Center For Integrating Research and Learning

Arrow1940 - 1959


Across much of the planet, these two decades were shaped by World War II and its aftermath. Huge transformations in science and everyday life began or took hold during this time, driven by inventions such as nuclear power, transistors, television and computers.

The Second World War drove much of the science done in the 1940s, directly contributing to the development of radar, computers and nuclear weapons (and later nuclear power). The U.S. Army commissioned the first electronic computer, which took three years to build and, when completed in 1945, covered 1,000 square feet. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC) was designed to speed the calculation and improve the accuracy of firing and bombing tables. Fueled by new technologies, computers ever since have become increasingly small, fast, powerful and ubiquitous, radically altering our everyday lives.

Old Transistor

Magnetic core memory made its debut in 1951, showcased in the Whirlwind computer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Whirlwind featured thousands of small, doughnut-shaped magnets threaded with wires that stored and manipulated data bits. Two years later, the integrated circuit was invented, which put an entire circuit on a silicon chip. This step paved the way for smaller computers and gave birth to a new California-based industry. That same year, IBM shipped its first electronic computer. The machines soon became important business tools, though it would be many years before they began to be used in homes.

Also playing a vital role in the evolution of computers was a tiny device called the transistor. Physicists at Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the first one in 1947, composed of a semiconductor and several electrodes. Used for amplification or switching, it came to be found in all kinds of electronics; they replaced expensive, cumbersome vacuum tubes in radios, making them portable. Today transistors are inescapable, present in everything from microwaves to cell phones.

The world was not only headed toward the digital age; it had entered the atomic age, with the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. Made possible by advances in nuclear physics, the new weapons ushered in a whole new way of conducting politics and national defense. The technology also had peaceful, if also controversial, applications. In 1956, the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant opened in England; two years later, the first “Atoms for Peace” civilian nuclear power plant in the U.S. opened in Pennsylvania. Another source of power began to attract attention, too: In 1954, the solar battery was invented.

Core Memory

The 1950s marked the golden age of television, which dramatically changed everything from politics to the arts to family life. At the start of the decade, 1 in 10 households had a television. By the end, 9 in 10 homes had one, some of them even in color. The television had gone from luxury to a necessity in 10 years.

Other advances occurred that, if less appreciated by the general public than TV and computers, were of great consequence to science. In 1946 nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) was discovered. This special “spin” property of nuclei would revolutionize diagnostic medicine when exploited in MRI machines (with the help of superconducting magnets) and contributed an important new research method to science. Also in this era, American and Japanese physicists succeeded in drawing on both quantum mechanics and Einstein’s special theory of relativity to create a theory of quantum electrodynamics. In their laboratories, physicists were discovering more and more subatomic particles. Finally, 46 years after scientists first observed superconductivity, a trio of American physicists figured out how it worked. Their theory became known as the Bardeen Cooper Schrieffer theory (BCS for short).

1940 - 1959


An early version of the magnetron oscillator, the first device capable of producing very high power at microwave frequencies, is built, allowing great advances in radar technology.


Mathematical chemist Lars Onsager provides a solution to the two-dimensional Ising model that accurately predicts the behavior of a magnet.


The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator (ENIAC), the world’s first electronic computer, is completed, three years after building was begun.


American physicists Edward Purcell and Felix Bloch independently discover nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), the selective absorption of electromagnetic radiation by the nuclei of certain atoms exposed to a strong, static magnetic field.


A team of physicists employed at the Bell Telephone Laboratories invent the transistor, an electronic device composed of a semiconductor and at least three electrodes that is chiefly used for amplification or switching. The transistor subsequently begins to replace vacuum tubes in electronics.


American physicists Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger independently formulate a theory of quantum electrodynamics that merges quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity. At approximately the same time, the equivalent theory of Japanese physicist Tomonaga Shin'ichiro, which was published several years earlier in Japan, gains international attention.


“The Bing Crosby Show” becomes the first radio program broadcast from magnetic tape.


Magnetic core memory is introduced and enables a team of scientists and engineers at MIT to construct Whirlwind (completed in 1951), the world’s first computer to operate in real time.


The first observation of magnetic domains by the Kerr effect is reported.


The Phillips Company announces the development of barium- and strontium-based ceramic magnets.


Jack Kilby, an electrical engineer working at Texas Instruments, and Robert Noyce of Fairchild Semiconductor independently invent the integrated circuit, a device consisting of multiple electronic components and their interconnections etched or imprinted on a thin substrate.


American physicist Donald Glaser builds the first working bubble chamber, a radiation detection device that enables the observation of the paths of subatomic particles.


At Bell Laboratories Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson invent the first solar battery, which converted about 6 percent of sunlight into electricity and was used to power a radio transmitter during its first public demonstration.


For the first time on a large scale, radioactive materials are utilized as fuel to generate electricity when the first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall, is established in England.


American physicists John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer develop a successful, far-reaching theory explaining why some materials at extremely low temperatures conduct electricity without resistance, the BCS theory of superconductivity.


The Shippingport Atomic Power Station opens in Pennsylvania, the first civilian nuclear power plant in the U.S.

Next Section Arrow1960-1979

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