In the science fiction of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s atomic power is ubiquitous, to the extent that it permeates domestic as well as industrial and military settings. This period has been called the Atomic Age, and shaped the vision of the future for a generation or more. But just how common is this atomic future in science fiction, and what can we learn from its rise and fall?
The World Set Free?
The potential impact of nuclear fission power on human society was recognised well before it had any possibility of coming to fruition. In early 1914, H. G. Wells published The World Set Free. This novel articulates Wells’ concerns for society and his aspirations for a socialist future. Importantly though, it highlights energy supply as a key factor in the development of human cultures. Whether that energy is in the form of wood, coal, gas and oil, nuclear power or other resources, energy supply sits alongside food and water as an essential resource to ensure habitability and determine a society’s standard of living. Wells envisaged the development of nuclear fission and its implementation in small scale domestic settings as leading to a major shift in the balance of power of society and ultimately to a global nuclear war. The aftermath of this war allows Wells to present his vision for a unified and equitable future.
Interestingly he set the first experimental nuclear fission of the atom in 1933 and its first commercial and industrial applications twenty years later in 1953. The first of these dates is actually remarkably close to the first identification of nuclear fission by Hahn and Strassmann in 1938, but the second fails to take account of the acceleration of development driven by World War II and its Manhattan Project, which led to the first nuclear devices being deployed in the mid-1940s. While Wells anticipated many aspects of European and global war, by delaying the first major conflict until after the development of commercial atomic technologies he ensured that war was itself a nuclear conflict.
By contrast with Wells’ prediction, the deployment of nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 at the climax of Second World War led to a real-world scenario in which the release of nuclear energy was associated first and foremost with weaponry before any domestic application was seriously considered.
Perhaps unsurprisingly then, between the late 1930s and mid 1960s, science fiction atomic fission narratives in most novels and short stories were dominated by narratives of nuclear war and the death and destruction that affect civilian lives (hauntingly memorable examples include “There Will Come Soft Rains”, Bradbury 1950, and “Memorial”, Sturgeon 1946). A second strand of nuclear fictions envisages nuclear power used primarily in space, for rocket propulsion (e.g. The Lensmen series of E E 'Doc' Smith). However in parallel with these stories, a positive representation of atomic power appears in a range of domestic settings in science fictions of this period.
Dan Dare’s Atomic Future
An early positive representation of an atomic future can be found in the UK comic series Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future (comic, 1950-1967), which formed the flagship feature of children’s magazine Eagle. This narrative was set approximately fifty years into the then-contemporary future. The titular character is a member of Interplanet Space Fleet, and lives in a world of automation, flying cars and abundance in everything except food supplies (which are at crisis point). While many of the adventures are set off-world, and illustrate alien technologies or space vehicles, what we see of the Earth strongly suggests widespread nuclear power exploitation.
As with some other examples which are seen as typifying atomic age fiction , the routine use of nuclear power is not discussed in any great detail in the original comic narratives. In fact, we learn in The Red Moon Mystery that atom bombs are entirely banned and the ability to make them destroyed, with Earth exhausting its entire residual supply in a futile effort to ward off a threat. The majority of craft are described as operating on impulse wave power (beamed energy from fixed bases). Nonetheless meta-texts such as the Dan Dare Spacebook (Hampson 1953) and the much more recent Dan Dare Spacefleet Operations Manual (Barzilay 2013, Haynes) show nuclear reactors powering space bases (including impulse transmitter stations), large boats and spacecraft, while the information text associated with a number of spin-off toys waxed lyrical about their atomic power sources.
[Image: A water pistol branded as a Genuine Dan Dare Atomic Jet Gun, from 1952. (source)]
The world of Tom Swift Jr
Narratives following the adventures of teenage scientist and inventor Tom Swift have been published as children’s novels since 1910, and continue to be produced . In 1954 the series was rebooted, with the focal character shifting from the original protagonist (who featured in books from 1910 to 1941) to his eighteen-year-old son, Tom Swift Jr. This rebooted series shifted much of its focus from mechanical inventions to automation, communications, environmental modification and near-Earth space adventure, demonstrating a rich optimism regarding the role of atomic power in human futures.
