The Atomic Age, also known as the Atomic Era, is a phrase typically used to delineate the period of history following the detonation of the first nuclear bomb.
The Atomic Age in the 1950s
The phrase stems from the feeling of nuclear optimism in the 1950s in which it was believed that all power sources in the future would be atomic in nature. The atomic bomb
("A-bomb") would render all conventional explosives obsolete and nuclear power
plants would do the same for power sources such as coal
. There was a general feeling that everything would use a nuclear power source of some sort, in a positive and productive way, from irradiating food
to preserve it, to the development of nuclear medicine
. This would render the Atomic Age as significant a step in technological progress
as the first smelting of Bronze
, of Iron
, or the commencement of the Industrial Revolution
This included even cars, leading Ford to display the Ford Nucleon concept car to the public in 1958.
The Atomic Age in the 1960s
In the 1960s, the term became less common, but the concept remained. In the Thunderbirds
TV series, a set of vehicles was presented that were imagined to be completely nuclear, as shown in cutaways presented in their comic-books.
Many experts predicted that thanks to the giant nuclear power stations of the near future electricity would soon become much cheaper and that electricity meters would be removed, because power would be "too cheap to meter.
Lew Kowarski, a former director of CERN, recalled even such references as Atomic cocktail waitresses.
The term was initially used in a positive, futuristic sense, but by the 1960s the threats posed by nuclear weapons had begun to edge out nuclear power as the dominant motif of the atom.
The Atomic Age from 1970 to 2000
By the late 1970s, nuclear power was faced with economic difficulties and widespread public unease, coming to a head in the Three Mile Island
accident in 1979, and the Chernobyl reactor explosion
in 1986, both of which effectively killed the nuclear power industry for decades thereafter.
The Atomic Age after 2000
Presently the label of the Atomic Age
now connotes either a sense of nostalgia
or naïveté, and is considered by many to have ended with the fall of the Soviet Union
in 1991, though the term continues to be used by some historians to describe the era following the conclusion of the Second World War
. The term is used by some science fiction fans
to describe not only the era following the conclusion of the Second World War but also contemporary history
up to the present day.
As of 2007, a resurgence of the Atomic Age appears to be underway, as some advocates of nuclear power suggest that its use could be a solution to global warming. In addition, nations such as China are vastly expanding their nuclear power programs.
Chronology of the Atomic Age
- 1896--Henri Becquerel notices that uranium gives off an unknown radiation when it fogs photographic film.
- 1898--Marie Curie discovers thorium gives off a similar radiation. She calls it radioactivity.
- 1903--Ernest Rutherford begins to speak of the possibility of atomic energy.
- 1905--Albert Einstein formulates the special theory of relativity which explains the phenomenon of radioactivity as mass-energy equivalence.
- 1911--Ernest Rutherford formulates a theory about the structure of the atomic nucleus based on his experiments with alpha particles.
- 1932—-James Chadwick discovers the neutron.
- 11 October, 1939 — The Einstein-Szilard letter, suggesting that the United States construct an atomic bomb, is delivered to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt signs the order to build an atomic bomb on 6 December 1941.
- September 1942 — General Leslie Groves takes charge of the Manhattan Project.
- 2 December, 1942 — The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction takes place in Chicago, United States, at the Chicago pile - 1.
- 16 July, 1945 — The first atomic bomb is tested near Alamogordo, New Mexico, United States.
- 6 August, 1945 — The atomic bomb is first deployed as a military weapon (by the United States) in the bombing of Hiroshima, Empire of Japan.
- 5 September, 1951 - The U.S. Air Force announces the awarding of a contract for the development of an "atomic-powered airplane".
- 1 November, 1952 — The first hydrogen bomb, largely designed by Edward Teller, is tested at Eniwetok Atoll.
- 8 December 1953 –- U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a speech before the UN General Assembly, announces the Atoms for Peace program to provide nuclear power to developing countries.
- 21 January, 1954 — The first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), is launched into the Thames River near New London, Connecticut, United States.
- 27 June, 1954 — The first nuclear power plant begins operation near Obninsk, USSR.
- 17 September, 1954 – Lewis L. Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, states that nuclear energy will be “too cheap to meter”.
- 1957 to 1959 — The Soviet Union and the United States both begin deployment of ICBMs.
- 1958--The neutron bomb, a special type of tactical nuclear weapon developed specifically to release a relatively large portion of its energy as energetic neutron radiation, is invented by Samuel Cohen of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
- 1960—Herman Kahn publishes the book On Thermonuclear War.
- 12 October, 1962 to 28 October, 1962 — The Cuban Missile Crisis brings Earth to the brink of nuclear war.
- 10 October, 1963 — The Partial Test Ban Treaty goes into effect, banning above ground nuclear testing.
- 26 August, 1966 -- The first pebble bed reactor goes on line in Julich, West Germany (Some nuclear engineers think that the pebble bed reactor design can be adapted for atomic powered vehicles).
