Visionary thinking over sixty years ago drove the development of bold new ideas
After World War II, the civilized world was ready to move into the future with optimism and determination. Post-war economies were ripe with promise and opportunity. Having conserved and sacrificed during the war, consumers had an unquenchable desire for material goods and modern conveniences. In addition, consumers were anxious to focus on raising families and spend their leisure time traveling and experiencing new adventures.
Consumer demand and visionary thinking drove the development of bold new ideas across all sectors. We may think of the modern era as a time for unparalleled innovation, but essential inventions we rely on today were actually created in the 1950s. Here are five significant examples.
The “microwave” that revolutionized mealtime was an accident. The heating quality of radio waves was discovered by Percy Spencer, an engineer who was working on radar for the Raytheon Company. He noticed that the radio waves melted a peanut cluster bar he had in his pocket. An accident that ruined a shirt changed the way people prepared foods forever. Spencer decided to experiment by first putting an egg and then a kernel of corn near the radar. The egg exploded, but the corn popped (eventually leading to microwave popcorn).
The “Radarange” was introduced by Raytheon for commercial use in 1947. The Tappan Stove Company licensed the technology from Raytheon and introduced an in-home consumer version in 1955. In the mid-1960s, the modern-day microwave oven really caught on when Japan’s Sharp Corporation marketed the first turntable microwave oven to cook food evenly.
When Raytheon’s Amana brand brought a countertop Radarange to the home market in 1967, many other brands followed. The microwave oven became so universally accepted that the individual brand names were almost secondary in importance. Originally thought to be dangerous, microwave ovens today are considered safe.
The modern-day credit card was born in 1950. While credit vehicles such as airline, department store and oil company cards existed before then, Diner’s Club introduced the first “general purpose” charge card in 1950. In its initial year, the cardboard card was limited to twenty-eight restaurants and two hotels, so it was intended for business travel and entertainment.
Carte Blanche and American Express, taking advantage of a worldwide network, followed soon after with cards of their own. American Express is also credited with issuing the first plastic credit card; all credit cards transitioned to plastic in the 1960s. Technically, these early cards were charge cards, not credit cards, because monthly bills had to be paid in full.
Banks turned charge cards into “credit” cards when they offered revolving credit so consumers could pay off their bills over time. The BankAmericard, introduced by Bank of America in 1958 only in California, was the first true credit card; in1966, it became a national credit card program and was renamed “VISA” ten years later. Meanwhile, a group of California banks decided to compete with BankAmericard, so MasterCard was launched. Both systems featured interbank cooperation, which made them grow exponentially. VISA and MasterCard have kept up with the times by expanding into debit cards, gift cards, and rewards cards.
The DH 106 Comet, built by the de Havilland Aircraft Company of England, was introduced in 1952. The world’s first commercial jet airliner, the Comet paved the way for modern-day air travel by consumers. While it featured superior performance, it gained a reputation for unreliability. Not long after the jet airliner’s introduction, three Comets perished in accidents within twelve months. Still, the problems of the early Comet allowed competitive airplane manufacturers like Boeing and Douglas to learn from de Havilland’s mistakes and produce safer jets.
The Comet was completely redesigned and went through several model revisions. The Comet 4 series, introduced in 1958, was used by the British airline BOAC and remained in circulation for at least thirty years. The Comet would never achieve the success of other jet planes, but it effectively proved that commercial jet travel could be profitable. Early jet air travel was a luxury for most consumers when the jet airliner came into its own during the 1950s. That’s when such airlines as Pan Am and TWA pioneered transatlantic travel. Today, regional and worldwide air travel is safer and more affordable than ever.
Television was introduced to the public at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Early on, television sets were expensive and television broadcasting stations were few and far between. For example, less than twenty percent of U.S. households owned a television in 1950.
Even as the slow adoption of black-and-white television was under way, an exciting breakthrough occurred in 1951 — the introduction of a commercially viable color television system by RCA. Color television had been under development for decades, and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) demonstrated the first color television system in the U.S. right after World War II. But it was RCA that pioneered an all-electronic color system that was compatible with existing black-and-white sets.
The RCA color TV was introduced in 1954 at a price of $1,000 — more than three times the cost of a black-and-white set. The first national color television broadcast was the January 1, 1954 Rose Parade. It wasn’t until the 1960s that color television became affordable. The 1961 introduction of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” is believed to have influenced the wide adoption of color television in the United States. By that year, over 90 percent of U.S. households had at least one black-and-white or color television.
The integrated circuit, today known as the microchip, was invented by Jack Kilby, an electrical engineer at Texas Instruments, in 1958. According to The New York Times, the integrated circuit “served as the basis for modern microelectronics, transforming a technology that permitted the simultaneous manufacturing of a mere handful of transistors into a chip industry that routinely places billions of Lilliputian switches in the area of a fingernail.” For that achievement, Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000.
That’s not where the story ends, though. A few months after Kilby’s invention, Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor invented a version of the integrated circuit that used silicon and was easier to manufacture than Kilby’s chip. In 1959, Kilby and Noyce were named the inventors for their respective companies’ patents. After a lengthy legal dispute, Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductor decided to cross-license their technologies and the modern integrated circuit was born. The microchip now powers virtually every consumer electronic product manufactured in the world.