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5 Important Fifties Events Nobody Noticed in the Fifties

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.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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