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On this date 59 years ago, state civil defense directors were assembled in Washington, D.C., for a conference on national emergency readiness. If they thought their trip to the nation's capital would be a stress-free junket, those officials were in for a surprise. The afternoon session began at the Sheraton Park Hotel with a bracing appearance by Assistant Secretary of Defense Steuart L. Pittman.

Pittman would be remembered at the end of his life for his work as a lawyer and environmentalist who labored on behalf of farm and forest preservation and the health of the Chesapeake Bay. As a young man, he'd flown dangerous aerial missions during World War II and earned a Silver Star as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific. But on this day in 1961, Steuart Pittman was carrying a grim message about the likely effects of a World War III.

The warning came in the form of a letter from President John F. Kennedy urging the civil defense directors to encourage Americans to build personal bomb shelters to protect themselves from radioactive fallout in the event of a thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union.

"In simple terms, this goal is to reach for fallout protection for every American as rapidly as possible," JFK's letter stated. "Radioactive fallout, extending down-wind for as much as several hundred miles, could account for the major part of the casualties which might result from a thermonuclear attack on an unprotected population. Protection against this threat is within reach of an informed America willing to face the facts and act."

Pittman read this statement at 1 p.m., just after lunch had concluded. I imagine it caused some indigestion.

* * *

Sputnik, the Russians' early success in space, the Cuban Missile Crisis -- all these events shook Americans out of their lethargy. The most feared outcome, the third world war of the 20th century, did not occur, but the wake-up call was not in vain.

Sure, the bomb shelters dug in Americans' backyards seem silly now. But the vast spending on science education was not wasted. From the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston, and in university labs in Texas and Pennsylvania and many other places, the "New Frontier" was more than a political slogan. It became a mindset. And the frontiers of learning didn't just center on huge rocket ships, they also centered on the tiny microchips that have fueled everything from unmanned Mars expeditions to music-on-demand with the simplest of requests: "Hey, Google…"

Perhaps no American better symbolizes the value of America's can-do spirit and its Cold War emphasis on technological innovation than Steve Jobs. Nine years ago today -- 50 years after JFK's instructions about bomb shelters -- much of the world mourned the passing of this inventor, visionary, and California-based employer with the Dickensian name.

The pride of Homestead High School in Cupertino, Calif., Steve attended classes at Reed College for less than a year before getting a summer job at Hewlett-Packard, where he met "the Woz," fellow college dropout Steve Wozniak.

Working out of Jobs' family garage, these two tinkerers built a computer and a company, Apple Computers, now Apple Inc., that would make more than gadgets. By opening the horizons of human possibility, Apple would make history. Steve Jobs' 2011 death at age 56 was lamented by admirers around the globe.

In a statement issued at the White House, President Obama said: "Michelle and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Steve Jobs. Steve was among the greatest of American innovators -- brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it."

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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