Boomers and the Nuclear Age

The recent tragic earthquake, tsunami and unfolding nuclear events at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan has made Mister Boomer realize how little he knows about the origins of the nuclear power industry. We boomers were the first to grow up in the Nuclear Age, and it was, first and foremost, an age of fear over nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. We recall people building underground shelters and “duck and cover” drills at school (see Laughing Through the Cold War). Yet, if your boomer education was anything like Mister Boomer’s, nothing was ever mentioned about the path toward controlling nuclear power for peaceful means. How did that dual path unfold in boomer years?

In 1938, World War II was underway in Europe, though the United States wouldn’t enter the fray until 1941. The Allies became aware that the Nazis had split uranium atoms in Germany, which led them to believe they were pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon. Leo Szilard wrote a letter to then-President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to develop an atomic bomb as a counter weapon. He also got Albert Einstein to sign the letter. It was delivered to Roosevelt in 1939.

Six years later, the U.S. was deeply involved in the War and the bomb development was near completion. Germany had surrendered mid-year, but the war continued against Japan. Albert Einstein reversed his earlier urging that the bomb be built and wrote to Roosevelt that the weapon should never be used. He cited not only the mass destruction that would ensue, but the post-war implications of nuclear proliferation, to many countries, that he feared would result in a world-wide build-up that would eventually lead to preventative use of the weapons that could destroy the world. Roosevelt died and Truman became the first and only U.S. president to issue an order to use nuclear weapons. One year after the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, Einstein said he was on record as opposing the dropping of the bomb. Before he died in 1954 he elaborated, saying he felt that if Roosevelt had lived, the bomb would not have been used to end the war.

Immediately after the war, scientists were aware of the possibilities for harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful means. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was passed in an effort to stop the spread of nuclear technology. It was ineffective, and the Soviet Union soon had a bomb of their own. The British soon followed, and France was also experimenting with developing their own bomb. In the meantime, each of the nuclear countries experimented with harnessing atomic energy for powering electric plants. The U.S. had already entered an arms race with the Soviets, but now another race was simultaneously underway with the Soviets and other countries: the race to place a nuclear power plant into service.

In January of 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became president. As the former Commander of Allied Forces in the war, he was well aware of the destructive power of nuclear weapons. In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in December of 1953 called “Atoms for Peace,” he proposed an International Atomic Energy Agency that would, in effect, hold down the proliferation of nuclear power by controlling which countries could or could not receive the technology. Some historians argue his speech was more politics than vision, being an attempt to slow down the Soviets’ progress in developing a nuclear power plant rather than a plea for peaceful coexistence in the Nuclear Age. His idea was not passed (though it was later ratified in 1957), and the Soviets won the race to put a nuclear power plant into production. The city of Obninsk, outside of Moscow, would become the first in the world to receive a small fraction of electricity generated by nuclear means.

Meanwhile, back in pop culture, the threat of nuclear radiation hit gigantic proportions. Hollywood churned out film after film with thinly-veiled warnings of the dangers of what could happen should science fail to control this new monster. By combining the fears of nuclear power with our new-found fascination with space, the end result was what has been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Perhaps the best of these was The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It carried the overt message that unless nuclear power was controlled, it would be the end of civilization. Soon after, a rash of films where creatures of all types grew to monstrous size were released to an appreciative reception. In each, the monsters grew because of exposure to radiation. Most often, it was through the well-meaning efforts of scientists looking for a way to improve life and agriculture. Considered one of the best of the science-run-amok films, Them! (1954) had gigantic irradiated ants terrorizing the Southwest.

The Japanese, having been the only country to experience the horrors of an actual nuclear event, released Gojira (1954). In this film, a mutant dinosaur that was the result of underwater nuclear testing destroys Tokyo. The film had a blatant anti-nuclear message that was deemed too direct for American audiences, so when it was remade as Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), the references to the dangers of the bomb were removed.

A string of films followed, including The Beginning of the End (1957). As was the case in several other films, in this one a scientist attempts to grow bigger and better vegetables through radiation. When locusts eat the irradiated crop, they grow to gigantic proportions and attack Chicago. Coincidentally or not, the population of Chicago in the 1950s was roughly ten times that of Hiroshima when the atomic bomb fell on its citizens in 1945.

The mutant size didn’t only apply to animals. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) pictured an Army colonel blasted by a plutonium bomb in a test in the Nevada desert. He grew to a size of 50 feet, and as he grew he became mentally unstable and went insane. The city that bore his wrath was Las Vegas.

Many historians and film buffs surmise that the gigantic size of all these creatures was, in actuality, a metaphor for nuclear fission running out of control. The films, then, were allegories to deliver the warnings of walking the nuclear path.

Throughout our boomer youth, this dual path of destructive nuclear bombs and the peaceful application of nuclear energy played out mostly behind the scenes. In July of 1955, the U.S. tested its first nuclear power plant at Aro, Idaho. It was designed to run only a few minutes for the test. The first U.S. nuclear power plant went on-line in Shippingport, Pennsylvania in 1957.

Nuclear bomb tests continued throughout the 1950s. In 1957, the first U.S. underground test was performed in Nevada. By the early 1960s, the baby boom was winding down, and the world began to take nuclear proliferation a bit more seriously. In 1963, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. It prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and under water. Since both countries had successfully launched men into space by this point, it also called for banning the testing of nuclear weapons in space.

