This broader scientific remit is also evident in Our New Age, a strip dreamt up in 1957 by the dean of the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology, Dr Athelstan Spilhaus, and launched in 1958 with illustrator Earl Cros. Spilhaus wrote the strip and would later joke that he wore out three artists, as Earl Cros was later succeeded by E C Felton and then Gene Fawcette. When Spilhaus stopped writing the strip in 1973, Fawcette continued with Our New Age, at least until 1975.
Dr Spilhaus was very upfront about his desire to get kids interested in science after the launch of Sputnik. He recalled in an interview: “I decided to [start writing the comic strip] right after Sputnik, when I was disturbed about kids knowing very little about science. Rather than fight my own kids reading the funnies, which is a stupid thing to do, I decided to put something good into the comics, something that was more fun and that might give a little subliminal education.”
But it wasn’t just kids that were influenced by Our New Age. After President John F Kennedy appointed Dr Spilhaus to a position directing the science exhibits at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, he met with JFK. The president reportedly told Spilhaus at that meeting, “The only science I ever learned was from reading your comic strip in the Boston Globe.” It’s an extraordinary admission, particularly from a president who just a year earlier had announced plans to put an American on the moon.
The 26 September 1965 edition of Our New Age was typical in that it laid out scientific facts and history in the first few panels, and then predicted what modern science might do with future technologies. This strip, on “ultra cold” explained that in 1860 a Scottish scientist had produced a temperature of almost -40 degrees F. By the last panel we see scientists in the year 2165, looking after two people and their dog laying in tubes while in a state of “cryogenic hibernation,” waiting to be brought back to life.
It is easy to dismiss strips like this as simply a technicolor curiosity of an age long gone. However, I believe they offer much more. Pop culture, by its definition, offers a reflection of the interests, preoccupations, fears and desires of the time. The Sputnik launch perfectly exemplifies this – showing an impulsive response to the Soviet’s technological triumph.
The importance of science was suddenly brought home by a distant beep in the skies above the Earth, inspiring a generation to explore new frontiers. And though public opinion polls from the time show that the children of this era were more excited about the prospects of the space age than their parents, the techno-utopian visions of Radebaugh and Spilhaus gave people a window on to these beginnings. The hi-tech world we live in owes a debt to a simple silver sphere that captured the world’s attention more than 50 years ago.