The Beep Heard Around the World

As the sun rose on October 4, 1957, many Americans were talking about baseball. The headlines reported that for the first time in nine years, a team from outside of New York had won a game in the World Series. The day before, in front of 65,202 fans filling Yankee Stadium, Hank Aaron launched a fly ball to center field. Mickey Mantle misplayed it, allowing Aaron to stretch the hit into a triple. The play sparked a rally for the Milwaukee Braves, and the Yankees were unable to recover, losing 4 to 2.

By the time the sun set that evening, however, a completely different topic dominated conversations. On the other side of the world, almost 6,000 miles from Yankee Stadium, another ball had been launched and its effects were both more dramatic and long-lasting.

At the Soviet Baikonur complex in what is now Kazakhstan, at 2:12 in the afternoon New York time, the world suddenly changed. Thirty-two rocket boosters ignited, the desert steppe shook and a three-stage rocket shot skyward, accelerating to over 17,000 miles per hour. At 142 miles above the earth, the rocket’s protective cone released its cargo. Humanity’s first satellite, called Sputnik, started to orbit the earth.

Russian satellite, Sputnik

While early designs for the satellite envisioned a cone-shaped projectile, Sergei Korolev, the lead Soviet rocket engineer, had insisted on a ball shape. “It seems to me,” he said, “the first Sputnik must have a simple and expressive form, close to the shape of natural celestial bodies. It would forever remain in the consciousness of people as a symbol of the dawn of the space age.”[1]

Korolev’s team went to work, and its final product was an aluminum alloy sphere with a 22.8-inch diameter “containing only a radio transmitter, batteries, and temperature-measuring instruments.”[2] In the weeks before the launch, Korolev had the satellite set up on a stand in the Soviet complex at Baikonur’s assembly hall, where it was draped in velvet.

As the launch approached, he showed an obsessive attention to the satellite’s appearance, like a teenager with

a prized sports car. “Korolev came over to the shop,” one engineer recalled, “and insisted that both halves of the Sputnik’s metallic sphere be polished until they shone, that they be spotlessly clean.”[3]

Shortly after the launch and as the sphere separated from its rocket, the Soviet engineers at Baikonur waited with bated breath. Ninety-six minutes later Sputnik passed overhead, completing its first orbit. Suddenly, from the complex’s loudspeakers connected to a radio transmitter, the team heard a cricket-like “beep.” The crowd erupted in cheers. Korolev giddily exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting all my life for this day!”[4]

It was a beep heard around the world. As the news quickly spread and Sputnik traveled overhead, excited ham radio operators listened for – and heard – the satellite’s trail of chirps. With clear and cool weather over the northeastern U.S., people gathered around telescopes or simply grabbed their own binoculars to see if they could spot it moving among the stars.

I’ve been waiting all my life for this day!

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who later became a White House aide and a distinguished historian, was a sophomore in high school when Sputnik took orbit. She heard the news while at her boyfriend’s house and the two went outside to try to catch a glimpse. “We took a blanket,” she confided on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer 30 years later, “and we went to a park nearby. And it was a very romantic setting, and we started looking for Sputnik. And then my boyfriend reached over and kissed me … I didn’t give Sputnik another thought.”[5]

She was hardly alone that first evening in giving Sputnik just a passing thought. The next day, Senator Alexander Wiley from Wisconsin said he saw “nothing to worry us” and that Sputnik would “keep us on our toes.”[6] The Washington Post reported that local elementary school teachers had noted that the satellite was being treated as an expletive. “Sputnik,” muttered a 6-year-old as he stubbed his toe.[7]

But within a week the broader implications had started to sink in. Senator Styles Bridges from New Hampshire captured the new American mood when he called for a change in the nation’s priorities. “The time has clearly come,” he said, “to be less concerned with the depth of the pile

on the new broadloom rug or the height of the tail fin in the new car and be more prepared to shed blood, sweat, and tears if this country and the free world are to survive.”[8]

Public discussion quickly focused on Sputnik as a military matter rather than a scientific achievement. If the Soviet Union could blast a satellite into space then it could send a missile towards New York or Los Angeles. As one historian wrote, “For the first time since 1814, the American homeland lay under direct foreign threat.”[9] The political cartoonists of the era agreed, depicting Sputnik’s launch as a wake-up call demanding immediate action.

The public’s anxiety was especially challenging for President Dwight Eisenhower, then in his second term in the White House. He responded in part by accelerating his Administration’s support for defense spending and the development of more advanced missiles and rockets. But Eisenhower also recognized that the situation called for much more.

Cartoon depicting American’s fears of Sputnik
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower

From a contemporary perspective, this is where the story gets even more interesting. That’s because Eisenhower recognized that sustained national progress required not just federal investment in a new generation of rockets, but in stronger math and science education for a new generation of people.

The United States could not simply buy its way into space. Catching up and eventually outpacing the Soviets required the right minds – an army of physicists, mathematicians and engineers – to build and launch the country’s space program. In the 1950s, however, American schools were not producing enough graduates with the right skills in these fields.

