We all know about Elvis, McCarthyism, Sputnik, the Korean War, Rosa Parks’ fateful bus ride, and Castro taking over Cuba – defining moments of the 1950s. In the decade itself, everyone was talking about now-forgotten moments like the Suez crisis, the “Busby Babes” plane crash and the hula-hoop craze. But then there were a few big events in the decade that hardly anyone noticed at the time. Here are just five of them…
1. Rocket ‘88’ launches (1951)
The first rock’n’roll song? We don’t want to start any arguments here, but we can safely say that it wasn’t anything by Elvis, or even "Rock Around the Clock." Jackie Brenston’s rocking ode to wild nights in an eight-cylinder Oldsmobile, released three years before Elvis’s first record, made it clear that a new style of music had arrived. At the time, of course, it was unknown just how big this new music would become. It was a Billboard #1 hit, turning Chicago’s Chess Records into a major blues and R&B label. (They would soon record Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and others.) The song was covered later that year by a yokel from small-town Pennsylvania called Bill Haley, who would go on to become the first rock’n’roll superstar with songs like "Shake Rattle and Roll" and "Rock Around the Clock." Brenston, a singer and saxophone player in Ike Turner’s band, had no other solo hits, dying in 1979 at age 49.
2. Dawn of the electronic brain (1954)
International Business Machines (IBM) had made their name (among science geeks, at least) in the 1940s, constructing huge mainframe machines for scientific laboratories. But in May 1954, they announced the development of a model “electronic brain” for business use. Though it sounded like something from one of the scary sci-fi movies of the time (and would later strike fear into many workers, afraid of losing their jobs in the automated workplace), it was really the dawn of the computer revolution. With a central logic unit, processing information from reels of magnetic tape (each able to hold as much information as a large city phone-book), these new machines could do 10 million arithmetical operations in an hour. Nonetheless, IBM had low expectations for sales of these unwieldy devices, planning to rent them instead. Even this would cost $25,000 a month – a lot of money in 1954. However, the orders were already proving Thomas J. Watson wrong. In 1943, the 69-year-old IBM chairman and sales genius had predicted “a world market for maybe five computers.”
3. The coup of Guatemala (1954)
In one of the American military’s more dubious episodes, a CIA-financed coup in Guatemala overthrew the popularly elected government of President Jacobo Árbenz. Officially, it was to combat a plan by Árbenz to align Guatemala with the Soviet Bloc. However, this plan was disputed. The true reason may have been slightly less ideological. Árbenz’ land reform had included nationalizing the property of the United Fruit Company, which had friends in high places. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ law firm had written the contracts with Guatemala, 20 years earlier. CIA director Allen Dulles had been president of United Fruit, and his predecessor at the CIA, General Walter Bedell Smith, went on to become the company’s vice-president. Árbenz’ government was replaced by a military junta, and Árbenz spent the rest of his life in exile. The coup went almost unnoticed in America at the time, and is still not widely known. Yet it might well have been a case of a corporation causing the violent end of a government.
4. Testing the pill (1956)
You probably think that – along with Twister and concept albums – the oral contraceptive pill was one of the great inventions of the swinging sixties. In fact, it was a product of the more famously staid and conservative fifties. Developed by a team of biologists led by Gregory Pincus, it was first tested in Puerto Rico April 1956. The Food and Drug Administration did not approve the marketing of the pill until 1960, just in time for it to be a symbol of sixties freedom. Still, when Pincus died in 1967 (in the middle of the peace-and-love era), he went almost unknown. Even today, he’s not exactly a household name.
5. Tibet strikes back (1956)
Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1950, forcing the leaders to sign the ironically named “Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” (that’s the short title), in which Tibetan delegates agreed to recognize Chinese authority. Later, human rights activists would suggest that this was one of China’s worst human rights violations, with the death estimates ranging from 400,000 to 1.2 million. The Tibetans fought back in 1956, guided by prominent exiles and supported by the CIA. By July 1958, 50,000 Chinese troops had died in the conflict. However, to maintain good (or at least, steady) relations with China, other nations did not officially recognize their struggle, and the tide soon turned against the insurgency. In March 1959, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, was forced to flee his homeland disguised as a servant. “There was nothing I could do for my people if I stayed,” he later said. Chinese soldiers were ordered to capture him alive, as his death would cause even the most peaceful Tibetans to rise against them. He evaded capture, escaping to Dharamsala in India, where he would establish a democratic alternative government and become a symbol of peace and non-violent liberation, winning far more fame and promotion for his cause in exile than he had ever won in Tibet.
Mark Juddery is an author and historian based in Australia. His latest book, Overrated: The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (Perigree), is already causing a stir. You can order it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can see a slideshow excerpt from the book, and you can argue with Mark's choices (or suggest new ones) on his blog. Mark offers one tip: If you want to say "This book is overrated"... it's been done.