In a run of 33 books, between 1954 and 1971, Swift generated a wide range of inventions, with a significant number of them powered by atomic energy. Industrial applications include an innovative power station and a tunnelling or mining device known (rather alarmingly) as the “atomic earth blaster” (1954), as well as many space vehicles and aircraft. However Swift’s near-future also features domestic applications of nuclear power notably including his “triphibian atomicar” (1962) or which he claimed:
"the biggest selling point is that the car will run for hundreds of thousands of miles at almost no operating cost--that is, when my new atomic power capsule is installed."
The enthusiasm for atomic potential is articulated by sidekick character Bud Barclay in Tom Swift and his Spectromarine Selector (1960):
"What you need is a real atomic-age jet metal!" Bud quipped. "Let's see. You could call the new alloy 'atom-something.' Atomeron! How about that?" (pg 51)
Crucially, Swift’s ability to miniaturise atomic power plants is enabled by two substances (both of which fall into the general category of unobtanium): Swiftonium is a radioactive isotope which generates high power output without excessive weight or waste products, and Tomasite is a versatile plastic which can replace a thick lead radiation shielding with a thin polymer film. Tomasite in particular is essential for making fission reactors portable and safe for use by non-experts in the series, although that does not prevent Swift and his friends being exposed to the occasional radiation dose (all of which are quickly brushed off, despite rather alarming descriptions).
It’s interesting to note, though, that a large fraction of Swift’s inventions (particularly in the later books) were also powered by solar-charged batteries which were energised in an orbital factory above the atmosphere. These were described as long-lasting, reusable and extremely cheap, extending the opportunity of energy freedom to a much wider community even than Swift’s atomic power plants.
By the time the Tom Swift books were again rebooted in the early 1980s, the thrill of atomic power had clearly worn off. While the space-colonising future of this incarnation did have nuclear fission power plants, these were large and subject to more severe radiation hazards. Indeed, in The Mystery Crater (1983), Tom explicitly works on a process to detoxify nuclear waste.
Meet The Jetsons
The Jetsons (TV, 1962-3) was an American cartoon produced in the 1960s as an atomic age parallel to successful prehistoric comedy The Flintstones. The Jetson family lives in a future age of comfort and convenience, in a home and environment fully automated and equipped with gadgets such as robot maids, auto cookers and flying cars, and with minimal requirements to work.
While The Jetsons exemplifies the futuristic visions of mid-Twentieth Century America, and are often remembered as an atomic narrative, the terms nuclear and atomic are seldom used. Nonetheless, their pervasive presence is made explicit in a handful of direct mentions, including Jane Jetson’s exclamation “Elroy, you’ve been splitting atoms again!” to her six-year-old son after a minor explosion (in “The Flying Suit”), cars that comes with “a free atomic lube and five supersonic washes” (in “The Space Car”) and need their “radium levels” checking (in “Jetson’s Nite Out”) and the appearance of ‘Lectronimo, a nuclear-powered robot dog (in “The Coming of Astro”).
These casual references, together with company names such as “Molecular Motors”, the villain character Knuckles Nuclear, and the demonstrably resource- and energy-rich society, hint at a culture with nuclear energy so deeply embedded that it hardly merits a mention.
Into Century 21
In the UK, the production team led by Gerry Anderson (initially A P Films, later Century 21 productions) generated a string of science fiction television adventures targeted at children in the 1960s. These used marionette puppetry to illustrate a space adventure series (Fireball XL5, 1962), a submarine adventure (Stingray, 1964), a technological rescue team (Thunderbirds, 1965-6) and an interplanetary war of nerves (Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, 1967). While each series was developed to stand alone and their premises were somewhat contradictory, they were stitched into a single vision of a 2060s future in the TV Century 21 comic series (largely under the guidance of editor Alan Fennell). In each, vehicles and items of industrial equipment are shown as powered by compact nuclear reactors, while large nuclear power plants appear (often on the point of disaster!) for more general power distribution.