In the fall of 1957 the proposition of overhauling the education system was more than a little complicated. There was no precedent in the country for peace-time federal support for education. Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to enforce a court order requiring the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Even before Sputnik’s launch, the events in Little Rock had led to a dramatic and defining moment for the America of the mid-twentieth century. The federal courts had found that African-American children had a constitutional right to attend the same public schools as white students. But the Governor of Arkansas vowed to resist, and in September 1957 he used the Arkansas National Guard to block the path of nine black students who sought to enter Central High.[10] Eisenhower’s Justice Department successfully obtained a court order requiring the Guard’s removal, an order the Governor obeyed.

But ensuring the safe creation of an integrated school was another matter entirely. The following Monday, over a thousand angry white protesters formed a ring around most of Central High. Although the nine black students initially entered unseen through a side entrance, by 11:30 the protesters had breached police lines and entered the school building, forcing the students to leave for their own safety. The American President who had led the Allies to victory in Europe now faced what he later described as his most difficult decision since launching the D-Day invasion of Normandy.[11] He addressed the nation on television and called on the 101st Airborne Division to restore order and escort the nine African-American students to school. As an Army officer led the way, one of the nine students would say “for the first time in my life I felt like an American citizen.”[12]

for the first time in my life I felt like an American citizen

While Eisenhower’s decision received broad public support in most of the country, southern political leaders howled objections. As one Southern Congressman asserted, “there are not enough troops to occupy every high school campus in the South.”[13] Southern Senators, virtually all of whom were Democrats, joined in opposition. The renowned Democratic Senator Richard Russell from Georgia went so far as to accuse the Army of “applying tactics which must have been copied from the manual issued to the officers of Hitler’s storm troopers.”[14] Eisenhower was infuriated.

At that moment, there seemed no hope for a new federal education initiative. There was no way this Republican President could get such a measure through Congress without the support of the Democratic Senators from the South. And the last thing most of these Senators wanted was a step that would legitimize federal involvement in their schools.

Yet even amidst this chaos and controversy, a new political momentum for education soon emerged. Sputnik, the 22.8-inch aluminum ball, proved more powerful in uniting the nation than racial tensions were in dividing it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it took strange political bedfellows to accomplish the task. And no person became more important in helping Eisenhower than a Democratic Senator from Alabama named Lister Hill.

Hill had been elected to the House of Representatives in 1922 and had served in the Senate since 1937. A long-time and loyal Democrat, Hill had campaigned vigorously against Eisenhower’s candidacy in 1952.[15] But despite his conservative Southern roots, Hill was a progressive on education issues who kept his constituents and fellow lawmakers on their toes. Since his first election in 1922 he had supported federal education assistance to help impoverished school districts, recognizing this would bring badly-needed resources to schools across Alabama.[16] By 1957, Hill had been advocating for federal education efforts for 35 years.

A member of Hill’s staff, Stuart McClure, immediately grasped that Sputnik had created a new opening for Hill’s education efforts. McClure would later note that the greatest achievement of his career had been to focus Hill’s “attention on the opportunity which Sputnik, the Russian satellite, gave all of us who were struggling, and had been for decades, to establish a federal program of monetary aid to public education.”[17]

Lister Hill, Democratic Senator, Alabama

By January 1958, Eisenhower submitted a package of education proposals to Congress. A week later, Hill and Alabama Congressman Carl Elliott followed suit, embracing the White House’s proposals and putting even more money behind them. Over the next seven months, their legislation moved through both houses of Congress, and on September 2, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the bill into law.

Especially given the time and place, the rapid adoption and broad scope of the legislation was remarkable. It distributed federal money to the states to strengthen science, math, and foreign language teaching. It expanded funding for vocational training in science and technology, established student loans for college students in these fields, and created a national graduate fellowship program with a preference for developing more college teachers. The bill even put money behind research to develop new technology to advance teaching, focusing in part on the new potential created by television.[18]

The final legislation bore a title that reflected the country’s view of Sputnik as a military threat. It was called the National Defense Education Act, or NDEA. Eisenhower had successfully built on this theme, initially presenting his proposals to Congress by saying, “this emergency program stems from national need, and its fruits will bear directly on national security.”[19] The bill’s name was coined by Hill’s staffer McClure, who later described it as a “God-awful title.” As McClure noted, the purpose of education is “to defend the mind and develop the human spirit, not to build cannons and battleships. It was a horrible title, but it worked.”[20]

High school physics students

The NDEA played an important role in strengthening American education. The nation’s scientists, for example, quickly seized upon it as the long-awaited opportunity they had been seeking to improve high school teaching in physics, which had emerged as a critical field for the space age.[21] The federal money reached more than 7,500 high school classrooms and laboratories and increased enrollment in science and math classes in some states by as much as 50 percent.[22] By 1960, colleges and universities reported that freshmen were arriving better prepared for higher education.[23] In the eyes of some, all of this helped prepare the nation for its success in the space race, putting humans on the moon only a dozen years after the Sputnik’s launch.

