A recent EL&U question (What does “and counting” in “Bits of plastic in oceans: 5.25 trillion and counting” mean?) led to a discussion of counting up versus counting down. In the course of that discussion, a commenter observed that the default direction for counting is up (toward larger numbers) rather than down toward zero. The fact that we have the word countdown in English but not the word countup offers some support for this view, since you wouldn't expect speakers to specify a direction that was accepted as and assumed to be the normal one.
Here is the entry for countdown in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):
countdown n (ca. 1952) : an audible backward counting in fixed units (as seconds) from an arbitrary starting number to mark the time remaining before an event; also : preparations carried out for such an event.
The two most familiar settings for countdowns, at least in the United States, are rocket, missile, or spaceship launches (where the countdown is to the moment of ignition of the rocket fuel and the launch of the missile or spacecraft) and sporting events such as basketball, hockey, and football that are normally played within a fixed allotment of "live" time (where the countdown is to the end of one of the periods of the game or [more often] to the end of the game itself).
The Online Etymology Dictionary has this:
countdown (n.) 1953, American English, in early use especially of launches of rockets or missiles, from count (v.) + down.
This entry suggests that aeronautics/rocketry was an "especially" frequent setting for early use of countdown, but it doesn't indicate that it was the first setting, nor does it give any idea as to when countdown came into use at sporting events.
I have three questions:
In what context did countdown originate—aeronautics/rocketry, sports, or something else?
When did the term cross over from its original setting (presumably either aeronautics/rocketry or sports) to the other setting where it became especially common?
Can anyone improve on "circa 1952" (MW) or "1953" (etymonline) as the first occurrence date of this word?