Sunday, January 03, 2010

Was 1959 the year that changed everything?

In the lead story on the 3 Jan 10 "CBS Sunday Morning" titled 1959: The Year That Changed Everything, Jeff Greenfield obliquely got into issues relating to the differences between innovation (an alteration which changes the way we live) and invention (a discovery which is novel and nonobvious).

The gist of the argument for 1959 as the year that changed everything was

Now, consider the year 1959. Could that really be a year that changed everything?

The last year of the fifties, a decade whose image is all but etched in stone: men in grey flannel suits, Stepford wives in suburban complacency, a veritable white bread sandwich of a time?

Would anyone seriously claim that this was a time when the Earth moved, when foundations began to crumble?

Journalist Fred Kaplan thinks 1959 is exactly that kind of landmark year.

"There was this growing sense that things were changing," he said. "The new is good. The new is something worth embracing."

Kaplan's argument ranges far and wide. From science and technology come the birth of the microchip, without which "We couldn't have digital telephones," Kaplan said. "We couldn't have satellites. I mean, there's almost nothing that we have in everyday life that doesn't have microchips in it."

1959 also brought the first steps toward the birth control pill.

"This allowed not just a sexual revolution, but it allowed women to get jobs, to advance professionally," Kaplan said. "They could control their own reproductive cycles that control everything about their lives. I mean, that was immense."

Of the image of a successful year, one recalls that 1959 was right after the recession of 1958, and a lot of men in "grey flannel suits" were out of work in 1959.

Kaplan invoked 1959 for the microchip, meaning the integrated circuit. That puts him ahead of Mark Lemley, who credits Gary Boone's much later work. But, at best, one only has the "invention" of the microchip in 1959. The innovation came much later.
Ditto birth control.

The Yankees were not in the World Series in 1959, one of only two years between 1949 and 1964. Sandy Koufax lost game 5 of the World Series in 1959.

Although the Sunday Morning piece did not explicitly compare Eisenhower to Kennedy, IPBiz notes that if one compares
Eisenhower's farewell address to Kennedy's inaugural speech, one will find a surprisingly number of similarities.

But note also something that Eisenhower said that Kennedy did not say:

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.

The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Fifty years later, in patent reform, the companies employing the "task forces of scientists" would change patent law to the detriment of the solitary inventor.

Fifty years later, in ClimateGate, a scientific elite, funded by huge government grants, would manipulate the scientific publication system to thwart the questioning ("intellectual curiousity") of so-called skeptics.


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