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.
Click to launch the photo gallery.
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.
Setting the Stage: May 1931
Although people only started using the term “Cold War” after 1946, the United States and the Soviet Union had clashed politically since the Russian Revolution of 1917. Despite their distrust of communism the United States was too preoccupied with the Great Depression and with maintaining an isolationist standpoint during the interwar period to draw significant measures against the Soviets. At the time this article was published, the United States hadn’t even recognized the Soviet Union as a real country. Articles like this one, which gave our readers a primer on Stalinist ideology, illustrate just how seriously we took the Soviets’ ambitions for becoming a major industrial power. That is to say, we didn’t take it them too seriously at all. Russia had plenty of natural resources, but modernizing such a vast, “primitive” land in less than a decade seemed like an impossible feat. We reported that when Stalin’s initial five-year plan didn’t work out, he extended the period of change to ten years–that is, ten more years of driving “Soviet slaves” into poverty and starvation, until they had collectively managed to turn Russia into the promised land. The pictures at left show Russian scientists analyzing soil and testing plants in an effort to develop better agricultural techniques. For all their hard work, we said, they experienced little reward. Eventually, Stalin and his crew would have to concede that their “Five-Year plan was only a dodge, a pretty bauble dangled before the people’s eyes.” “Until now, Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leaders have managed to impose their will upon the Russian people. In all parts of that vast country, which includes nearly half of Europe and third of Asia, they are working like beavers to bring about their communist paradise.” At the same time, we couldn’t ignore that the Soviets possessed a vast amount of natural resources and space. The Magnetogorsk factory iron and steel factory, in particular, posed a threat to our economic dominance since it was the world’s largest steel center outside of the United States. Read the full story in “Soviet Slaves Rebuild Red Russia”
Rise of the Red Air Fleet: July 1947
“If willingness to expend money, men and materials can do it, U.S.S.R. will become the world’s No. 1 air power,” we warned. A few ominous figures: The Soviet Union planned to produce 20,000 warplanes by the end of the year. In the United States, only 3,000 were planned. The Soviet air fleet had only 30,000 planes, which was 10,000 less than the US owned, but half of the ones in the US fleet were in storage. Although American airplanes were of higher quality, the so-called Red Air Fleet had the advantages of cheap labor and land space for airfields. They could also boast hefty supplies of aluminum, magnesium, manganese and chrome. Although Soviet mechanics weren’t all as skillful as their American counterparts, the Russian government sought to improve training by recruiting 15 year-olds into their Industrial Training Schools system. As far as aircraft design goes, Soviet equipment was ambitious, if not distinctly Russian. Not to mention that many of their rocket engineers were former Nazi engineers, whom we credited with upgrading Russian aircraft design. Since most of the military aircraft were fighter and light attack-bombers, we figured that the Russians were more equipped for a defensive air war, while America was better prepared for an offensive one. Read the full story in “Russia’s Growing Air Power”
Russian Speedsters: November 1951
Chalmers “Slick” Goodlin, famed aviator and the first person to operate a X-1 supersonic rocket plane in powered flight, acknowledged that the Soviet Union acquired a “juicy prize” when they recruited a horde of Nazi aircraft industry resources following the end of World War II. For this article on the Russians’ secret weapons, Goodlin gave Popular Science three exclusive drawings of Russian aircraft. These plans came courtesy of a private source in Europe, who claimed that these planes were capable of sustained supersonic flight. Futuristic features, such as the ability to fly at double the speed of sound, figured heavily into these planes. The plane pictured left, which improved on Kurt Tank’s Ta-283 Focke-Wulf design, supposedly had an engine in its tail. Read the full story in “Is Russia Building These Speedsters?”
