Thursday, May 17, 2018

Crowdsourcing my work

If you have a minute, I would appreciate your help with an essay I'm working on. I'm putting together a list of postwar scientific and technological innovations that meet the following two criteria: first, they need to be major advances that either occurred during or had their greatest impact in the period roughly defined by 1945 to 1970; second, they need to have comparable or greater symbolic value.

For example, the eradication of polio was an impressive medical accomplishment:
In 1947, Salk accepted an appointment to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. In 1948, he undertook a project funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to determine the number of different types of polio virus. Salk saw an opportunity to extend this project towards developing a vaccine against polio, and, together with the skilled research team he assembled, devoted himself to this work for the next seven years. The field trial set up to test the Salk vaccine was, according to O'Neill, "the most elaborate program of its kind in history, involving 20,000 physicians and public health officers, 64,000 school personnel, and 220,000 volunteers." Over 1,800,000 school children took part in the trial.

But given the shadow that polio had cast over the public imagination and the suddenness of the development of the vaccine, the symbolic value was arguably even greater.:

Until 1955, when the Salk vaccine was introduced, polio was considered one of the most frightening public health problems in the world. In the postwar United States, annual epidemics were increasingly devastating. The 1952 U.S. epidemic was the worst outbreak in the nation's history. Of nearly 58,000 cases reported that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis, with most of its victims being children. The "public reaction was to a plague", said historian William L. O'Neill. "Citizens of urban areas were to be terrified every summer when this frightful visitor returned." According to a 2009 PBS documentary, "Apart from the atomic bomb, America's greatest fear was polio."
When news of the vaccine's success was made public on April 12, 1955, Salk was hailed as a "miracle worker" and the day almost became a national holiday. Around the world, an immediate rush to vaccinate began, with countries including Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, West Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Belgium planning to begin polio immunization campaigns using Salk's vaccine.

(I have often wondered if the experience with polio created unrealistic expectations for the war on cancer, but that's a topic for another post.)

Here's the list I came up with.

Space travel/satellites
Nuclear weapons/power
Jet travel
Polio eradication
Green revolution
Birth control

And possibly lasers

Does anyone see any obvious omissions?


  1. Antibiotics. Maybe plastics.

    PS polio is not quite eradicated.

    1. I had been leaning toward leaving out antibiotics and plastics on the grounds that they predated the postwar era, but your comment prompted me to go back and do a bit more reading, and I'm starting to think that like television, most of the advances and almost all of the impact fell between 1945 and 1970. Good catch.

    2. Perhaps smallpox eradication instead? It is the first disease ever eradicated.

      As a subset of plastics, cling wrap (saran wrap)? It has had a tremendous impact on food merchandising and home storage. I am old enough to remember when my sandwiches for school lunches were wrapped in waxed paper.

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  3. Penecillin wasn’t much in use for the general public until after 1945. So I’d definitely say antibiotics. Also I think the magnetron, leading to more powerful, portable radar, airplane-based radar, and microwave ovens may fit your criteria as well.