The 1960s were a remarkable decade of change. The first generation of the postwar America youth were discovering their cultural identity, the Vietnam War and counterculture was reshaping the political landscape, and the Beatles went from A Hard Day’s Night to Abbey Road. But at the center of it, technology was beginning to develop at an unprecedented pace—most of which the general public only saw the tip of the iceberg. These technologies laid the foundation for an entire half decade of scientific innovations, many of which even resulting in products that we enjoy today.
The iconic technological products of the 60s—the microwave oven, the color television, the living room cabinet record player—these are of a different topic of discussion. The following are the technologies that were discovered and implemented in a way that led to the products of the future. These are the six technological advancements from the 1960s that changed the world forever:
1. DRAM (the stuff in your computer)
It’s the unsexy little things, really, that end up meaningfully changing the world. Copper wires, LEDs, optic fibers, tin—the discovery of these things drastically increased the efficiency of a much larger tool, thing, or framework, which opened the floodgates that led to the next thing and then the next.
For hard technological infrastructure, specifically the various components that make up the computer, the Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) memory chip was the unsexy little thing. Invented in 1968 by Robert H. Dennard, who received his doctorate at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, the chip vastly increased the memory capacity of computers at a cheaper price. This allowed for a diverse set of more powerful technological products to be created for market, which was a for mainstream technology consumers who could, with help of DRAMs, own powerful personal tech on a more affordable budget. Some form of DRAM happily sits in the intestines of your favorite devices: gaming consoles, phones, computers, digital camera, Roku stick, so on and so forth.
The memory chip also allowed great gains for companies, as the chip lowered the barriers of entry for companies and wider industries to embrace, integrate, and scale their operations on top of computing power. And that’s a big deal—an increased accessibility to computing power allowed companies to become more powerful, efficient, and effective than ever before.
The memory chip was also vibrant argument in support of Moore’s Law, which (to simplify the technical definition down to bare basics) is the observation that overall processing power for computers will double every two years. The Law pretty much remains intact to this day, though the technical specificities of what constitutes “processing power” has shifted—from internal electrical circuitry to the ephemeral thing we call the “cloud.—Nicholas Quah
2. Telstar, the First Commercial Satellite
By 1962, some governments had already launched satellites, largely to carry out extraterrestrial experiments. That year, though, the first commercial satellite went into orbit, forever changing the face of communications.
Telstar 1 had its origins in a partnership between Bell Labs (which built it), NASA, AT&T, the UK’s General Post Office (back when it was handling Britain’s telecom services), and France Telecom. The satellite is less than three feet long but weighs about 170 pounds and used solar power when it was in service.
This hunk of metal might be infinitesimal in the grand scheme of the universe, but it’s hard to overstate its importance to humanity. It was the first device our race used to relay phone calls, fax images, and television pictures, including the first transatlantic TV feed, through space.
That last one was an especially big deal. On July 11, just a day after launch, Telstar relayed non-public TV pictures. A couple of weeks later, the first live, public TV pictures beamed across the Atlantic, a snippet of a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs.
The broadcast was supposed to first show John F. Kennedy giving a speech in this moment befitting a president, but the signal was up and running before he was ready, so the Phillies and Cubs got an unexpected moment in the spotlight. When JFK did appear, he fittingly spoke of the American dollar price, which caused some concern across the pond at the time.
But, there was a catch. Since Telstar wasn’t in geosynchronous orbit (i.e. fixed to the same point above the spinning Earth), those transatlantic TV broadcasts only lasted 20 minutes during its orbit of 2 hours and 37 minutes. It would be three more years before a communications satellite was in geosynchronous orbit, giving an uninterrupted signal.
Ironically—because Telstar was in part a product of the Space Race between the US and the Soviet Union—it was the Cold War that thumped the first nail in its space coffin. Just a day before Telstar launched, the US tested a high-altitude nuclear bomb which affected the part of the atmosphere that Telstar orbited. The radiation increase the bomb caused, along with other high-altitude tests (including a Soviet blast), damaged the satellite’s delicate transistors and knocked it offline that November. Scientists managed to kickstart Telstar in January, but there was soon another, catastrophic transistor failure.
Telstar survived just seven months in service, handling more than 400 total transmissions. It’s still up there, though, floating around as a little piece of history in the vast expanse of space.—Kris Holt