, laser beams to light up the moon, and vehicles to take men to the bottom of the ocean. (Bowen, 1970b, p. 356)

Computers made everything into numbers—cities became zip codes and geographic locals became area codes.  Edward Lorenz’s famous coffee break took a chaotic turn, and he accidentally found the first mathematical system with chaotic behavior.  E. Lorenz was using a computer model to study atmospheric behavior, and due to a rounding error, he found that small initial changes in atmospheric conditions initially can lead to big changes over time.  This lead to chaos theory which we explored previously in the "Cosmic Game" chapter [link], What E. Lorenz found is known as the “butterfly effect,” or Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions.  Poincaré had gotten the first peek into chaos at the turn of the Twentieth Century.  In 1967, other aspects of chaos theory revealed, such as self-similarity across scale, wherein different things repeat at different levels of detail. For example, coastlines are composed of penisulas and bays, which themselves exhibit this same pattern: within a peninsula, smaller pennsulas and bays can be seen. If we use more detailed measurements, such as was done on the coastline of England, we find that more detailed measurements lead to more length, resulting in the coastline of England being infintiely long.

In 1963, a hotline was established between Washington and Moscow, and believe it or not being defensive can sometimes pay.  Many of the marvelous technologies and inventions that we all use everyday come to us compliments of the Defense Department and the space program in particular.  From Velcro, to Teflon, to video cameras, and the miniaturization of computers, to health sensors, and even Tang breakfast drink—all were the result of defense and space technology as well as ARPA's funding for Engelbart's work.  Let us just take a brief look at a few of the inventions and discoveries of the decade. 

Hughes Aircraft built the first lasers and the halogen light was introduced.  Geosynchronous satellites revolutionized global communications, as the first navigational and first weather satellite were launched. The bullet trains began running in Japan, and the Aswan Dam opened in Egypt. The bathysphere, Trieste, descended to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, around 35,800 feet below the surface, and deep-sea submersibles Alvin and Aluminaut were “good to go.” Sea-floor spreading was first theorized and then observed, which along with the notion of continental drift, led to the theory of plate tectonics.

Wilson and Penzias discovered the background radiation that was the remnants of the Big Bang, and we learned that Venus’s rotation was retrograde from the other planets, and that Mercury did indeed rotate, instead of showing one side only to the sun.  Quasars and pulsars were discovered, as well as quarks on a much smaller scale. Rainbow holograms were invented that could be embossed on a credit card or a magazine.

Louis Leakey discovered Homo habilis and Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees eating meat and making tools. Speaking of tool-making, the 1960s produced the following technological improvements: Polaroid invented instant film, pop-top cans were patented, Pampers disposable diapers appeared as did soft contact lenses.  Cassette tapes were introduced by Phillips, replacing reel-to-reel for recording, and Sony introduced the first portable video recorder.

Watson and Crick received the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA and many new discoveries concerning DNA and RNA occurred during the 1960s including the deciphering of DNA’s triplicate commands by Nirenberg, Khorana, and Holley.  Stem cells were discovered in blood marrow and cloning occurred.  The first heart, lung, and liver transplants occurred, and Sperry ran his split-brain tests revealing the different functions of the right and left hemispheres. 

The computer industry was on fire and the first integrated circuits for mass production were made available, the first supercomputers were built, and IBM introduced its 360 version that was a great success due to its compatibility with a wide variety of peripherals. Doug Engelbart invented the mouse, and Theodore Nelson developed hypertext. The Defense Department began plans for the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) to establish a network that could connect different types of computers, and ARPANET began in 1969.  So by the end of the 1960s the seeds of the future were sown.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structures of Scientific Revolutions in 1962 gave us the notion of paradigms—what they were and how they shifted.  This was a good thing, because in the 1960s, there was "a whole lotta shiftin’ going on."  Marshall McLuhan, too, helped us to see our world differently, enabling us to see that “the way people get information, rather than the information itself, is the key factor in history; or in McLuhan’s words, the medium is the message” (Bowen, 1970b, p. 135).  McLuhan believed that television and other forms of electronic media and communication were launching “one of the greatest revolutions to hit modern man”: 

According to McLuhan, the new media were reordering man’s senses, weaning him from the age-old habit of collecting information from the printed page, conditioning him to be “tribal” again, to live “mythically and integrally.”  Like the “horizonless, boundless” world of primitive people around a campfire, the modern world was without boundaries, “time has ceased,” McLuhan said, “space has vanished.  We now live in a global village . . . a simultaneous happening.” 

Print made man linear, it addicted him to straight lines of all sorts, from straight ahead, logical, step-by-step thinking to straight-up-the-corporate-ladder personal ambition.  But television, with its combination of picture and sound, was changing all that—and fast . . . . A few decades hence, McLuhan prophesied, “ it will be easy to describe the revolution in human perception and motivation that resulted from beholding the new mosaic mesh of the TV image.” (Bowen, 1970b, pp. 134-135)

The power of the media to shape culture was growing rapidly; television made images more immediate and they were almost instantly available, due to the new communications technologies. “The image came to define reality rather than merely be a representation of reality” (Rielly, 2003, p. 183).  McLuhan published his ideas in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man in 1962 and Understanding Media in 1964, and along with Quentin Fiore wrote The Media is the Massage in 1967.  McLuhan began as a university professor in Wisconsin and found the students unable to understand him and so he “felt an urgent need to study their popular culture in order to get through” (Bowen, 1970b, p. 134).  Speaking of popular culture, let us look at what was happening in the entertainment industry during the 1960s.


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