Maybe it was the steady diet of sci-fi films in his early days that has made Mister Boomer hesitant on the question of nuclear power in our present day. It seems the warnings of those films were not taken to heart, as the headlines continue to unfold with first, Three Mile Island, then Chernobyl and now, Fukushima. Throughout our lives, the Nuclear Age has played out across the world stage. It seems we boomers still have a front row seat. Will we be the generation to finally get control of the monster that man has created?


Technology Was No Stranger to Boomers

A good part of our formative boomer years was spent dreaming about the future. After all, we were the first generation that had a realistic hope of achieving some of those dreams. Our parents’ generation lead the way with innovations throughout the boomer decades. Boomers picked up where they left off and created the technological world we live in today.

Boomers were introduced to technological fantasies at an early age, beginning with cartoons and a variety of TV series. Shows like Supercar (1961) featured puppets, like most kids’ shows of the day, but in this series, the main character, Mike Mercury, drove a flying car. Even when the car was driven on land it didn’t need wheels. Instead, it hovered on a cushion of air. And, oh yes, it could also travel underwater. The Flintstones put the idea in our tiny little heads that technology — from TV to record players, cars to telephones — had always been around, even if in “rock” form. Then we looked headlong into the future with The Jetsons (1962). In this cartoon series, a typical 21st Century American family lived with a vast array of technology at their disposal, from treadmills for walking the dog to video phone conferencing; microwave-style ovens to people-moving sidewalks; flying cars to reach their apartments in the sky to a robot named Rosie, replete with human foibles. Of course, there were numerous other cartoons where technology played a key role.

Mister B apologizes for the length of this clip, but there is fun and insightful commentary to be gleaned from this interview with the creators of The Jetsons.

Live-action shows and movies jumped on the bandwagon, often centered around secret agents utilizing technological gadgetry in their defender roles as a direct or vaguely-veiled reference to the Cold War. The James Bond movies entered the scene with Dr. No in 1962, but the famous Bond gadgets began showing their impact on the characters in the second film, From Russia With Love (1963). On TV, The Wild Wild West (1965) featured two secret service agents in the employ of President Ulysses S. Grant in the period after the Civil War. Their ingenious gadgets were often integral parts of the storyline. By this time, it was so natural for us to see “future” technology on screen that we could use it in the comedy of the day as well. Enter Get Smart, a 1965 TV series where the bumbling main character, Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), has all the techno-gadgetry of James Bond, but none of the finesse. The character is most-often remembered for his shoe phone, a precursor to the cellphone.

Real-life technology that entered the consumer market in boomer years played a huge part in the way the entire generation would embrace it for the following decades to come. The list of innovations that began to appear — especially electronic innovations — is mind-boggling, even by today’s standards. The entire electronics revolution was made possible when the first integrated circuit was invented in 1958. Evidently, it was an invention whose time had come, since two men had come up with approximately the same idea at the same time. Both men, Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce, received patents for their inventions. Look at this partial list of electronic marvels that appeared during our early boomer years:

1962 – The first portable cassette recorder was introduced by Phillips.
1964 – Pentax marketed the first 35MM SLR camera.
1967 – Phillips sells the first battery-powered shaver.
1967 – Integrated circuit inventor Jack Kilby created the handheld calculator.
1968 – The Polaroid gave us the Swinger, the first instant camera, though prints were black & white only.
1969 – The telephone got a makeover as the Trimphone. Though created in 1964, it took a few years to catch on with consumers.
1969 – Dr. Christiaan Barnard pioneered and implanted the first artificial heart.
1971 – The first digital watch was created, though mass-production at an affordable price would have to wait another couple of years.
1972 – Color TVs outnumbered black & white sets in the home for the first time.
1972 – Pioneer releases the first home LP cassette recorder.
1974 – The first portable electronic calculator is marketed.
1975 – Home freezers were sold and quickly become a standard appliance in nearly 50% of homes.
1977 – Atari introduced the Atari 2600, the first video game player.
1977 – The Apple II computer was sold; the basic model was $1,300 with an external 5 1/4 inch floppy disk running at 1 MHz and housing 4 kB RAM.

Mister Boomer recalls watching all of those TV shows and movies, and dreaming of the day he’d own a flying car. We have chronicled the time Mister B and his brother received transistor radios in an earlier entry (Boomers Strike Solid Gold). A decade later his brother got a Polaroid camera for Christmas. It was truly amazing to see a picture in a matter of a minute or two, without having to drop off a roll of film at the local drug store to be developed. A few years later, Mister B was employed in a retail setting where all the guys started buying digital watches. The watch “dial” was an overall dull, dark gray circle, with a blacked-out rectangle situated in the top half. There was a side button to push in order to display the time — in numbers — within the blackened slot. A colorful leather wrist band helped give the technology not only a function, but a fashion statement as well.

We took a look at the future as boomer children, saw it unfolding in the gadgets made available to us and our families, and embraced it until it became synonymous with our generation. We may not have invented technological innovation, but we did elevate it to the level it is in the world today.

What do you remember of the early days of electronics entering your family’s world?