Thunderbirds, in particular, shows atomic power as fully integrated with domestic life. It is not only used in construction and engineering equipment, but also in commercial jet airliners and even in domestic kitchens. Indeed, the final episode “Give or Take a Million” features the following exchange while characters are preparing their Christmas dinner:
Kyrano: “Why don’t you use the nuclear-powered cooker, Mrs Tracy? It’s much faster.”
Grandma Tracy: “Well, I’ll tell you, Kyrano. I never did get the hang of those rods. Besides, they’ll taste better this way!”
Here Grandma is positioned both as a member of the older generation unable to adjust to the wonders of the present, and as an emblem of comforting family christmas traditions.
All of these examples show an optimism regarding nuclear power in the 1950s and 1960s. This is also seen in non-fictionalised futurism of the period, including concept cars such as the 1958 Ford Nucleon and expositions such as Disney’s Tomorrowland zone (first opened 1955) at their Disneyworld theme park. The latter celebrated a vision of an atomic future for domestic life, with attractions and information films such as Our Friend the Atom (1957). This described the discovery of nuclear physics, and explored its potential through the analogy of a powerful genie - capable of causing great destruction but also bringing great benefits if treated kindly and wisely. As well as vehicle propulsion (in the form of boats, submarines, aeroplanes, cars and rockets) this film (which can be viewed online) and its associated book stress medical applications and the use of radioactivity in biological studies which could enhance food production.
The same ambivalent optimism about atomic futures was communicated in children's books of the time on apparently unrelated topics. For example a Ladybird book on Kings and Queens of England, dating from 1968, described the progress made in the post-war years and included a cautiously optimistic ending to its page on Queen Elizabeth II:
"Men orbit the earth and cameras have sent back pictures of the moon. This is the Atomic Age, but science, which has made these things possible, must be controlled if the human race is to continue to enjoy life on this earth."
[Image: photograph of the 1968 Ladybird book on Kings and Queens. My thanks to Shaun Hately for permission to use this photograph]
It’s interesting to note a subtlety of language here. When referring to weaponry and large scale power generation, the term “nuclear” is often used to describe fission or fusion devices. When seen in a domestic or positive setting, the more common phrase is “atomic”. It’s almost as if language is being used to articulate the cognitive dissonance between the two potential nuclear futures: one a dystopian tragedy dominated by world-breaking weapons of mass destruction, and the other a time of plenty and comfort, but both built on the same technical breakthroughs. The negative connotations of the term “nuclear” have, of course, also been noted in the real world. When a new form of medical imaging was developed in the 1970s and 80s, for example, patient anxiety led to it being dubbed “magnetic resonance imaging” (MRI) rather than the more ominous-sounding “nuclear magnetic resonance” (NMR), which still formally describes the physical process involved.
It’s also noticeable that the vast majority of these positive representations of a future atomic age are aimed primarily at a juvenile audience. This is a sharp contrast to the majority of adult science fictions of the same period, which (as was the case with H. G. Wells) present an altogether darker and less optimistic view of the potential misuse of nuclear power, or its waste products. A partial exception is the work of Isaac Asimov, who portrays his early robots as powered by atomic batteries (e.g. “Runaround”, 1942) and also describes the distribution of miniaturised atomic-powered devices as a way of exerting technological superiority in his Foundation Trilogy (1942-50). Even while describing nuclear power’s potential benefit though, Asimov also makes no attempt to hide its potential misuses and destructive potential when used aggressively.
The focus on young audiences for the most optimistic narratives may perhaps give us some insight into the impact of science fiction on the popular understanding of science (whether real or perceived). Adults, who had not only seen the impact of the atom bombs but were deeply aware of the cold war nuclear tension between superpowers, would naturally find it difficult to separate the potential benefits of a nuclear future from the much-more-imminent and proven disadvantages which led them to live in terror. Children, by contrast, might be consciously encouraged to assimilate the potential benefits of the nuclear power stations then coming online, before becoming aware of the drawbacks. Thus indoctrinated, they might be expected to divert nuclear power into more positive avenues as they aged. This certainly seems to be the message of Disney’s Our Friend the Atom. However an increasing awareness of the realities of nuclear waste management, nuclear threats such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and a series of nuclear accidents (notably Windscale in 1957, Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986) undermined this attempt at education. Instead, nuclear physics became still less popular as the children of the 1950s and early 1960s came of age.
