With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.
What Is the Atomic Age?
The aftermath of WWII had a profound effect on American culture. The period spanned the late 1940s through the 1960s, which became known as the Atomic Age. July 16, 1945 began the infamous age when scientists successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico. Less than one month later, this same technology was utilized to end WWII.
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was organized to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes in the defense and safety of the public. In July of that year, two atomic tests, called Operation Crossroads, were conducted in the Bikini Atoll. Many people didn’t see the atomic bomb as a weapon of mass destruction; it was seen as a means of defense. Not only did scientists begin working with new atomic energy to provide energy to homes, but also to create new weapons.
Soon, America became obsessed with the idea of “atomic”. It was new and clean, offering a hope of the future after the war. It was an innovative technology with endless possibilities, both good and bad.
Results of Atomic Science
With such innovation, comes competition, and this era was also marked by the Cold War with Russia. American citizens lived in constant fear of nuclear attack or Communist takeover. The fear was so tangible that Civil Defense produced a series of pamphlets, and short films detailing how to survive a nuclear attack. It has been theorized that the use of the atom in popular culture was a way for society to deal with the anxiety of living in the shadow of potential destruction.
Conversely, some see the atomic invasion of popular culture in America as a form of optimism regarding atomic science and its role in the future of the country. Either way, nuclear energy and all its implications was at the forefront of American life. While some may argue that the Atomic Age brought fear and uncertainty to the world, it has actually proven to have created a positive impact upon society and popular culture, through innovations in design, film, and new hobbies that came to dominate the time.
The Atomic Starburst
The creation of atomic weapons had a profound impact on several aspects of American culture. This includes design, art, and architecture. During the Atomic age, which spanned the late 1940s to about 1960, design was often characterized by nuclear science and the atomic bomb. While many practiced duck and cover drills or constructing bomb shelters, others were channeling this new technology in creative design elements. For example, the 1949 wall clock designed by George Nelson was constructed to resemble a starburst design, inspired by innovations in atomic energy. It had long wires protruding from the center circle and wooden balls atop the wires. Further, many wallpapers of the period also reflected this atomic starburst design which numerous people decorated their walls.
In architecture, Googie architectural designs, based out of Southern California, were at the forefront of Space Age design. These designs reflect the golden age, futuristic ideas of post-WWII America. Rather than looking at atomic energy and weaponry in fear, many architects used it as a muse to look to the future with the Space Age with hope and inspiration. They used cantilevered roofs, starburst designs, hard angles, and plastic mixed with metals.
Googie-style architecture represented the future. Architect Alan Hess stated that Googie made the future accessible to everyone. These building designs brought the spirit of the modern age to the everyday lives of the people. Martin Stern, a Googie-style architect, designed the Ship’s Coffee Shop in Los Angeles with a nod toward the popularity of the Atomic Age and focus on outer space. Additionally, such designs are clearly visible in the creation of Tomorrowland in Disney. It was a nod to the hope of a future with clean energy, new technology, and peaceful world relations.
Clothing of the Future
This obsession over space, the atom, and technology didn’t end with architecture and art. It carried over to fashion as well. In 1946, designer Jacques Heim created the smallest bathing suit for women. He called it the Atome. That same year, Louis Réard unveiled a women’s bathing suit that was even smaller. He called it the bikini, so named for the Bikini Atoll where nuclear tests had been conducted only four days before the garment’s debut.
By the 1960s, fashion revolved more around the idea of exploration and pushed boundaries. The continued fear of the Cold War and the Space Race fueled this creative push. Designers began experimenting with futuristic clothing. One such outfit designed by Rabanne was worn by Jane Fonda in 1968’s Barbarella, where she played a member of the United Earth Government. Once again, reiterated the theme of hope and peace out of a horrific new bomb.
Rise of the Mutants
Just as with art, fashion, and design, the Atomic Age heavily influenced film. Released in America in 1956, Godzilla was a story of the dangers of nuclear weaponry. Other such mutant movies were, the H-Man, The Blob, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Them during this age. Movies such as those reflected the fear society had of genetic damage from radiation. Such fear was particularly predominant in the 1954 movie Them. The movie featured gigantic mutant ants created from the atomic-bomb test site in New Mexico.
Often science fiction mirrored the concerns of society of the time. Playing off of those concerns, such science fiction films turned tragedy and fear into art. As was always the case in such movies, there was a hero, or plan of action which set the world right again and reflected hope in the face of fears that there was a solution and the future was secure.
To Boldly Go
Even television shows got in on the atomic action. One episode of 1962’s Outer Limits mirrored society’s fears with an episode about genetically enhanced bees that were set on world domination. To do this they transformed their queen into a beautiful human, so she could infiltrate the world of man. In a less threatened manner, other science fiction programs that reflected the hope of the new age became popular such as Star Trek, which premiered in 1966. Created by WWII veteran Gene Roddenberry, the show appealed to the Atomic Age, Cold War era by imagining a future which was anti-dystopian.
