When it comes to technological advances, few periods were as prolific as the Cold War era, which saw the mass distribution of color TV sets, the ubiquity of electrically-powered domestic appliances, the invention of personal computers, and of course, the launch of Sputnik and the first man on the moon. It was an eventful 45 years, but during periods of high political tension, the threat of nuclear war colored our excitement with apprehension.
Throughout the interwar period and during World War II, we kept one eye open as Stalin groomed the Soviet Union for world domination, but it wasn't until 1946 that we took active measures to contain the communist ideology. As an American magazine, Popular Science jumped aboard the anti-USSR bandwagon, publishing several articles informing readers of the latest, most ominous Soviet technology. What can we say, the prospect of being obliterated by an orbiting H-bomb put a slight damper on our usual enthusiasm for invention.
If you type "Russia" into our archives, you'll notice that pre-World War II coverage criticized Stalin without taking the dictator's ambitions too seriously. "As though by magic, this vast, backward farming country was to be changed, in five years, into one gigantic, efficiently run factory," we said, in reference to Stalin's failed five-year plan for nationwide affluence.
As the years wore on, and as the Soviet Union began annexing formerly occupied states into the Eastern Bloc, we grew afraid that the U.S.S.R. would actually overthrow us as the leading world power. During the late 1940's, we warned of their mushrooming military forces. In the 1950's, we wrote of their secret nuclear aircraft designed by a team of former Nazi engineers. Sputnik's launch in 1957 sparked the Space Race, which we speculated could result in full-on "space wars," with radio-controlled nuclear satellites and orbiting warships in tow.
As much as we feared their military weapons and spacecraft, we couldn't respect their everyday technology. We sent at least two of our reporters into Russia, and their findings only reinforced the idea that communist governments neglected regular citizens in favor of nuclear projects. According to our reporters, elevators were at least 40 years behind those in the United States, while television sets took over a year to become available to those who'd ordered them. Vehicles advertised as mopeds were actually just bikes with motors hooked on, while propaganda billboards proclaimed world peace alongside the inevitable fall of America.
Given how nervous we were about open hostilities, it's safe to say that the future of American security and Soviet ambitions didn't quite turn out as expected. Yes, we were scared, but despite the lack of open hostilities, we couldn't resist unleashing several not-so-subtle digs at those "Dam Russians" out East.
Sneaky, eh? We'd never get away with that now, but like we said, our Cold War coverage wasn't all fun and games. Click through our gallery to read about rail-riding missiles, battlefield rockets, and one reporter's harrowing road trip into the bleakly eccentric Russian countryside.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.