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1959: The Year That Everything Changed

Fred Kaplan



Jan 2 USSR launched first rocket to break completely free of earth's orbit, flying past the Moon. Implied that cd fly a missile to anywhere on the planet.

Barney Rossset, owner of Grove Press, deliberately provoked a showdown over obscenity laws. Je'd made a fortune by buying (for $200), the rights to Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. He wanted to publish Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, but reckoned that as a first step, it was easier to fight the ban against Lady Chatterly's Lover, since DH Lawrence had a better rep asa serious author. USSC eventually agreed that you couldn't suppress a book just bc you disagreed with its ideas.

Oct 21 Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim opened its doors. Crowds flocked to see it bc of its unusual architecture rather than the art. Solly Guggenheim inherited millions from his railroad father, then added to it with gold mining and refining. When he was 66 he met a 37 yo artist named Hilla Rebay (aka "The Baronness") who became his mistress, and demanded paintings rather than furs or jewellry.

February death of Buddy Holly, the King of white R & R. Gap filled by Tamla Motown, and when Beatles first started, they covered Please Mr Postman, You Really Got A Hold of Me and Money (That's What I Want)

Contraceptive pill largely as a result of efforts of two women in their 80s. Margaret Sanger's mother died after 10 pregnancies and 7 miscarriages. Sanger wrote pamphlets on contraception, which the PO confiscated as obscene. In 1914 she had to flee to London bc the govt wanted to prosecute her on obscenity charges. In 1950, Katherine McCormack, widow of International Harvester founder, offered to sponsor lab research of an oral contraceptive. She wound up donating more than a million dollars over the decade.

Very loose trials of drug - Dr John Rock handed the pill to 50 volunteers, 12 psychotic women at the local mad house, and hundreds of poor women in Puerto Rico. Almosy no-one got pregnant, and few side effects. FDA approved pill for 'menstrual disorders'. Over the next two years, half a million women were suddenly diagnosed with 'menstrual disorders'. Searle dropped pretence and in July 1959, FDA licenced it as birth control.

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On March 24, 1959, at the Institute of Radio Engineers' annual trade show in the New York Coliseum, Texas Instruments, one of the nation's leading electronics firms, introduced a new device that would change the world as profoundly as any invention of the 20th century - the solid integrated circuit, or, as it came to be called, the microchip.

Without the chip, the commonplace conveniences of modern life - personal computers, the Internet, anything involving digital technology and displays, even something as simple as the handheld calculator - would be the stuff of science fiction.

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But few detected the invention's significance at the time. It was an era of wondrous technological advances - rockets, jet passenger planes, computers, and seemingly magical pills that altered human chemistry. Who could tell whether some new gizmo - one of dozens in development - would be a transformation or a fizzle?

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A story in the New York Times about that year's trade show highlighted three new inventions on display. The integrated circuit was one of them, but it was mentioned last and took up just two paragraphs. The bulk of the story was devoted to a radar system designed by Westinghouse that would let motorists drive coast to coast with their hands off the steering wheel. Thin foil strips, coded in dots and dashes, would line the nation's highways. Transmitter-receivers, placed on every car's front bumper, would decode the strips, signaling the steering wheel to go straight or to turn. On paper, at a time when the interstate highway system was still in the early stages of construction, the idea seemed appealing and very futuristic. In the real world, of course, it went nowhere.

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Another much-touted marvel that year was "missile mail." On June 8, 1959, at 9:10 a.m., the submarine USS Barbero surfaced nearly 100 miles off the Florida coast and fired a Regulus I guided cruise missile toward the shore. Fitted with retractable landing gear, so it could be recovered and reused for testing, the missile touched down at the Mayport Naval Auxiliary Air Station, near Jacksonville, 21 minutes later. Packed inside the missile's nose cone were two small metal boxes containing 3,000 envelopes, each stamped with a logo that read: "First Official Missile Mail." Inside each envelope was a letter, addressed to officials from President Dwight Eisenhower on down, in which the U.S. postmaster general, Arthur Summerfield, hailed the achievement as "an historic milestone" in speeding "communications between the peoples of the earth." Speaking to reporters after the flight, he proclaimed, "I believe we will see missile mail developed to a significant degree before man has reached the moon."The dream turned out to be no more than that. The Navy wasn't interested in the project as anything more than a one-time PR gimmick. The costs were too high, the benefits too meager.