It’s tempting to speculate that the negativity of this downbeat reality was exacerbated in the minds of the public by a sense of betrayal at the continued failure of atomic energy to fulfil the promises made to them as children in the 1950s and 60s. Unlike Wells’ gold-producing atomic engines in The World Set Free, uranium or plutonium fission generates long-lived waste products. The problem of nuclear waste (while likely having less of a long-term environmental effect than the climate change we’re suffering as a result of fossil fuel usage) continues to attract disproportionally significant concern. More crucially, the problem of shielding users of atomic reactors from harmful radiation without heavy and expensive shields has proved insurmountable. Unlike the Tom Swift of the 1950s and 60s, we’ve not come up with a lightweight and radiation-impenetrable material which allows miniaturised atomic devices. Perhaps still more crucially, the problem of dealing with waste-heat from the fission process (i.e. efficiently converting nuclear energy to usable power) remains largely unsolved - the majority of the bulk in nuclear reactors is required to moderate the reaction, cooling the reactors or exhausting their waste heat.
Twenty-First Century Atomics
Having said that, it should be noted that some compact nuclear power sources have indeed come into use. Not only do a small subset of military submarines and vessels have nuclear fission reactors, but radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) have been in use since the 1960s. Rather than actively controlling and increasing the rate of a nuclear reaction with cooling and moderation, these are essentially passive devices which use thermocouples to convert the heat energy of the natural radioactive fission process in an isotope sample to electricity. Such devices have been used to power a number of spacecraft, including earth-observation satellites, the Viking, Pioneer, Cassini and New Horizons space probes, and Mars rovers including Curiosity and Perseverance. They have also been used by both the US and Soviet Union to power remote installations such as arctic bases and lighthouses.
Such RTGs fall a long way short of the atomic miracle devices of early science fiction. They are also not immune from accidents - although these have involved the disintegration of a vehicle scattering nuclear materials, rather than any nuclear explosion in the reactor. However RTGs have themselves featured in more recent science fiction, powering the AI-run wonder-house S.A.R.A.H. in the television show Eureka (TV 2006-2012), for example, powering probes in Stargate: SG-1 (TV 1997-2007) and also providing power for stranded astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian (novel Weir 2011, film 2015).
It's fair to say that the twenty-first century in which we live falls far short of the expectations of the mid-twentieth in some respects. We do not have flying cars or cheap and efficient space travel. We certainly do not have atomic ovens or other domestic devices. The optimistic futurism of the 1950s and 60s has long since faded. If the prevalence of atomic storytelling in children's science fiction was indeed intended to inspire trust and enthusiasm, it failed under the onslaught of negative media coverage and the looming threat of nuclear war. While the problems of radiation, reaction rate control and waste product handling have proved insurmountable for small scale devices, we do nonetheless live in a nuclear age. Not only are RTGs reliably used in space or hostile Earth environments, but 15% of the UK's total power supply is provided by nuclear power. It is entirely possible that we will experience another atomic age - perhaps driven by RTGs, perhaps by fusion power if it can ever by made practicable. However for the moment, dreams of an Atomic Future are now a thing of the past.
“Atomic Futures”, Elizabeth Stanway. Cosmic Stories blog. 13th November 2022.
 The Science Museum hosted an exhibition entitled “Dan Dare and the Birth of High-Tech Britain” in 2008, in which nuclear power development was discussed alongside the series and other social and technological changes, for example. A more recent opinion article in favour of nuclear power stations actually began with the assertion: "So you want to know why the Jetsons, Futurama, Dan Dare, Thunderbirds future never happened? Blame the nuke-fear mongers." [Return to text]
 Incarnations of Tom Swift have most recently appeared in a run of children’s books (2019-present) and a short-lived television series of the same name, with 10 episodes broadcast in May-August 2022. [Return to text]