Frozen Frontier: February 1955
Thanks to its strategic location between North America and Russia, the Arctic went from a frozen wasteland to a lucrative military station in just ten years. “The Arctic is no longer just the home of Eskimos, polar bears and parka-hooded explorers,” we wrote. It was the buffer between our peaceful shores and the Soviet Union’s guided-missile centers. To maintain an impenetrable defense system, we installed several Navy icebreakers around supply-ship lanes. During the summer of 1954, reporter Herbert O. Johansen and PopSci chief photographer William W. Morris bid sunny Boston goodbye to visit America’s icy Artic ramparts in Northern Greenland. While they didn’t run into any dirty communists, they did learn that life up in the North Pole wasn’t easy. If anything, it was a little miserable; Johansen described the area as “cold, forbidding, lifeless–like the tortured surface of some science-fiction planet,” yet Americans had to live there to keep the Soviets at bay. Read the full story in “The Frozen Frontier Americans Must Guard”
An American Man in Russia: February 1958
As if traveling to the Arctic weren’t adventurous enough for our reporters, Popular Science writer Harry Walton was the first American journalist to drive through Russia in an American car. His route took him through Moscow and south to the Black Sea, where he drove a 1957 Rambler station wagon through remote cities and rural Soviet hamlets. A few travel notes worth mentioning: First, the car was like nothing the Russians had seen before. Crowds gathered around the station wagon at every pit stop. Even the militia couldn’t convince them to get back to work or school. Secondly, the Russians themselves were more civil and helpful than our reporter had expected. The mechanics were able, and many students professed to reading our magazine in their technical libraries. He also found that the USSR had no speed limit, except in villages, which made for superb driving through Moscow and country roads. Despite the “freedom,” however, Walton had to drive slowly since trucks and bikes rarely had working tail lights and reflectors. The hotel rooms, while sizable, looked a bit dingy. “Bathrooms are crude affairs with athletic plumbing and primitive fittings,” he reported. The electric volts were too weak for even the most obsolete of electric U.S. shavers. Outside, cities lacked brand-name advertising. Billboards declared that citizens should avoid accidents, work for world peace and overtake America. Read the full story in “Inside Russia By Car”
Russian Atomic Planes: February 1959
While the space race raged on, researchers pursued technology for building nuclear-powered aircraft. Just a year after the launch of Sputnik, we feared that the USSR would beat us again by unveiling the world’s first A-plane. Even after spending 13 years and $700 million on the project, we were a long way from producing anything that would intimidate the Soviet fleets. Not surprisingly, we freaked out a little after hearing unofficial reports that the Russians had begun test-flying an A-powered Red Bomber. The plane reportedly ran on two atomic turbojet engines and two regular ones. It flew between high subsonic and low supersonic speed, and most alarmingly, the plane didn’t had an endless range. “It can fly as far, or for as long, as sandwiches and coffee hold out for the crew,” we said. If the reports were true, the Soviet A-plane would be only the first in a fleet of nuclear aircraft continually circling our skies. In other words, we’d be doomed. Read the full story in “Can We Catch Up With Russia on A-Planes?”
