Fifty-seven years ago today, I was in the first semester of my first year of college at Loyola University in New Orleans. It was a Friday, and I was looking forward to that evening. I was going to a school party on board a Mississippi River steamboat named The President, and had a date with who I considered to be a very attractive young woman.
Walking across the campus after lunch, I was on my way to a class when I heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, my home city. Classes were briefly held, but soon canceled. Students and faculty crowded into the student center where the lone television set— black & white, monochrome — was located. Those who couldn’t fit in listened to radios for the news that around 1:45 p.m. confirmed that the President was dead. Around 5:00 p.m. the afternoon newspaper’s final edition was delivered to the school racks bearing the headline “President Dead” in second-coming type that covered most of the first page (I kept a copy, but it was misplaced sometime during my various moves since. The Dallas Morning News font page from the next day is below). President Johnson took the oath of office in Air Force One, at Love Field, before taking off to Washington late in the afternoon. Those events and those of the next four days were a watershed in world history.
The event on the steamboat that evening was not canceled, but it turned out to be somber affair that lasted for about two hours of the four scheduled. At the time, most students were apolitical, though that would soon change with a vengeance. Classes for the next week were all canceled and I went home to Dallas for the Thanksgiving holiday on Monday.
That time was different in so many ways. In this writing the focus is on the communications technology as it was then.
Two of the most essential infrastructures our communications are dependent upon today are satellites and fiber-optics, Though AT&T had, with NASA, launched the Telstars 1 & 2 in 1962 & 1963 , they were of limited use, and not for the general public. Fiber-optics were limited to scientists imagination – some at the time might have said hallucinations. The existence of the Internet was unimaginable, except perhaps in science fiction. Telephones were limited to land-lines for most. All were rotary dial; DTMF (Touch-tone) had only been offered to the public as of November 18, four days prior to Kennedy’s death. Portable automobile telephones existed but they were very expensive to own and operate and had limited number channels which made them nearly impossible to use during peak hours. Cellular was 20 years away in the future. Televisions were all broadcast – no cable or satellite — and programming was limited to three national networks and a few locally programmed stations. FM radio existed but was of limited use. Some radio sets were AM/FM, but most available were AM only. Auto air-conditioning was an expensive add-on if you wanted it factory installed; most A/C was aftermarket. The only familiar and affordable imported car was the Volkswagen Beetle, though there were some luxury imports from Europe, and the Japanese Datsun (later Nissan) had newly arrived (and was considered a joke by many auto aficionados). Computers were all main-frame and programmed and data entered by punch cards produced by bulky keypunch machines. The availability of personal computers for home, or even office use, was unimaginable. Electronic calculators did not exist. Although mechanical adding machines, some electrically operated, existed they were limited to addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Slide rules were used to make more complex calculations, but the mainframe computers were necessary to do a large number. Air travel was expensive and limited. Overseas travel by air was beyond the means of most people. Sea transportation was a luxury and slow. Though more and more jets were put to use, airlines still used propeller engines on many routes. FAA regulations set fares and routes, limiting competition and expansion. Inter-city commercial passenger rail ravel was available, but declining mainly because of the expansion of the Interstate highway system. Nineteen sixty-three was technologically on a difference planet. It certainly was politically, socially, and culturally also. President Kennedy’s assassination, as well as the events of his administration, was responsible for a great deal of the changes, or at least the acceleration of them. The Apollo 11 visit to the moon eight years later, a Kennedy goal, was one. They might be topic for additional essays.