Six Tech Advancements from the 60s That Changed the World

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5. Direct Distance Dialing

number-please-a-phrase-remembered-50.jpeg Image via Amador Ledger Dispatch

Today, boasting that your phone can effortlessly dial someone several states away is laughable. With smartphones capable of shooting high-definition video and streaming movies, using a phone as originally intended is passé. Even poking fun at the not-using-phones-as-phones trope is worn out—see this 2011 story by The New York Times.

Fifty years ago, though, boasting about a seamless long-distance call would have been impressive. The 60s marked the spread of direct dialing technology, allowing folks to reach a friend outside their local area without the help of an operator. Previously, it was second nature to pick up the receiver and chat with an operator before connecting with your friend in Albuquerque, or Aberdeen. Sprawling switchboards manned by teams of operators were a fundamental part of the dialing process.

The first transcontinental direct dial phone call was achieved in 1951, connecting the mayors of Englewood, NJ and Alameda, CA by way of area codes. It was a historic moment, but didn’t facilitate the technology’s immediate spread—for many Americans, direct dialing wasn’t a household convenience until the 60s. Still, the breakthrough event spawned a series of short films excitedly introducing the new tech, like 1951’s The Nation at Your Fingertips. In the 11-minute black-and-white piece, a couple—having coffee in a kitchen that could easily double as a Leave It To Beaver set—phones their daughter for a long-distance chat, no operator required.

(And while we may lampoon the couple in the video, they tease their predecessors, too—the film takes a moment to mock a 1880’s couple who can’t quite get the hang of this “newfangled contraption” the telephone.)

Direct dialing may seem a trivial advancement when viewed from afar, but it majorly progressed the telephone’s ultimate mission: connecting people instantly, regardless of the space between them. And in the 60s, it was tech worth talking about—just one decade prior, many American relied on party lines, or telephone lines that were shared between households. In 2014, party lines seem an unthinkable inconvenience capable of spoiling surprises and facilitating eavesdropping.

When the 1969 Apollo 11 mission rounded out the 60s as a watershed decade for tech, direct dialing was a common feature. Which meant excited calls to friends and family to discuss the lunar landing didn’t need start with “Hello, operator?”—Kevin Wazacki

6. The birth of the Internet (sort of)

tx-2.jpg_Image via Computer History Museum_

Because of the staggering cost of computing at this time, a lot of the innovation surrounding it came from government and military funding. The internet is no different. A top secret part of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) began development on a new protocol called Network Control Protocol and made its first connection on a fateful day in 1969. This early internet protocol, which is just way of determining how computers function together, led to the creation of ARPAnet. There is some dispute over what the exact need the military had for the technology, but regardless of the motive, they wanted a way to quickly and easily share data between their nationwide computers.

The development was spearheaded by researchers at DARPA, most notably, a scientist brought over from MIT named Lawrence Roberts. However, some of the biggest concepts behind how such a connection should function was developed independently years before. One of the most important was a concept called ‘Packet switching’, which put content-neutral data into small blocks of data that could be easily transferred and had been in development since the beginning of the decade.

It all came together under ARPAnet and the data exchanged by computers at Stanford Research Institute and UCLA exchange data. It was the first version of the internet by every definition of the word. By the time the 70s rolled around, the first emails were being sent, the first file transfer protocol (FTP) was set up, and even the first remote desktop connection was made. ARPAnet was eventually replaced by a military-wide internet service in the early 80s, as well as the more modern internet protocol TCP (transmission control protocol), which opened up the possibilities The internet in its current format wouldn’t available to the public until commercial ISPs showed up in the late 80s, but the groundwork was all laid in the 60s.—Luke Larsen

“1951: First Direct-Dial Transcontinental Telephone Call”

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