The ‘Space Age’ and the ‘Atomic Age’ are some of the words we use to categorize the 1950s. This lesson takes a look at some of the scientific achievements of that period, ranging from nuclear energy and rockets to DNA and vacuum cleaners.

The Nuclear Age

Science and technology progressed rapidly within the 1950s, perhaps faster than any singular decade before. Space seemed within grasp, rather than the stuff of science fiction, while cures for diseases made humanity think it may be able to beat nature. All of these achievements were shown on shiny new TVs, bringing the world to people’s living rooms.

However, any talk of science and technology during the 1950s has to include talk about atomic power. After all, this was the Atomic Age, a period in which all the world’s problems would be answered by knowledge of the atom. For four years, the United States alone held the secret of the atomic bomb. However, by the dawn of the 1950s, the Soviet Union had exploded its own nuclear device, meaning that the next war was just as likely to be won by physicists and engineers as generals and admirals.

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Indeed, while much good came from the scientific discoveries of the 1950s, we must remember that this was a time of great fear. Bigger and bigger bombs were being built, and the defenses against them simply did not exist yet. However, there was hope that this new source of energy could have some peaceful application. By 1954, both the USSR and the United States had constructed nuclear power plants and were both experimenting with using nuclear power in a variety of capacities.

Race to Space

One of the most far-fetched proposed uses for nuclear power was to supply energy to the new rockets that offered to propel humanity to outer space. Both the Soviets and the West had captured German scientists at the end of World War II who held the secrets for rocketry, and both sides were keen to hone this new advantage. However, rocket science was then, as it is now, full of difficulties. In fact, it wasn’t until 1957 that the first satellite, Sputnik, was successfully launched by the Soviet Union.

This opened up a whole new world of possibilities but also of fears. Sputnik’s signal could be heard by anyone with a radio, and its path could be seen across much of the night sky like a shooting star. But if the Soviets could put that up into orbit, what else could they do? Questions like that caused much concern throughout the Western world and were the stimulus for the space race, a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to see who could ‘conquer’ space first. Despite the Soviet Union taking an early lead, both with Sputnik and with Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit in 1961, the United States effectively ended the space race with the moon landings of 1969.

TVs and Consumer Goods

Those moon landings were watched around the world on television, but TV really came into its own during the 1950s. Despite being invented some decades earlier, years of depression and war had kept the new technology from really gaining traction. Now, given the high incomes of the middle class, televisions captured a spot in virtually every American living room. At first, all shows were in black and white, but by 1954, TVs were available that could display color broadcasts. Of course, these came at a price; a new color TV in the 1950s is comparable in price to the most advanced 3D, 4K, curved TVs released every year around the Super Bowl.

Various other consumer goods became common during this time, once again, coinciding with the increases in income. Many of them were targeted at making life more convenient. In most cases, the goods in question existed well before the 1950s, but lower prices and better technology made them common. Two great examples of this are vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Both existed before the Second World War, but improvements in technology and manufacturing made them purchases that the average household could take advantage of.

Advances in Medicine

The 1950s were a great period of biological research as well. Perhaps the most important biological discovery of the 20th century, the molecular structure of DNA, was published in 1953, opening the door to a great deal of research in the field of genetics for decades to come. However, it wasn’t just pure medical research that profited during this period.

Also of note was the widespread use of vaccinations to combat diseases around the world. Notable of these was the research by Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of a vaccine against polio. Polio had been a disease that was responsible for thousands of deaths a year with tens of thousands of people suffering from life-long paralysis. Salk released the vaccine in 1955, refusing to make any profit from its discovery and forever saving the lives of millions of people around the world.

Lesson Summary

From the Space Age to the Atomic Age, the 1950s were definitely a time of scientific and technological advancement. Atomic energy captivated the minds of American and Soviet physicists and the fears of the world’s population. The race to space had also provided fear, but also a healthy dose of wonder at what would be possible. In the home, new technologies, such as the TV and the washing machine, made life both more pleasant and easier, while vaccines and work on DNA offered to give life to countless others.

Learning Outcomes

Now that you’ve reviewed this lesson, you are able to:

  • Outline how tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union affected technology in the 1950s
  • Describe new technologies that became popular in the 1950s that greatly impacted domestic life
  • Explain two major advances in medicine that occurred in the 1950s