The microchip might have gone the same way. Its inventor, Jack St. Clair Kilby, and his boss, Texas Instruments' president, Patrick Haggerty, understood its significance. At a press conference, held in the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South, around the corner from the Coliseum, Hagerty said the device's greatest potential lay in the rapidly growing fields of computers, rockets, missiles, satellites, and space-vehicle instrumentation, where weight, size, and reliability were critical. But he added, with remarkable prescience, that it might also revolutionize telephones, televisions, radios, radar, hearing aids, medical instruments - anything and everything involving automation.

Still, in the beginning, the chips were very expensive. To make a dent in the marketplace, they would have to be much cheaper; but to be much cheaper, they would have to make a big dent in the marketplace - there would have to be high demand so that they could be produced in mass quantity.

That wouldn't happen until the beginning of the '60s, when President John F. Kennedy ordered production of the Minuteman II missile - which required tiny, reliable circuits for its guidance system - and, especially, when he declared his goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

It was government that created the large demand that facilitated mass production of the microchip. (This isn't a universal principle. The birth-control pill, another wonder of 1959, was financed entirely by private philanthropists - feminist crusaders Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick - and, when it hit the market, popular demand was instant and enormous.) In 1961, a single chip cost $32. By 1971, thanks to the economies of large-scale production, the cost had plunged to $1.25. By 2000, after the consumer market had vastly expanded, the price of a much more powerful chip would be less than a nickel.

As with many of the breakthroughs converging on the eve of the '60s, the space race and the arms race - which held out the twin prospects of infinite expansion and instant annihilation - spurred America and the world into a lightning-flash new era.

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(NY Times)

The image of the 1950s as placid, suburban and conformist is easily scratched away with the touch of a fingernail. Over the past 15 years or so, historians and writers have revealed that many of the big-bang explosions in politics, culture and technology of the 1960s were rooted in little bangs from the previous decade.

Now Fred Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and columnist at Slate and an occasional contributor to The New York Times, has tried to further whittle down the decisive period to a single year in his new book, “1959: The Year Everything Changed.” Citing Lunik I, the Soviet spacecraft that plowed through the Earth’s atmosphere, and the strategist Herman Kahn’s frank talk about how to win a nuclear war, Mr. Kaplan writes, “It was this twin precipice — the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation, both teetering on the edge of a new decade — that gave 1959 its distinctive swoon and ignited its creative energy.”

However well — or poorly — young rebels in the heady ’60s may have amplified and executed the promised shifts in race relations, music, politics and sexual mores, Mr. Kaplan maintains, “These cataclysms spring not from the impulses or ideals of the baby-boom generation but rather from the revolts and revelations of 1959.”

To make his case, Mr. Kaplan offers readable, pocket-sized portraits of the most famous innovators from the ’50s — like Miles Davis, Norman Mailer and Gregory Pincus, co-inventor of the birth-control pill — as well as its less familiar ones, including George Russell, a theorist of jazz improvisation; John St. Clair Kilby, the microchip’s inventor; and Barney Rosset, the owner of Grove Press who sued to publish “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” after the United States Post Office confiscated copies of the uncensored version of the book for violating obscenity laws.

What becomes increasingly clear with every chapter, however, is that nearly any one of that decade’s other years could serve equally well, if not better, as a turning point. History rarely adheres to the Gregorian calendar, and the need to squish everything into the self-imposed 365-day timeline causes Mr. Kaplan at times to treat his argument like a gerrymandered district, stretching it beyond its natural shape.

Yes, 1959 can justifiably boast that it hosted Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, Motown’s creation, the sale of the first practical business computer and the premiere of John Cassavetes’s independent film “Shadows.” Let’s even throw in the microchip: although that invention came in 1958, Texas Instruments didn’t announce it until 1959.

But critiques of conformity and materialism from David Riesman, William H. Whyte and John Kenneth Galbraith, as well as emblems of the generation gap, like “Rebel Without a Cause,” appeared earlier. Why choose Lunik as signifying the start of the space race and not Sputnik I’s trip around the globe in 1957, which led to the creation of NASA? Why pick Kahn’s lectures over the events of 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile and a presidential commission in the United States urged the adoption of a strategy to fight and win a nuclear war?