- 28 March, 1979 — The Three Mile Island accident occurs at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, dampening the enthusiasm of many in the United States for nuclear power.
- 26 April, 1986 — The Chernobyl disaster occurs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat, Ukraine, USSR, reducing the enthusiasm for nuclear power among many people in the world.
- 31 July, 1991 — As the Cold War ends, the Start I treaty is signed by the United States and the Soviet Union, reducing the deployed nuclear warheads of each side to no more than 6,000 each.
- 2006 — Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace and other environmentalists such as Stewart Brand suggest the deployment of more advanced nuclear power technology for electric power generation such as pebble bed reactors, to combat global warming.
- 21 November, 2006 — Implementation of the ITER fusion power reactor project near Cadarache, France is begun. Construction is to be completed in 2016 with the hope that the research conducted there will allow the introduction of practical commercial fusion power plants by 2050.
The Atomic Age in pop culture
- 1913 — C.W. Leadbeater published Man: How, Whence, and Whither? . This book describes the future society of the world in the 27th century (which, as a clairvoyant, Leadbeater claimed to have gotten information about from the akashic records) as being powered by atomic energy.
- 1914 — H. G. Wells publishes science fiction novel The World Set Free, describing how scientists discover potentially limitless energy locked inside of atoms, and describes the deployment of atomic bombs.
- October 1939 — Amazing Stories published a painting of an atomic power plant by science fiction artist Howard M. Duffin on its back cover.
- 1940 — Robert A. Heinlein published the science fiction short story Blowups Happen about an accident at an atomic power plant.
- 1940 — Robert A. Heinlein published the short story Solution Unsatisfactory which posits radioactive dust as a weapon that the US develops in a crash program to end World War II.
- 5 July, 1946 — The bikini swimsuit, named after Bikini Atoll, where an atomic bomb test called Operation Crossroads had taken place a few days earlier on 1 July 1946, was introduced at a fashion show in Paris.
- 1951 — Isaac Asimov's science fiction novel Foundation (consisting mostly of stories originally published between 1942 and 1944) is published. In this novel, the first novel of the Foundation series, the Foundation on Terminus, guided by Psychohistory, invents a religion called Scientism which has an atomic priesthood based on the scientific use of atomic energy to pacify, impress, and control the masses of the barbarian inhabitants of the stellar kingdoms surrounding Terminus as the Galactic Empire breaks up.
- 1954 — Them!, a science fiction film about humanity's battle with a nest of giant mutant ants, was one of the first of the "nuclear monster" movies.
- 1954 — The science fiction film Godzilla was released, about an iconic fictional monster that is gigantic irradiated dinosaur, transformed from the fallout of an H-Bomb test.
- 23 January 1957 — Walt Disney Productions released the film Our Friend the Atom describing the marvelous benefits of atomic power. As well as being presented on the TV Show Disneyland, this film was also shown to almost all baby boomers in their public school auditoriums or their science classes and was instrumental in creating within that generation a mostly favorable attitude toward nuclear power.
- 1958 — The Atomium was constructed for the Brussels World's Fair.
- 1959 — The popular film On the Beach shows the last remnants of humanity in Australia awaiting the end of the human race after a nuclear war.
- 23 September, 1962 — The Jetsons animated TV series began on ABC, attempting to humorously depict life in the fully developed Atomic Age of 2062.
- 1964 — The film Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (aka Dr. Strangelove), a black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick about an accidentally triggered nuclear war, was released.
- 1982 — The documentary film The Atomic Cafe, detailing society's attitudes toward the atomic bomb in the early Atomic Age, debuted to widespread acclaim.
- 20 November, 1983 — The Day After, an American television movie was aired on the ABC Television Network, and also in the Soviet Union. The film portrays a fictional nuclear war between the United States/NATO and the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact. This film was seen by over 100,000,000 people and was instrumental in greatly increasing public support for the nuclear freeze movement.
- 17 December, 1989 — The animated cartoon series The Simpsons debuted on television on the Fox Network, providing a humorous look at the Atomic Age, since the main protagonist, Homer Simpson, is employed as an operator at a nuclear power plant.
- Beginning in the 1990s, nostalgia stores that specialize in selling modern furniture or artifacts from the 1950s often have included the words Atomic Age as part of the name of, or advertising for the store.
- 1999 — Blast from the Past was released. It is a romantic comedy film about a nuclear physicist, his wife, and son that enter a well-equipped spacious fallout shelter during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. They do not emerge until 35 years later, in 1997. The film shows their reaction to contemporary society.
- 1999 — Larry Niven published the science fiction novel Rainbow Mars. In this novel, in the 31st century, Earth uses a dating system based on what is called the Atomic Era, in which the year one is 1945. Thus, what we call the year 3053 C.E. (the year the novel begins) is in the novel the year 1108 A.E.
- Autumn 2007 — Bachelor Pad magazine, "The New Digest of Atomic Age Culture" began publication.
- October 2008 - Fallout 3, a game set in a post-apocalyptic world with many atomic age references / stylings, is released by Bethesda.