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In this lesson, we will highlight critical scientific and technological advances since the end of World War II. We will explore the profound effects these advances had upon society.

Technology after World War II

Many of us have an iPhone.

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What a powerful piece of technology. Think about it: in one small device we can play music, take photographs and movies, communicate verbally with others, access all the knowledge in the world, and countless other things. The truth is, the iPhone is built upon a long line of technological developments. Let’s look at some of the technological and scientific advances since the end of World War II.

While it would be impossible to cover every one, let’s highlight some of the most important advances of the past 70 years or so.Before we begin addressing specific advances and innovations, we should understand that many of these took place in the context of the Cold War. Not all, but many of the advances we take for granted today, in one way or another stemmed from the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The Early Cold War: the 1950s and 1960s

The atomic bomb was actually invented during World War II, but we can’t fail to mention this advance because of the profound impact it had on the course of post-war history. Once nuclear weapons had been developed, the question of how to effectively deliver them arose. Throughout the 1950s and even into the 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to develop sophisticated ICMB’s, which stands for intercontinental ballistic missiles.

These powerful rockets were capable of being launched from one continent to the other, and could be fitted with nuclear warheads. Both American and Soviet governments invested huge amounts of money on missile research and development, which fueled new scientific discoveries.On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, inaugurating the space race. Sputnik I was the first man-made satellite to be launched into space. Sputnik was a major technological achievement. Travelling at 18,000 miles per hour, it circled the Earth every 96 minutes.

The launch of Sputnik caused widespread fear among Americans. Americans did not know exactly what Sputnik was. For all they knew, it could be spying on them or carrying some new type of dangerous weapon.Four months after the launch of Sputnik, the United States launched its own satellite, Explorer I. In 1958, NASA, or the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was created and charged with space research and development.

Satellite launches led to manned orbits, which in time, led to lunar landings. On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11, carrying American astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, became the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon.Moving from space travel back down to Earth, television emerged as a popular form of family entertainment in the years after World War II. Development of the television, or TV, actually began in the 1920s, but it was not until after World War II that it became widely available. By the 1950s, watching television became a routine practice as families tuned into favorite programs like American Bandstand and the Ed Sullivan Show.

The interstate highway system also has its root in the Cold War. The interstate as we know it today was established in 1956 during the Eisenhower Administration. One of the main reasons for the development of the interstate system was the need to efficiently transport military vehicles and equipment in the event of war with the Soviet Union. For the average American, however, the interstate allowed for quicker and more comfortable travel. Not surprisingly, hotels, gas stations, and fast food restaurants began sprouting up along interstate highways.

Other important advances include the polio vaccine, which was developed by Jonas Salk and introduced in the mid-1950s, and the development of primitive computers. Computers in the 1950s and 1960s were the size of a room and weighed tons. Home appliance inventions also proceeded at a rapid pace throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The bottom line is that technological advances in the post-war era made life easier than ever before.

Late Cold War: the 1970s and 1980s

In the 1970s and 1980s, advances in space and military technology continued to be made. Missiles were becoming more powerful and going farther. Nuclear weapons were becoming more potent. We were learning more and more about space. You get the idea.

On the domestic front, life continued to be made easier thanks to a host of new inventions. In the early 1970s, Motorola developed cell phone technology, and in 1984 introduced the first commercial cell phone: the DynaTAC for only $3,995! And here you think your iPhone bill is expensive!Computers during this time were becoming smaller and more powerful. In 1976, Apple Computer Company released its first personal computer, known as Apple I. Apple I came with a standard four kilobytes of memory and could be purchased for $666.66.

Personally, I think that’s a little weird, but that’s just me. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, electronic advances took off. Among some of the notable ones were the development of LCD screen technology and the audio cassette.

Beyond the Cold War: the 1990s and Beyond

Without a doubt, the internet is one of the most important inventions of the past 30 years or so. And, of course, we all know who invented the internet: Al Gore! Okay, that was a joke.

No, the internet developed gradually throughout the 1960s to 1980s. Much of the research and funding was done by the U.S. government.In simple terms, the internet allowed computers to connect with one another.

The big breakthrough, however, came in 1991 when Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web. The Web allowed various types of multimedia to be accessed and shared through the internet. The World Wide Web changed everything. Within a few years, people were sending electronic mail, or e-mail, and using the Web to access a wealth of knowledge.

So, I know what you all are thinking: ‘When are we going to get to Facebook and the iPhone?’ Yes, in recent years social media websites like Facebook have transformed how we interact with others. Today, we use the World Wide Web (or just the internet as we call it) for just about everything: ordering food, buying clothes on Amazon, checking the weather, getting an education, playing mindless games like Angry Birds, and countless other activities. And, of course, the Apple iPhone allows us to do all this. The first iPhone appeared in 2007, and since then it has steadily become more sophisticated. All this to say that the internet has had a dramatic impact on modern society. But, of course, you don’t need me to tell you that.

Lesson Summary

Intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM’s, were long-range rockets capable of being launched from one continent to the other.

They were developed by the American and Soviet governments during the Cold War, especially during the 1950s and 1960s. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite called Sputnik I. Sputnik’s launch inaugurated the space age.

In the years after World War II, watching television became a popular form of entertainment. The interstate highway system and computer were other technological developments of the 1950s and 1960s. Numerous electronics advances were made throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Cell phone technology was born and personal computers became commercially available. And, of course, by the 1990s the internet arrived, and with it, the World Wide Web.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recognize the advances in rocket and space technology after WWII
  • Identify the advances in telecommunications from television to internet
  • Describe the improvements in vaccines after the war saving millions of lives

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