The development of the birth-control pill took years, so why choose the request for approval from the Food and Drug Administration and not the successful clinical trials in 1956, or its actual approval and sale in 1960? What’s the argument for singling out a poetry reading by Allen Ginsberg at Columbia University over his recitation of “Howl” in San Francisco in 1955 or the publication in 1957 of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” and Mailer’s essay “The White Negro”? And does anyone really believe that the first report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights says more about the coming racial unrest and civil rights laws than the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 or the federal troops who had to protect the nine black students trying to integrate Little Rock Central High School in 1957?

In these cases and several others, the answer seems to be merely because it happened during the chosen year. That is unfortunate, because the irritating neon flash of 1959 distracts from the more insightful discussion of how musicians, writers, painters, comedians and others shared the same preoccupations.

Mr. Kaplan astutely focuses on jazz rather than on the much more familiar terrain of rock ’n’ roll, and he writes about it with particular feeling and fluency, tracing the impulse behind the music to other arenas. Ginsberg called the rhythm in his poem “Howl” “a spontaneous bop prosody.” Mr. Russell discerned links between the laws of music and those of the universe. Ornette Coleman described his compositions as “something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.”

Others made larger leaps. Ralph Ellison wrote that jazz was the musical equivalent of America’s political system; the soloist, like the citizen, could do whatever he wanted as long as he respected the overall framework. Later, during the Black Power movement, jazz musicians offered a different analogy and saw Mr. Coleman’s innovations as “a political statement — breaking down chords and rhythms as a symbol for breaking down white authority and power.”

It would have been interesting to hear more on the relationship between formal structure in art and in politics. At one point Mr. Kaplan notes that Lionel Trilling, Ginsberg’s former professor at Columbia, believed form had a moral dimension. He understood how poets were seduced by the idea of discarding traditional structure because it promised freer and more genuine expression. But Trilling “found this notion illusory — and, more than that, dangerous, because unshackling formal structure could unravel the underlying social thread.” In art and society the impulse was similar: to throw off conventions, rules and traditions. That urge, minus the discipline that guided art, helped propel the events of the ’60s.

This book’s compact history showcases some of the significant, though lesser-known events on which the coming revolution was built. It doesn’t really matter if they can all be telescoped into a single year. In general, if you begin a sentence with “The year ...” you should end it by noting the team that won the World Series or when you first fell in love.

Fred Kaplan on why he wrote 1959:

I have a new book out called 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which I suppose puts me in the ranks of authors lampooned in a story in the June 16 New York Times about books with "titles that make extravagant, impossible declarations." The piece pokes particular fun at titles with "exorbitant claims" about "things that changed the world"—and still more at writers who "claim to have found the single year that changed the world."

Times reporter Patricia Cohen doesn't mention my contribution to the genre—she singles out books about 1968, 1989, and A.D. 33 (the year of Jesus' crucifixion)—but she seems to have my number. Or does she?

I entered into my project with apprehensions of just this sort of eye-rolling. There are a lot of books out there that insist a specific year, or type of fish or grain or mathematical equation, altered the course of civilization. But I went ahead with it anyway, not because I figured I was cashing in on a trend (Cohen's article is headlined "Titlenomics, or Creating Best Sellers")—if I do, I'll be more stunned than anybody—but because, well, I was convinced that 1959 was the real deal.

It began with simple curiosity. Several years ago, it occurred to me that many of my favorite groundbreaking record albums, books, and movies—Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows—were all released in 1959.

Was this just coincidence, or was it part of a pattern? Was there something more broadly significant about that time? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that 1959 really was a pivotal year—not only in culture but also in politics, society, science, sex: everything.

Consider: It was the year when the microchip was introduced, the Food and Drug Administration held hearings on the birth-control pill, IBM marketed the first business computer, a passenger jetliner took the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, and America joined the Russians in the "space race." It saw the rise of free jazz, "sick comics," the New Journalism, and indie films; the birth of Motown, Happenings, and the Generation Gap; the Lady Chatterley trial that overthrew the nation's obscenity laws; the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's first report, which sparked the overhaul of segregation laws—all this bursting against fears of a "missile gap," the fallout-shelter craze, and the first U.S. casualties in the war in Vietnam.

Something was going on here, but what? I couldn't quite grasp the common theme, the connecting thread.

At some point in my research—it was still a casual query at this point, almost a hobby—I learned about a long-forgotten event that took place near the beginning of the year. On Jan. 2, 1959, a Soviet rocket carrying the Lunik 1 space capsule—also known as Mechta, or "the dream"—blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Tyuratam, Kazakhstan, accelerated to 7 miles per second (the magical speed known as "escape velocity"), sailed past the moon, and pushed free of Earth's orbit, becoming the first man-made object to revolve around the sun among the celestial bodies.