All Aboard the Missile Train: August 1959
Now that the Soviets had Sputnik up and running, we were more vulnerable to surprise missile attack than ever. Since the government didn’t foresee us launching any retaliatory technology into orbit anytime soon, they proposed upgrading our defenses by installing missile launching pads on railroad cars. In the same way that missile-equipped submarines skulked the seas, camouflaged missile trains could bomb enemy targets in the event of an invasion. The so-called rail-riding missile, originally proposed by the Air Force, would fire the Minuteman, “a solid-fuel, 55-foot weapon to be operational in 1962.” Moreover, the manufacturer would also produce missile trains for nations belonging to NATO, so that the Polaris missile could shuttle along the Western Europe rail network. Read the full story in “Could Rail-Riding Missiles Avert Surprise Attack?r”
Dam Russians: July 1962
The Aswan Dam, also known as the High Dam, was constructed after the United Kingdom withdrew from Egypt in 1956. By curbing annual summer floodings along the Nile, the dam protected Egypt’s farmland, increased agricultural production, and provided electricity and employment. The project, which was far from cheap and easy, was funded by the Soviet Union in 1958. Although Egyptians formed the bulk of the workforce, and the project didn’t compromise our security in the least, we couldn’t resist making a not-so-sly jab at our competitors. Of course, we had to deploy one of our intrepid reporters onto the scene. During his tour, writer Wesley S. Griswold spotted two blonde, ostensibly German tourists on the road, who joined him and his guide in their car. It was only after they disembarked that Griswold realized they were Russian, not German. He asked an Egyptian engineer if the Russians working on the dam were as friendly as the ones they’d just met. He declined to give an opinion, other than that they were willing to conduct “fraternal meetings” during conflicts. The construction work looked systematic enough, but we were skeptical about the Russians’ plan to pour sand upstream to plug holes in a crude granite rubble wall. We doubted it’d work on a large scale (this is the Nile, after all), but apparently, we underestimated their engineering. Read the full story in “Dam Russians…I watched them plugging up the Nile”
Battlefield Rockets: October 1962
Almost twenty years after it began, the Cold War still hadn’t yielded any open military campaigns. Still, tensions were high, and we had to remain vigilant in the event of a shooting war. Although the space race was in high gear, we couldn’t ignore the possibility of a land-based conflict, hence this insiders’ guide to Soviet battlefield rockets. U.S. intelligence experts claimed that the rockets like the T-5B pictured left could launch nuclear warheads. Other formidable tanks included the T-7A Soviet rocket, which could be fired vertically from a tank, and the T-5C rocket, which could be launched from an amphibian tank. Read the full story in “Battlefield Rockets for the Red GI”
Cold War in Space: August 1966
By the time the mid-’60s rolled around, we were fully prepared (mentally) to fight a space war. What would this entail? For starters, we’d have to send astronauts up to disarm orbiting H-bombs. In November of 1965, Tass, the official Soviet news agency, declared that the Russians had developed an orbiting nuclear weapon. Not surprisingly, this freaked us out. In theory, orbiting nuclear bombs could be summoned by radio at any time. Although the Soviet Union denied orbiting any nuclear weapons, as mandated by the United Nations, we suspected that they’d begun building them–after all, the UN never set a ban on developing those weapons, only on sending them into space. Aided by warhead-equipped anti-satellite weapons, manned spacecraft would capture and study suspicious satellites, while Russian spy satellites would snap photos of ordinary, unsuspecting Americans to make sure that they weren’t quietly preparing for an open war. Read the full story in “Cold War in Space”
Window Shopping in Russia: March 1969
Meanwhile, on Earth, PopSci photo editor Everett H. Ortner was out shopping in the Soviet Union. Armed with six cameras and a wife who was willing to carry them, Ortner wandered into a Moscow department store to see how the Russians’ everyday technology compared to ours. He saw motor scooters on display, despite their absence on the streets. He saw motorized bikes and mopeds, which were actually just bicycles with motors latched on. A refrigerator gleamed invitingly, but signs informed onlookers that delivery times were long and that the fridge wasn’t actually for sale. Likewise, the store displayed color TV sets, but only as an exhibition; at the time, no color TV programs were being broadcast in the region. Ornter came away from his experience with several observations about life in the Soviet Union. Firstly, goods were expensive despite being of low quality. Workmanship was lazy, and materials were sub-par; he noted the “splintery floors,” and “chipped stucco.” Far from being leisurely, shopping was actually a chore since people had to obtain a cashier’s check after buying an item, and then present the check to the original clerk, every time they purchased something. Lines were long, delivery times slow–supposedly, it took three to five years for a car and over a year for a TV to become available. A depressing sense of backwardness pervaded city locales. For a world power, the Soviet Union sure seemed primitive: hotels, stores, and restaurants lacked basic supplies like staplers, paper clips and tape. Elevators felt 40 years old. Hotel plumbing barely worked. Sounds gloomy, doesn’t it? “Maybe it all goes to show that when a society must choose between smooth-working bathrooms and putting a man on the moon, the bathrooms may suffer,” he concluded. Read the full story in “PS Photo Editor Takes You Window-Shopping in Russia”