Interestingly, the NDEA also led an additional half-million American students to enroll in a foreign language course in the fall of 1959.[24] This reflected its support for foreign language education, a feature recommended to Eisenhower by Harvard President James Conant. He had argued that success in an age of rockets and missiles required not only support for science and math, but the humanities as well. As Conant put it, the problems of this new era required “a people who will not panic and political leaders of wisdom, courage and devotion with capacity for solving intricate human problems.”[25]

Six decades later, the events and issues of 1957 continue to ricochet across the American political landscape. The news of recent months has been marked by controversy in Charlottesville instead of Little Rock. While six decades of progress in addressing racial issues is undeniable, the ongoing echoes from Arkansas 60 years ago are unmistakable. And most recently, the nation again focused on a Senate race in Alabama, as the remarks at a political rally there reverberated into NFL stadiums across the country. On many days, regardless of one’s political persuasion, it’s easy to feel that the times have seldom been so turbulent.

Amidst all this, we take some encouragement from recent and renewed efforts to move federal support for education forward. Computer science is to our time what physics was to the middle of the 20th century. It is reshaping every part of society, and no nation can prosper without providing its students with an opportunity to learn to code. This has sparked a new movement to bring computer science to schools, led by non-profit groups and companies across the tech sector.

As in the year following Sputnik, the biggest recent advances are attributable to two individuals from differing parts of the political spectrum.

The first was President Barack Obama. In 2016, 59 years after the first African-American walked as a student into Central High in Little Rock, the first African-American to walk into the White House as President proposed federal funding to bring computer science into the nation’s schools. He called for a bold initiative, entitled “Computer Science for All,” to train teachers, expand access to instructional materials, and build effective regional partnerships.[26] Last year, Congress failed to enact this initiative into law, but support on Capitol Hill grew and broader political momentum started to build.

President Obama participates in a computer science class

The second American is Ivanka Trump. In the months following last November’s election, she studied the issue and embraced its importance. As Advisor to the President, she consulted with non-profit and tech leaders and formulated a $1 billion, five-year plan to provide federal funding to advance computer science and other science and math subjects in the nation’s public schools. That plan was adopted in a Presidential order signed by her father, and last Tuesday in Detroit, she announced a partnership with tech companies, including Microsoft, to provide an additional $300 million of private money to the effort.

Ivanka Trump participates in a coding class at Middleburg Community Charter School, Virginia

Last week we joined Ivanka at an elementary school in Virginia to celebrate the opportunity for students to learn to code. We saw an impressive group of fifth graders practice coding skills they’d learned with Microsoft Minecraft, through the Hour of Code, a program created by We saw Hadi Partovi, the founder of, talk to the students about the work he had created. And we saw the unbridled enthusiasm of a new generation of students for whom coding is as natural as writing.

It’s easy to look at the events of 2017 and yearn for a Sputnik moment that can unite the nation. But even in the absence of such an opportunity, it’s heartening to see leaders from both political parties recognize that, as in 1957, technology is on the move. The future of our children requires that education move forward with it.

Today in Technology is a series that highlights important technology developments from the past and discusses the insights they offer for the tech trends and issues of our own day.

[1] Paul Dickson, Sputnik: The Shock of the Century (New York: Walker, 2001), 104-05.

[2] Ibid., 105.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 107.

[5] Ibid., 18-19.

[6] Walter A. McDougall, The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 142.

[7] Elsie Carper, “Sputnik Spurs Interest of Children in Science,” Washington Post, 14 October 1957, B1.

[8] Yanek Mieczowski, Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race For Space and World Prestige (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013), 27.

[9] McDougall, 7.

[10] Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace (New York: Random House, 2012), 716.

[11] Ibid. at 726.

[12] David Halberstam, The Fifties (New York: Villard Books, 1993), 687.

[13] Smith, at 727.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Virginia Van der Veer Hamilton, Lister Hill: Statesman from the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 19870, 199.

[16] Wayne Urban, More than Science and Sputnik: The National Defense Education Act of 1958 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 14.

[17] Dana Adrienne Ponte, The First Line of Defense: Higher Education in Wartime and the Development of National Defense Education, 1939-1959 (Seattle: University of Washington Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2016), 107.

[18] Urban, 2-4.

[19] Ibid., 89.

[20] Ibid., 95.

[21] At the time, high schools in the United States had only modest budgets available for laboratory equipment that was essential for courses such as physics, and the problem was even more pronounced for recently developed aspects of this field. C.J. Overbeck, “The Physicist and the National Defense Education Act of 1958,” Physics Today 12, 5, 22-24 (1959).

[22] Pamela Ebert Flattau, Jerome Bracken, Richard Van Atta, Ayeh Bahdeh-Ahmadi, Rodolfo de la Cruz, and Kay Sullivan, The National Defense Education Act of 1958: Selected Outcomes (Washington D.C.: Institute for Defense Analyses Science and Technology Policy Institute, 2006), III-4.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] McDougall, 161.


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