The Beep Heard Round the World

On this day in economic and financial history...

An "artificial moon" twinkled in the sky above the earth for the first time on Oct. 4, 1957. The Russian satellite Sputnik 1 entered orbit, announcing to the world a new age of space travel with each faint "beep" of its radio signals.

American reactions were diverse. The Washington Post reported that one top scientist was "elated that it is up there." Rear Admiral Rawson Bennett responded with an entirely different tone, dismissing the satellite to The New York Times as a "hunk of iron almost anybody could launch." Sputnik 1's orbit disintegrated and it burned up in the atmosphere three months later, far exceeding the three-week time period most had expected it to remain aloft.

The successful Russian launch lit a fire under the American satellite program. Its Explorer 1 satellite reached orbit approximately four months later, the first of many successes for Wernher von Braun and his team of rocket scientists. The space program's legacy lives on in the silicon-driven devices you use to read this article today.

Sputnik wasn't the only craft to set a spaceflight milestone on Oct. 4. Bert Rutan's SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize race to create a reusable private spacecraft on Oct. 4, 2004 when it completed a second successful flight beyond Earth's atmosphere.

SpaceShipOne's victory has since led to even more audacious X Prize-sponsored spaceflight goals. Google currently sponsors the Lunar X Prize, which encourages innovators to land a robot on the moon and have it travel about a third of a mile. This goal may need the help of the Northrop Grumman (NYS: NOC) Lunar Lander Challenge winners, who in 2009 successfully built a craft capable of landing safely on the moon and returning to space afterwards.

Catching a bull by the horns
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) posted its best Oct. 4 gains ever in 1933, en route to a record-setting year of recovery after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's landslide election. The index finished the day up 5.4%, "the largest since July 24," according to The Washington Post. Much of the gains rose on the back of belief in the "honest dollar," a popular euphemism for stable inflation rates.

The nation had then suffered through years of intense deflation that began in mid-1930, but October 1933 marked the beginning of a return to moderate inflation, which lasted until the months before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry to World War II. The Dow would close out 1933 with a 64% gain on the year, still by a wide margin the largest one-year gain in its history.

Birth of a PC
The first "personal computer" was offered to the public beginning on Oct. 4, 1968. Dow component Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) was the first to use the term when it advertised its HP 9100A in that week's issue of Science, a leading scientific journal. The 40-pound, $4,900 machine offered professionals their own dedicated computing power, freeing them from relying on the massive mainframes that dominated the era. It could perform trigonometry in a mere 330 milliseconds per function, which was impressive at the time for something released years before integrated circuits enjoyed widespread use.

Barbarians at the gate
The hostile-takeover mind-set of the 80s was on full display on Oct. 4, 1988. Pillsbury executives worked furiously to fend off an unsolicited and unexpected $5.2 billion buyout bid from British liquor leader Grand Metropolitan, which you now know as Diageo (NYS: DEO) . Pillsbury's stock shot through the roof on news of the offer, gaining 46% by the end of the day.

Pillsbury succumbed to the corporate raiding a year later, but Grand Met didn't do much with the company, despite its slew of highly popular global food brands. Today, Pillsbury exists only on the labels of products sold by General Mills (NYS: GIS) and J.M. Smucker. General Mills offers refrigerated and frozen Pillsbury brands, while Smucker licenses the famous Doughboy to market its associated baking wares.

Pillsbury's demise is a cautionary tale for any investor who believes that branding is king. The best retail stocks are backed by solid businesses with an unmatched consumer experience, rather than just a friendly face on a familiar label. The Fool has identified three such stocks, and we've explained the secrets of their success in our latest free report. If you're looking for some great long-term investments, you owe it to yourself to read this important report now.

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