When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1950s

Women In Space

Edward Teller, advocate of female astronauts

1957: In Edward Teller’s opinion, “All astronauts should be women because they weigh less and have more sense.” The United States ignored the nuclear physicist’s trenchant views and it was the Soviet Union that first sent a woman into space. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth for three days in June 1963; the first American female astronaut didn’t blast off until 1983.

Source: Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space (2003), p. 7

“Like A Lumberjack”

1955: Albert Einstein was a better physicist than violinist. One acquaintance remarked, rather harshly, that he played “like a lumberjack”. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that, while rehearsing in a quartet, he repeatedly came in at the wrong time. The exasperated pianist, Artur Schnabel, eventually rounded on him: “For heaven’s sake, Albert, can’t you count?”

Source: Albert Einstein, The New Quotable Einstein, ed. Alice Calaprice (2005), p. 321

In Short

1954: The American poet and humorist Strickland Gillilan died in 1954. He was the author of “Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes”, which has a strong claim to be the shortest poem in the English language:
Adam
Had ’em.

Source: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, ed. Emily Morison Beck (1980), p. 727

Annoying Or Coercive Or Downright Sadistic

Soldiers of the King’s African Rifles transport goods by horseback, while keeping a watch for Mau Mau fighters

1953: Kenyan police and white settlers treated Mau Mau suspects in ways that ranged from annoying to coercive to downright sadistic.

Annoying: detainees on Mageta Island in Lake Victoria were subjected to endless replays of “God Save the Queen”.

Coercive: a European police officer admitted he got results during interrogations by “putting an up-turned bucket on a man’s head and then beating it with a metal instrument for up to half an hour when the man usually burst into tears and gave the information if he had any”.

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Hypnotic Acts

1952: Britain’s Hypnotism Act (“An Act to regulate the demonstration of hypnotic phenomena for purposes of public entertainment”) prohibited the hypnotising of people under the age of 21.

Source: ‘Current Law’ Statutes Annotated 1952, ed. John Burke (1952), chap. 46

Health And Safety

1951: Inspectors at the Fernald uranium processing plant near Cincinnati, where ore was converted into metal for the American nuclear weapons programme, would routinely test the metallic strength of radioactive “green salt” by dabbing some on their tongues to see whether it tasted right.

Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, 11 May 1998

Eccentric Englishman

1950: Lord Berners, who died in April, was a classical composer and the author of several novels, though he’s probably best remembered for his eccentricities: the clavichord in his Rolls-Royce; fake pearl necklaces round his dogs’ necks; blue mayonnaise; the warning, “Trespassers will be prosecuted, dogs shot, cats whipped,” in his garden; pigeons dyed magenta, copper green and ultramarine, “tumbling about like a cloud of confetti in the sky”; the notice at the entrance to his folly at Faringdon, “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.

Source: Mark Amory, Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric (1998), pp. 79, 120, 137–8, 150

Fast Forward With Fossils

1958: Mao Zedong assured the Chinese people that the Great Leap Forward would usher in the communist millennium. Mao promised that, with a wave of his Marxist wand, China would be transformed into a modernised, prosperous utopia.

Commune leaders and provincial bureaucrats grossly exaggerated output figures and made wildly unrealistic projections to show that the millennium had indeed arrived. Even the Association of Chinese Palaeontologists got swept up in the excitement, giddily pledging to more than halve its 20-year programme so as to overtake “capitalist” research into fossils.

Source: Stanley Karnow, Mao and China: Inside China’s Cultural Revolution (1984), p. 97

Ammonite fossils, photographed by Richard Wheeler

Queen Charms Soviet Leader

1956: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Britain, where he was charmed by Elizabeth II – “the sort of young woman you’d be likely to meet walking along Gorky Street on a balmy summer afternoon.”

Source: Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, ed. Strobe Talbott (1971), p. 406

Moscow’s Gorky Street, since renamed Tverskaya Street, photographed in 1957 by Manfred and Barbara Aulbach

California Smash

Actor James Dean in a publicity still for the film Rebel Without a Cause

1955: James Dean was killed on 30 September when his new Porsche sports car collided head-on with another car on a California highway. The impact broke the young actor’s neck and crushed his chest; the driver of the other car suffered only minor cuts and bruises. (The other driver’s name, incidentally, was Donald Turnupseed.)

Source: Donald Spoto, Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996), pp. 248–9

Crocodile Smile

1952: After failing his exams in Paris for the second year in a row, Saloth Sâr’s scholarship was stopped and he returned to Cambodia.

