Tate Williams

1960 PopSci offers a glimpse into optimism, darkness of Cold War America

Tate Williams September 8, 2012

The most immediately notable thing about this 1960 issue of Popular Science I picked up a vintage market is the smell. It smells, heavily, of chlorine.

Not just chlorine, it smells like an indoor whirlpool Jacuzzi, like filmy chlorinated water and aqua blue PVC, with a vinyl cover holding down vapors that make the nose and eyes burn.

The smell isn’t relevant to the content, and it’s specific to this one water-damaged copy. But it’s a fitting smell, and it conjures images of spilled martinis, one-piece bathing suits and foamy wet chest hair. Consumer products awash in chemicals and exciting new compounds, promising joy and leisure.

The February issue cost 35 cents on the stand, and is about a half-inch thick, printed black and white with spot color, except for a couple of full-color splash ads. One is for Mercury outboard motor boats (“the world’s number 1 outboard”), and another for Pall Mall cigarettes (“Pall Mall’s famous length of fine, rich-tasting tobacco travels and gentles the smoke — makes it mild”). The front page is a painted representation of a City Under Ice being built by the U.S. Army, and otherwise teases a road test of Ford’s first compact car, how to build a magnetic engine, and “The Truth About Truth Serum.”

Popular Science in 1960 is actually not that far a stretch from the magazine of today (even at that time, it had been around for 88 years). The main issue areas are consumer goods and science news. The biggest difference is the heavier focus on hobby and home projects. When the dominant piece of consumer technology was still the car (and apparently the boat), there must have been something attainable and garage-y about science. Science was still something you did lying down on a flatbed cart in greasy coveralls. Maybe there was a welding torch involved, a drill press, or a c-clamp and some epoxy. There are plenty of ads for homemade helicopters and how-to articles on metalworking.

The issue is incredibly heavy on automobiles, specifically, the launch of a line of compact cars from the Detroit automakers—the Ford Falcon, Chevy Corvair, Chrysler Valiant. Incidentally, the Ford Falcon stationwagon is really cool looking. The Falcon article is the second of three road tests on the Big Three’s compacts. In what can only have been an absolute riot, editors drove the Falcon 10,000 miles, from New York, through the South and Texas, and into northern Mexico, where photos feature the Ford alongside a donkey-pulled wagon on a dirt road. Then they turned back along the border, through New Orleans and Georgia and back up the coast. I picture four men in skinny ties, charging everything to the company, including Mexican hookers and road sodas. And for the record, the Falcon drives just fine.

The cover story, which describes a city burrowed underneath the Greenland icecap by the Army Corps of Engineers, is probably the most fascinating feature of the issue. “Camp Century” was a pretty impressive feat, with rooms connected by tunnels carved out of ice, powered by a portable nuclear generator. It boasted a rec hall and theater, laboratories, a barbershop and a chapel, and would serve as home for a group of Army engineers and scientists experimenting with ice cap samples.

At least that’s what the Danish government was told.

In reality, Camp Century was a cover story for Project Iceworm, an experimental Cold War program to build a system of tunnels under the ice in Greenland that could launch up to 600 ICBM warheads at the USSR in case of nuclear war. Yes, this wonder of modern technology featured in this issue of Popular Science and the Saturday Evening Post was in fact a smokescreen for strategically placed nuclear arms. The project proved impractical, and Project Iceworm and Camp Century were soon abandoned. The rec room, chapel and the rest are still out there somewhere in Greenland, deserted along with a flawed plan to annihilate the Soviet population.

You can actually browse the entire Popular Science archive on their website, which is no doubt fascinating. But this one issue I keep around like a coffee table book is my own personal porthole into Cold War America. Science was a hobby as much as a discipline, and consumer products meant identity. And all the while, there’s an underground of labcoats and safety goggles with a much more sinister purpose — an obliteration that never quite came into being. You get the impression, much as you would expect from a science magazine filled with cigarette ads, that they didn’t quite know what they were messing with. It’s a fun old magazine to flip through, but it burns the eyes and nose a little.

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