1939 Created the Modern Era - OZY | A Modern Media Company

1939 Created the Modern Era

By David Kipen


Without the three watershed events that hit in 1939, the year 2014 wouldn’t look the same at all.

Pretty soon, every news outlet will have its own anniversary desk. Just this year, for instance, whole departments could be kept busy looking back at key moments from 1964. And don’t even get us started on 1965, or 1968. 

In color, the 4 members of the Wizard of Oz walking on the yellow brick road. From Left to right: Scarecrow, Tinman, Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion

President Roosevelt’s response to the Einstein/Szilard letter

Source WB

But in 2014, OZY prefers to look back 75 years. It was the great year in film history — The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and The Rules of the Game were among its releases. And 1939 also saw three watershed events with long-term significance.

1. Atomic Dawn

The most momentous of the three was the Einstein-Szilard letter. On Aug. 2, 1939, from Peconic Bay on Long Island, Albert Einstein signed a letter to Franklin Roosevelt from his fellow physicist Leo Szilard. In it, the two warned that “it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium … [E]xtremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”

FDR read the letter and quickly set in motion what would become the Manhattan Project. Six years later, this resulted in atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of World War II days later, the deaths of perhaps a quarter of a million people by Christmas — and, ultimately, the existential anxiety we all enjoy today.

This all came as a bitter surprise to Einstein, who was denied Army security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project because he, the great physicist, was also a great pacifist. Had he known how badly he and other European refugees had crippled the Nazi nuclear program by emigrating, he later said, he would never have signed the letter.

2. Birth of Silicon Valley

A world away in 1939, inside a one-car Palo Alto garage, two Stanford grads in electrical engineering named Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were flipping a coin over what to name their new company. Hewlett won, but don’t weep for Packard. His consolation prize would become the hind half of the Information Age’s first tech behemoth. There in the garage, alongside a drill press, two gooseneck lamps and a rotary fan that squeaked, the two men invented the Model HP200A precision audio oscillator — and, just incidentally, a tech industry without which we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Letter typed out on green White House stationary signed by FDR

Source Library of Congress

Seventy-five years later, Hewlett-Packard is still an industry bellwether. As an individual, the late Dave Packard created the foundation that largely endowed the Monterey Bay Aquarium and, less illustriously, served as deputy secretary of defense under Richard Nixon toward the end of the Vietnam War. (In that capacity, he also wrote the notorious Packard Memo, which — ironically in an industry since identified with libertarianism — effectively authorized martial law in times of national emergency.) Meantime, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funds educational, cultural and environmental institutions, among other beneficiaries, to the happy tune of over $7 billion.

Also among the legacies of the 1939 Hewlett-Packard partnership was a certain 12-year-old kid who found Bill Hewlett’s name in the phone book. The boy called and asked if he might have a bag of parts to complete a science project. He and Hewlett talked for a while. The kid’s name was Steve Jobs, and his family had a garage, too. Thanks to guys like these, you can do a lot more from a garage, and pretty much everywhere, than you once could.

Computer on far left with Bill and Dave looking at it, facing left of frame, in color

Source Courtesy of HP

3. Civil Rights Movement Unfolds

The third phenomenon from 1939 also took place when plusher surroundings proved unavailable. Marian Anderson, an internationally beloved African American contralto, had been invited to give a recital at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in April. A patriotic organization called the Daughters of the American Revolution controlled the hall and refused Anderson permission to sing before the integrated audience.

Anybody’s skin, no matter the color, should tingle at what happened next. President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, especially, invited Anderson to give her concert on the National Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. An estimated 75,000 people, some from states away, came to hear her sing a program of arias, anthems and spirituals, beginning with “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee).” Millions more listened in by wireless. Via a different kind of wireless, we can still hear her.

To some, the civil rights movement started that week in 1939. The novelist Richard Powers beautifully describes Anderson’s recital in his great novel about race, science and classical music, “The Time of Our Singing.” The patrician Eleanor Roosevelt’s invitation, he writes, ”rejects her roots overnight, declaring that no ancestor of hers ever fought to found this republic.”

So, between the dawn of the nuclear era, the founding of Silicon Valley and the dawn of the civil rights movement, 1939 is the year with much of today’s world inside it.

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