“There was never the least hint of what he would become,” said Mey Mann, who knew Sâr in France. Others felt the same.

“He never said very much,” Mann remembered. “He just had that smile of his. He liked to joke, he had a slightly mischievous way about him.”

Back in Cambodia, the mediocre student with the reticent manner and engaging smile devoted himself to the revolutionary struggle. By the late 1960s he had become the undisputed leader of Cambodia’s communists, and in 1970 he adopted a new name: Pol Pot.

Source: Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare (2004), pp. 31, 44

“The Little Fellows”

1951: James Joyce’s wife, Nora, outlived him by 10 years. She was protective of his literary reputation, though at times she overdid it. When an interviewer questioned her about the French writer André Gide, she remarked: “Sure, if you’ve been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don’t remember all the little fellows.”

Source: Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1983), p. 743

Seuss Zoo Quest

1950: American children’s writer Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, coined the name “nerd” for a tousle-haired, grumpy-looking creature in If I Ran the Zoo:
I’ll sail to Ka-Troo
And
Bring
Back
an IT-KUTCH
a PREEP
and a PROO
a NERKLE
a NERD
and a SEERSUCKER, too!

Source: Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo (2000), pp. 48–9

Planes Overtake Ships

1958: For the first time, the number of passengers crossing the north Atlantic by aircraft exceeded the number crossing by ship, signalling the beginning of the end for trans-Atlantic liners.

Source: David Beaty, The Water Jump: The Story of Transatlantic Flight (1976), pp. 241–2

Baffling Youth Craze

1957: The New York Times ran a story that tried to make head or tail of rock ’n’ roll, under the headline:
EXPERTS PROPOSE
STUDY OF ‘CRAZE’
Liken It to Medieval Lunacy,
‘Contagious Dance Furies’
and Bite of Tarantula

Source: The New York Times, 23 February 1957

Music On The Move

1956: Chrysler, the American car maker, marketed its 1956 models with the option of a record turntable mounted beneath the dashboard. A sales brochure boasted that Highway Hi-Fi was “the greatest motoring entertainment feature since the car radio”, but this downplayed fundamental problems – not least, how to safely change a record in a fast-moving vehicle. No surprise, then, that the system was a commercial flop.

Source: http://ookworld.com/high-tech-in-the-1950s-highway-hi-fi-where-the-vinyl-meets-the-road/

Atomic Appliances

1955: It was a time when nuclear power offered the promise of clean, cheap, versatile energy. Alex Lewyt of America’s Lewyt Corporation predicted that within 10 years vacuum cleaners would probably be powered by atomic energy.

Source: The New York Times, 11 June 1955

Tooth Care For Tigers

1954: Li Zhisui, Mao Zedong’s personal physician from 1954 onwards, disclosed in The Private Life of Chairman Mao that the Chinese leader never brushed his teeth. Like many Chinese peasants, Mao simply rinsed his mouth with tea when he woke, and then drank the liquid and ate the leaves. Mao’s explanation: “A tiger never brushes his teeth.”

Source: Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Inside Story of the Man Who Made Modern China (1994), pp. 99, 102

President Einstein

1952: David Ben-Gurion took up the suggestion of a Tel Aviv newspaper to offer the Israeli presidency to Albert Einstein. Einstein declined. “I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions,” he modestly explained. That was the official reason; unofficially, he told a friend, “Although many a rebel has become a bigwig, I couldn’t make myself do that.”

Source: Albrecht Fölsing, Albert Einstein: A Biography (1997), pp. 732–4

Albert Einstein, the president who never was, photographed in 1947 by Orren Jack Turner

Albert Einstein, the president who never was, photographed in 1947 by Orren Jack Turner

Nabokov’s Colourful Language

1951: Synaesthetes inhabit a world different from the rest of us; one where, for example, music or speech are not just heard, but seen in vivid colour.

The novelist and synaesthete Vladimir Nabokov described in detail the correspondence between letters and colours. The letter “n” was for him an oatmeal colour; “p”, the green of an unripe apple; “z”, like an “inky horizon”; and “a”, the “tint of weathered wood”. The yellow of “u” he could best describe as “brassy with an olive sheen”; while “m” was a “fold of pink flannel”; “h”, the brown of a “drab shoelace”; and “r” like “a sooty rag being ripped”.

Source: Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: A Memoir (1951), pp. 23–4