Lunik has since been obscured by the rapid milestones in space that followed. But it was a big deal at the time, the subject of front-page headlines and frightful fears on the floor of Congress. The next issue of Time magazine hailed the feat as "a turning point in the multibillion-year history of the solar system," for "one of the sun's planets had at last evolved a living creature that could break the chains of its gravitational field."

Suddenly the light bulb clicked on; the connections lit up. Lunik was a metaphor for all the great events of 1959 that I'd been investigating. The thing they all had in common was that they broke the chains of various gravitational fields, metaphorical or literal.

But Lunik wasn't only a symbol; it, and the race to space that it triggered, helped create the climate in which all those other breakthroughs were possible or, at least, appealing to a broad population. The breakdown of barriers in space, speed, and time made other barriers ripe for transgressing.

Outer space and lightning speed animated the popular consciousness. Mass-circulation magazines and newspapers of the day suddenly ran lengthy articles explaining the "new geography" of solar orbits and galaxies. In the spring of 1959, NASA selected its first astronauts with great fanfare, and the space agency's lingo—blast off, countdown, A-OK—swooshed into the everyday lexicon. Madison Avenue touted new products—from cars to telephones to floor waxes—as "jet age," "space age," "the world of the future," "the countdown to tomorrow."

A young outsider named John F. Kennedy started running for president at the end of the year on a slogan of "Leadership for the '60s"—the first time that the future was defined in terms of a decade, which held out both menace and hope but in any case great change, which he beheld as a "New Frontier."

For the first time in a long time, flux and change were seen as the natural state of things; the enchantment with the new galvanized a generation of artists to crash through their own sets of barriers. And they attracted a vast audience—abetted by the rapid proliferation of televisions and pocket radios—that was suddenly, even giddily, receptive to their rebellion.

Yet the thrill of the new was at once intensified and tempered by an undercurrent of dread. Outer space loomed as a frontier not only for satellites and rockets but also for ICBMs and H-bombs. It was this twin precipice—the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation, both teetering on the edge of a new decade—that gave 1959 its distinct swoon and ignited its creative energies.

Now I saw a real book taking shape: not just a string of cool stuff that happened to occur in the course of one year but a coherent story about when the world changed and how—a book about what eras are, what important events mean, what historic personalities do.

Still, there was one question that all authors writing for commercial publishers have to face: So what? Let's say I manage to convince all comers that the signature phenomena of the '60s and beyond—sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, the computer revolution, the feminist revolution, the New Left, the walk on the moon, and all the rest—had their origins at the end of the '50s, and that the instigators weren't the baby boomers but those who came of age amid depression and war and who emerged dissatisfied with the false peace that followed. Why, the question could be asked, should anyone care?

Initially, I didn't want to deal with this question. If some people don't care, so it goes; I think it's interesting; some other people will, too. In the back of my head, though, I knew this was a cop-out. Very few people read histories that shed no light on contemporary life, and, really, why should they? At the same time, I didn't want to squeeze and stretch my narrative to fit some Procrustean bed of relevance.

But the more I thought about it, the more the parallels between 1959 and 2009 seemed clear. Most obvious (though also, in a sense, most superficial) was the parallel between John Kennedy and Barack Obama—young outsiders, speaking with magical eloquence of great change and challenge ("unknown opportunities and perils," in JFK's words), whose very ascension smashed cultural barriers.

Yet a deeper parallel lay in the nature of the changes going on around them. On the precipice of another new decade—our own countdown to tomorrow—we are seeing a similar tangle of breakthroughs and breakdowns that marked the end of the '50s: global power fissuring, cultures fracturing, the world shrinking, and science poised to spawn new dreams and nightmares. Once more, there's a palpable sense that we're treading on completely new terrain. How this terrain shifted in 1959—how people and institutions responded, their triumphs and disasters—holds lessons for the options that lie before us in 2009.

In the summer of 1959, Allen Ginsberg, the generation's visionary poet of exuberance and doom, wrote in the Village Voice: "No one in America can know what will happen. No one is in real control. America is having a nervous breakdown. … Therefore there has been great exaltation, despair, prophecy, strain, suicide, secrecy, and public gaiety among the poets of the city."

He might as well have written that today.







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