Sputnik and the Technological Factor

Sputnik had a far greater impact on American technology than it has been credit for in the past. It may have been the first man-made object to orbit the earth, a fact that overshadowed the contributions of other nations  involved in the IGY and damaged American pride, but it forced Americans to reevaluate their academic standards. The push for more STEM students underscored a renewed enthusiasm for American technical superiority. At the time, though, Americans might have viewed it as their civic duty to augment the scientific community and assure their place in the world as technological power. Today, we see sputnik as the first step in the exploration of space. It fostered the growth of engineering and scientific study and rapidly produced a large number of secondary technologies that have trickled into other technologies.

The prospect that technology is the result human imagination is another area to consider. The science fiction realm became much less far fetched once rockets began sending up people; in the years that followed, the vision of imaginary technologies in books and film became reality as the space race pushed for a greater degree of technical prowess. We can see that today, the technology we take for granted might only have existed in the mind of writers fifty years ago. What is the possibility that these things might have sprang up out of necessity if there was no pretext for it in the past? If that is the case, then what does the future hold for us now? What will the world look like fifty years hence?

History Cooperative contributors. “Sputnik: A Brief History of the Dawn of the Space Race.” History Cooperative, September 14, 2016. http://historycooperative.org/sputnik-a-brief-history-of-the-dawn-of-the-space-race/.

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Space Race Origins

The space race is often played out in a blow by blow timeline of events, starting with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. But the space race might actually have its beginnings before World War 2. The seeds of the space race began once the Allied nations swept into Germany, confiscating technology and absorbing scientific personnel in Operation Paperclip. Sputnik was a blow to American morale and made many believe the United States was lagging behind the Soviets in the critical areas of rocket technology, but it was no surprise to the American scientific community that the Russians had been making this effort, only that they were able to achieve it first.

As the superpowers of the United States and Soviet Union set about applying their newly-acquired scientific foundations, the Cold War sunk in; first with nuclear weapons and contests for bomber superiority. Nuclear weapons were large and cumbersome; their deployment required large aircraft with heavy lifting capabilities and tended to have a great deal of tertiary services – maintenance, personnel, fuel supply and all of it’s infrastructure – that required large bases, spread out across the country. The desire for smaller nukes, led to a development of missile technology capable of reliably carrying those bombs. The same missiles ended up being the basis for the manned orbital missions and satellite deployment. Missiles gave way to larger and larger rockets as payloads increased.

Before the Soviets launched Sputnik, the United States was already looking to take the Cold War into the realm of space, controversially under the guise of the International Geophysical Year program – a program the USSR and several other countries were engaging in. President Eisenhower’s administration announced American contribution in 1955; the United States would launch satellites between July 1, 1957 and December 31, 1958. So the Soviets were well aware of American aspirations to reach space. Naturally, the effort on part of the Russians must have been increased to ensure their image of technological superiority over the West.  Many scientists in America were worried about the implications of the Soviets reaching space first; they often communicated with their counterparts in Russia about the state of their respective programs in an attempt to gauge their own progress. By the time of the IGY meeting on October 4, 1957, the Russians were still keeping their launch secret, but that evening the announcement at the meeting shattered American ideals of technological greatness.

“International Geophysical Year.” Wikipedia, September 20, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=International_Geophysical_Year&oldid=801596356.

Roger D. Launius. “Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age.” Accessed October 16, 2017. https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/sputorig.html.

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Rural Electrification During the Great Depression

Electrical power spread slowly from the cities, driven by the demand there. In the countryside, few farms were electrified as the infrastructure costs made it unprofitable for power companies to send it there. By the 1930’s, most farms were still without power, doing things the old fashioned way. In the depths of the  Depression, president Roosevelt set about changing this “capitalist wrong” to make electricity available to the farmers and small towns in rural America.

The Rural Electrification Administration set out to make this a priority and facilitate efficient and productive farming techniques. It was placed under the control of Morris Llewellyn Cooke, an early proponent of rural electrification; Cooke was also placed in control of several other New Deal policies where his background in mechanical engineering would be useful – the Upstream Engineering Conference, the Great Plain Drought Area Committee, and the Mississippi Valley Committee. The REA purchased the necessary raw materials, poles, wire, insulators to conduct the project and then commenced convincing farming co-ops to go along with the plan. This entailed selling the idea to each farm in the area and loaning sums of money to newly established co-ops that farmers joined to establish the connection to nearby power plants. The co-ops grew as more and more farmers paid to join them; once the lights came on, farmers paid back their loans through the co-ops.

The REA brought electricity to rural America but it also established electricity as more than a mere commodity. It was now seen as a right, something that everyone was entitled to obtain and that it should not be limited only to those who would make it profitable. By the end of World War Two, over 50% of farms had been electrified; by the 1950’s hardly any were left without it.

“Rural Utilities Service.” Wikipedia. July 05, 2017. Accessed October 04, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org
Winchester, Simon. “Lighting the Corn, Powering the Prairie.” In The Men Who United the States, 375-85. 1st ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013.
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