Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
A Brilliant Madness
The Film and More
Special Features
People and Events
Teacher's Guide

spacer above content
People & Events: Math and Science Achievement in the U.S.

Great historical movements sometimes have unexpected wellsprings. A good example is Bamberger's Department Stores, which provided the financial capital that helped catapult America's scientific establishment to unparalleled heights beginning in the 1930s.

%The Bamberger family, who opened their first store in Newark, New Jersey, had sold the business six weeks before the stock market crash of 1929. With a multi-million dollar windfall to spend, they decided they wanted to give something back to New Jersey, the original source of their fortune. Abraham Flexner, an expert in medical education, convinced the family to establish Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, which would become a world center of pure mathematics and physics research.

Even earlier, the far-sighted Rockefeller Foundation, which held that "nations that do not cultivate the sciences cannot hold their own," funded the European education of America's best minds, including Robert Oppenheimer. By the mid-1920s, that foundation began bringing the great minds of Europe to America to targeted universities, including Princeton.

%With the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the early 1930s and a growing fear of war, IAS courted the Continent's brightest star, Albert Einstein. After a three-year negotiation process, Einstein finally signed on and crossed the Atlantic, leading a friend of his to remark, "The pope of physics has moved and the United States will now become the center for the natural sciences." Princeton's IAS became the modern-day equivalent of Plato's Academy, with intellectual giants such as Robert Oppenheimer and the brilliant logician Kurt Gödel joining Einstein.

The international mathematics and physics community took notice, but Americans on the street would not realize the importance of this change until the United States entered World War II, when the United States war-fighting machine recruited many European émigré scientists.

The war some historians have called "the scientist's war" converted intellectuals formerly dismissed as "eggheads" into national heroes. Mathematicians from Princeton and elsewhere were recruited to break both the ciphers and codes of the Axis powers. A successful code breaking in the Pacific contributed greatly to the U.S. victory at the Battle of Midway Island, which turned the tide in the war against the Japanese. Alan Turing, a Princeton Ph.D., and a small group of cohorts at Bletchley Park in England, broke the Nazi code without the Germans' knowledge, helping the Allies destroy German submarines that attempted to control the Atlantic.

%Mathematicians also had their fingers in developing the weapons of war such as radar, long-range rockets, torpedoes, depth charges, and more. Typically, the U.S. military command would come up with key strategic questions: How powerful must a bomb be to sink a destroyer? At what altitude should bombers fly? Presented with these core strategic problems, mathematicians pulled out their pencils, scratched out equations, and delivered practical answers. Perhaps the most important contribution to the war effort by mathematicians and their cousins, physicists, was the development of the atomic bomb.

After the war, the United States government, particularly the military, plowed money into pure and applied scientific research and university science departments across the country. The money often led to technological innovations, despite questionable long-term impacts. Nuclear power, an offshoot of the A-bomb research of the war, became a reality in 1957 at the first nuclear power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania. More powerful atomic weapons, such as the H-bomb, were detonated, influencing the continuing Cold War with the Soviets.

Companies, well aware of the importance of science in consumer products, encouraged young scientists. In 1942 the Pittsburgh corporate giant Westinghouse initiated its generous science award, referred to as the "Junior Nobel Prize," to high school seniors who completed the most original research projects. (John Nash was a winner in 1945.)

%In 1946 mathematically inclined researchers unveiled ENIAC, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Calculator, a large, yet infant computer. It contained 18,000 electronic tubes and needed special cooling mechanisms to prevent it from melting. In an advertised test, the machine calculated the multiplication of 97,367 by itself 5,000 times -- and delivered the results in half a second.

Consumer applications of such technological innovation proved profound. Transistors developed for the computer found their way into one of the most powerful cultural influences in the world, the television. Later in the 1950s, unmanned satellites circling the earth provided a new generation with unimagined communications possibilities as well as information gathering. It wasn't long before technological innovation and consumer culture were as closely connected as, well, Mickey Mouse and his cartoon sweetheart, Minnie.

previous | return to people & events | next

Site Navigation

A Brilliant Madness Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline
Gallery | People & Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2001 PBS Online / WGBH

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: