Originally Posted: Jan. 1, 2022
Few people counted down to anything until the 1960s and 1970s—and yes, that included the new year. Celebrations and midnight kisses on December 31, of course. Countdowns, no. How, then, did the countdown go from almost nonexistent to ubiquitous in the latter half of the 20th century? And why are we so drawn to them now, especially to mark one year’s end and another’s beginning?
Countdowns as we know them today serve many purposes. The New Year’s Eve countdown might be characterized as a “genesis countdown”: After time runs out, it starts over again. The wait for the new year—with its predictions, resolutions, and parties—is typically generative, optimistic, and hopeful. But there are also “apocalyptic countdowns,” in which after time runs out, disaster ensues. Today, we wonder how much time we have until the next COVID-19 variant, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. Both of these countdown types took form during the Atomic Age.
Though disaster has always been a part of American life, the threat of nuclear annihilation introduced pervasive existential fears. Notably, in 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists introduced the Doomsday Clock, which to this day provides a visual reckoning of just how close we are to apocalypse. In the years that followed, these same scientists were the ones who brought the term “count down” to the American lexicon. A 1953 San Francisco Examiner article reported on an atomic bomb test in the nearby Nevada desert: “a designated official on a loudspeaker and short-wave radio hookup announces at intervals the time remaining before the explosion. At the very end he intones ‘minus 10 seconds, minus 5 seconds and minus 4 seconds’ and so on down to the moment of the explosion.”
A few years later, Alfred Hitchcock domesticated the atomic countdown in the 1957 made-for-television movie Four O’Clock, transplanting it into the basement of a suburban home wired with explosives in the minutes and seconds before the eponymous time. The televised countdowns of the 1950s, whether real or fictional, were frightening temporal experiences, in which time was distended and stretched, and then extinguished.
But on May 5, 1961, the countdown got its first major positive association. Some 45 million Americans watching the national nightly news heard the countdown to the successful launch of America’s first manned space flight. The blast-off was followed by astronaut Alan Shepard saying, “Roger, liftoff and the clock has started.” Time did not end, as apocalyptic countdowns had threatened; instead, a new clock began.
The countdown associated with rocket launches had its origins in the Weimar Republic, where Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon featured an extended countdown to a moon rocket launch. No one had ever heard of or seen anything like the launch before—or the countdown. The lavish science fiction multi-reel film had an outsized impact on Germany’s rocket scientists, who after World War II became central to the American space program. One of the advisors on the film was early space travel enthusiast Willy Ley, who later immigrated to the United States, where he worked for NASA, orchestrating its rocket launches. READ MORE