Like pale sea anemones, plaster casts of the hands of NASA astronauts -- made so that their space suits can be custom-fit for each individual -- seem to wave at nothing in Houston, Texas, in 1968.
Like pale sea anemones, plaster casts of the hands of NASA astronauts -- made so that their space suits can be custom-fit for each individual -- seem to wave at nothing in Houston, Texas, in 1968.Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Like pale sea anemones, plaster casts of the hands of NASA astronauts -- made so that their space suits can be custom-fit for each individual -- seem to wave at nothing in Houston, Texas, in 1968.
A photograph of the skull of a common owl in 1951. The prominent circular bone casing helps protect the bird's large eye.
A human fetus seen on the cover of the April 30, 1965, issue of LIFE.
Geneticist and biologist James Watson wins Nobel Prize for the co-discovery of the structure of DNA.
An Air Force pilot's head is measured for a flight helmet, 1954.
Spiritual teacher and mediation instructor Jack Gariss conducts a group meditation experiment on March 1, 1972.
A man-made lightening bolt strikes a metal rod atop a model courthouse, 1949.
Edwin Powell Hubble (1889-1953) gazes at the heavens through the 100-inch Hooker telescope at California's Mt. Wilson Observatory in 1937.
Admiral Hyman Rickover stands on the ladder leading into the nuclear reactor shell at the Shippingport power facility near Pittsburgh, Penn. in 1957.
A pair of 90-day-old cow fetuses grow inside the amniotic sac in this photograph from 1965.
A long exposure view of a Sikorsky S-51 helicopter on the ground at Anacostia Naval Air Station in Washington, DC in 1949. The striking "Slinky shape" is produced by light reflecting on the rotor blades and leaving a trail in the night sky.
A close up view of a praying mantis on a leaf.
Nurses tend to four young polio patients lying on beds inside an "iron lung" in 1938.
A handful of microelectronic parts published in the March 10, 1961 issue of LIFE.
A technician inspects a plaster model, created for traveling health exhibits, at the German Health Museum near Cologne, Germany in 1955.
Workmen stand beside giganic pipe segments designed to divert a section on the Missouri River during the construction of Montana's Fort Peck Dam in 1936.
A scientist holds a chain attached to a hammer to demonstrate the magnetic power of the cyclotron (an early atom smasher) at Columbia University's Nevis Lab in Irvington, New York, in 1948.
A mounted razor blade struck by a laser beam during a laboratory experiment in Ann Arbor, Mich., 1962.
A gigantic cloud of radioactive dust rises from the desert floor in Nevada while seven miles away members of the press watch an A-bomb test, March 1953.
Transplant patient George Debord examines his own former diseased heart in 1968.
A lathe drills a hole in a human hair stretched taut across a metal device.
American architect and designer Charles Eames operates his solar-powered "do nothing machine" in 1957.
A camera attached above the launch pad captures the Saturn rocket as it lifts off carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon.
Medical students in white lab coats participate in a experiment of the inner ear.
A man displays his green hand in front of his face while smoking a cigarette.
A dummy in a suit stands erect in the foreground with other figures behind to simulate a scene after a test of an atomic bomb.
Albert Einstein, Princeton, 1948.
Ralph Morse's 1955 photograph of Albert Einstein's office at Princeton, taken on the day Einstein died, is a study in controlled chaos: the outward expression of the archetypal genius at work.
Edwin Land, the president and co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation, demonstrates his company's "60-second film" in 1963.
The industrialist, aviator, and film producer Howard Hughes sits with an engineer inside the cavernous sea plane, "the Spruce Goose," in Los Angeles on November 6, 1947.
Margaret Bourke-White's too-close-for-comfort photo of a papier-mache model of the human skull and spinal cord illuminates that awfully thin line that occasionally exists between science exhibit and freak show.
On August 16, 1960, 32-year-old U.S. Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger flew in a helium-balloon gondola to 102,800 feet (roughly 19 miles) above the Earth ... and jumped. His free-fall lasted 4 minutes and 36 seconds.
Dr. Walter P. Siegmund demonstrates a new invention, "fiber optics," 1960.
Allyn Hazard tests his "moon suit mock-up" in a lava crater in the Mojave Desert for the April 27, 1962 issue of LIFE.
A NASA scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland studies the chemicals that cause the tail of a firefly to light up.
Naval researchers test the effects of being upside-down for prolonged periods of time in an attempt to learn about the disorientation astronauts would likely experience on space flights, 1958.
Like pale sea anemones, plaster casts of the hands of NASA astronauts -- made so that their space suits can be custom-fi
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Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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37 Weirdly Beautiful Old-School Science and Tech Photos

Dec 16, 2013

During its four-decade run, from the late 1930s to early 1970s, as one of the world's premier weekly magazines, LIFE covered an utterly dizzying array of people and events. Best-known, of course, for its photographs and articles on World War II, the Space Race, the Vietnam War, Camelot, pop-culture icons like Marilyn Monroe and Sinatra and other major issues and world figures, from the very first LIFE also opened its pages to coverage of science and technology.

Staff photographers like Fritz Goro, Andreas Feininger, Yale Joel, J.R. Eyerman and others were justly celebrated for finding new and creative ways to illustrate the often-esoteric breakthroughs — and the scientists and engineers — transforming the world in the middle part of the last century. Often the magazine's treatment of these issues and people was unreservedly admiring; at other times, LIFE cast a more skeptical eye on new developments, inventions and areas of research. But no matter how wry or laudatory its voice, the magazine's ability to bring seemingly "unphotographable" concepts to light always helped to further the conversation around everything from space travel and atomic energy to the minuscule workings of human cells.

Here, LIFE.com presents a selection of photographs by some of history's most innovative photographers — pictures that encompass the bizarre, heady and often beautiful worlds of science and technology as seen in the pages of LIFE.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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