Those Crazy Martians
Cartoons of the Atomic Age often focused on the future. The Jetsons borrowed heavily from Googie architecture that was popular during this time. The Hanna-Barbera Studio was located near many popular restaurants and buildings and featured the futuristic design. Even the family pet was named Astro in a positive nod to the bright future of the Space Age. Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes cartoons also entered the Atomic Age with characters such as Marvin the Martian and Duck Dodgers.
Further, these cartoons displayed characters using items such as the ACME disintegrating pistol. Marvin the Martian, in the 1948 Looney Tunes episode, "Haredevil Hare", planned to blow up Earth with a Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. This episode took place on the moon, and ultimately Marvin is foiled by, our hero, Bugs Bunny. Using a sort of tongue-in-cheek attitude in these cartoons often alleviated the all too real fear of nuclear weaponry for children.
In 1954, both the Burns and Allen Show and the Jack Benny Show featured a storyline regarding uranium prospecting. With the development of nuclear energy, the government was in desperate need of uranium, and what better way to obtain it than to ask the public for help. The Uranium Rush was bigger and more profitable than the Gold Rush of earlier years. Citizens flocked to it in hopes of striking it rich.
The March 5, 1957 edition of the Federal Register outlined the Domestic Uranium Program land leasing regulations set out by the Atomic Energy Commission. “The program for which provision is made in this section will be administered by the Atomic Energy Commission with the assistance and cooperation of the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior.”
The Uranium Rush
With the uranium prospecting craze, numerous magazines began to promote the new hobby. The May 1955 issue of Popular Science boasted that “the Government pays up to $35,000 bonus for uranium finds.” Prospecting became a family hobby and was promoted in magazines geared toward the youth such as Boys Life. The Atomic Age had ushered in a new take on an old pastime; prospecting had become scientific. The United States Atomic Energy Commission produced booklets on uranium prospecting with titles like "Prospecting with a Counter." Life magazine offered a prospecting starter kit for the low price of $3,529. The kit came complete with everything a modern scientific prospector may need, including a Jeep!
Science Is Fun!
For those too young to prospect, new toys geared towards science and atomic energy were produced. The AC Filbert Company created the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab from 1950-51. It was a means that brought the science of atomic energy to the home while stressing the peace-time role of the new technology. As society came to embrace the Space Age, toy guns went from the cowboy western style to something more advanced. The Atomic Disintegrator cap pistol was manufactured in the 1950s by Hubley Manufacturing Company. It was advertised as "Fully equipped for accuracy during space patrol work!” These new scientific and atomic branded toys promoted the excitement of the future. They encouraged children to look to a future in new frontiers, rather than fear over a nuclear disaster.
Legacy of the Atomic Age
While some may argue that the Atomic Age brought fear and uncertainty to the world, it has actually proven to have created a positive impact upon society, and popular culture through innovations in design, film, and new hobbies that came to dominate the time. When the atomic bomb dropped on Japan, the world looked on with fear and awe. In the wake of that horrific weapon, peace was also brought. While our world was turned upside down and children practiced duck and cover drills in schools, while some families built bomb shelters, new cleaner energy was being discovered.
The Atomic Age changed every aspect of daily life for citizens. It ushered in the Space Age with a keen eye to the vast and exciting future. Popular culture cashed in on this trend. Suddenly atomic designs were featured in everything from wall clocks to buildings, and design elements became more streamlined to fit that new lifestyle. Hollywood brought the Atomic age to the big and small screens with television shows and movies that featured atomic themes, and our past times took on a scientific edge. Uranium prospecting and children’s science labs became all the rage. Society, through popular culture, took something devastating and turned it into something exciting and positive.
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- Boyer, Paul S. "By the Bombs Early Light American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age." Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press.
- "Cold War: A Brief History." Long Term Effects on Humans | Effects of Nuclear Weapons. Accessed January 06, 2019.
- "Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (1950-1951)." Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Accessed January 15, 2019.
- Gross, Edward, and Mark Altman. "An Oral History of "Star Trek". Smithsonian. May 01, 2016. Accessed January 08, 2019.
- Novak, Matt. "Googie: Architecture of the Space Age." Smithsonian. June 15, 2012. Accessed January 06, 2019.
- "Popular Science Archives." Popular Science. Accessed January 15, 2019.
- Silver Screenings. "Bugs Bunny and the Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator." Silver Screenings. April 19, 2018. Accessed January 15, 2019.
- "The History of the Bikini - Photo Essays." Time. Accessed January 06, 2019.
- "The Uranium Rush." National Radiation Instrument Catalog. Accessed January 15, 2019.
- Vernuccio, Ambra. "A History of Fashion's Obsession with Space and the Future, From Courrèges to Chanel." W Magazine. May 26, 2017. Accessed January 06, 2019.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Brandy R Williams (author) from West Virginia on September 02, 2020:
Thank you Pamela! I too had atomic drills in school. The Atomic Age changed so much in American lives and gave us the bikini too! ;)
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on September 01, 2020:
I didn't know where the name "bikini" came from and that is interesting. It is interesting that fashion changed when atomic weapons happened. I remember when we practiced getting under out desks.
This is an excellent article, Bee.