Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy

The commercial development of nuclear power began immediately after the Second World War ended and the Manhattan Project secrets were released to the public. As the headline—also the title of a new book—implies, the development path was not always straight or even clearly marked. In this POWER exclusive, the first chapter of Too Dumb to Meter begins a serial presentation of the book.

On September 16, 1954, a dapper and double-breasted U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, Lewis Strauss, stepped to the microphone at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City. He was addressing a dinner meeting of the National Association of Science Writers. An ebullient Strauss bragged,

Transmutation of the elements—unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered—these and a host of other results all in fifteen short years. It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter—will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history—will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds—and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast for an age of peace.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Much of the story of the atom focuses on the well-known course of development of newer, bigger, stronger bombs, and of the birthing problems and maturation of civilian nuclear power plants.

Whereas most histories of technology catalog success, this book details failure: explosive, expensive, repeated failure. This is a less well-known story, but often more interesting and more amusing. It also serves as a cautionary account of the perils of government hubris, public hysteria, and centralized planning gone wild: misguided policy, misunderstood history, misapplied engineering, and mistaken economics.

This book brings to light some of the things that went wrong—often terribly wrong—from conception through failed implementation. It is a tale of the stubborn and mistaken belief in the ability of big science, big engineering, and big government money to solve any technical problem.

This story begins not with the well-known history of the Manhattan Project and its intrepid bomb builders, but with what came next—immediately after August 1945.

Chapter 1. The Madness of Nukes

Most Americans reacted joyously to the initial news of the atomic bombs falling on Japan in the summer of 1945, as the vast destruction spread by the atom spelled the end of the Empire of the Rising Sun. Whatever these mysterious bombs were, they did the job—and most were glad. Sen. Brien McMahon, a young Connecticut Democrat who would seal his brief place in history by becoming a chief architect of the postwar Atomic Energy Commission, was fond of saying that the bombing of Hiroshima was the greatest event in world history since the birth of Jesus Christ.

Yet, there was also a twinge of guilt in the public sentiment after the first atom bombs fell, particularly as the scope of the devastation in the two Japanese cities became known. Writer John Hersey captured the ambiguity beautifully in an article titled “Hiroshima,” published in the New Yorker in August 1946, a year after the U.S. bomb destroyed that metropolis.

Hersey’s 36,000-word article, which occupied the entire edition of the magazine and was immediately published as a book, personalized the effects of the atomic bomb in spare, calm language that made the horror of nuclear war accessible to any reader. It had a profound impact on the way many people viewed atomic energy for decades to come.

Hersey—who had won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction the year before with A Bell for Adano, a tale of the U.S. military occupation of a town in Italy—described six survivors of the nuclear inferno in Japan and how it changed their lives. When the article appeared, the magazine’s editors began the edition with this introduction:

TO OUR READERS The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. -The Editors.

“Hiroshima” was a publishing sensation. The magazine quickly sold out on newsstands (at fifteen cents an issue), and copies were soon being scalped to collectors for ten dollars and more. Reprint requests poured in to the New Yorker, and Knopf produced a book that hit the stores in October. The Book of the Month Club distributed copies to its members for free. It became one of the most influential books of the last half of the twentieth century.

Soon after, many Americans began to wonder incredulously at those two terrible pieces of blast and fire that fell out of the sky. Just what were they? Clearly, a new force had been unleashed, one that even most well-educated Americans didn’t understand and couldn’t quite comprehend.

Time magazine, in its July 1, 1946, cover story on Albert Einstein and the bomb (the third time Einstein had appeared on the magazine’s cover), captured that feeling of combined awe and befuddlement, writing in its signature style:

It is typical of the dilemma of this civilization that masses of men humbly accept the fact of Einstein’s genius, but only a handful understand in what it consists. They have heard that, in his Special and his General Theories of Relativity, Einstein finally explained the form and the nature of the physical universe and the laws governing it. They cannot understand his explanation. To a small elite of mathematicians and physicists, the score of equations in which Einstein embodied his picture of the universe and its functioning are as concrete as a kitchen table. To the layman they are as staggering as to be told, when he is straining to make out the smudge which is all he can see of the great cluster in the constellation Hercules, that the faint light that strikes his eye left its source 34,000 years ago.

Time concluded that most people would never understand much about Einstein’s theories—the fundamental ideas behind nuclear energy—beyond this limerick:

There was a young lady called Bright, Who could travel much faster than light; She went out one day, in a relative way, and came back the previous night.

Much of this wonder and incredulity grew out of the secrecy of the atomic adventure. As it emerged after the war, the story of the Manhattan Project was a revelation. The largest engineering and military production effort in history had occurred in the United States over a period of nearly five years, completely under the unknowing noses of the American public. It had all been hidden in veils of secrecy, and now the story was beginning to unfold.

Just how secret? The vice president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, didn’t know about the atomic bomb until after his boss, President Roosevelt, died in April 1945. Four months before the two bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and only three months before the successful Trinity test at Alamogordo in the New Mexico wilderness, Truman listened in astonishment when he got his first briefing. With only sketchy understanding of what had been going on, he soon had to make the fateful decision to let the atomic demon loose on the world.

Gen. Leslie Groves, the career military man who ran the project, describes in his 1962 memoir, Now It Can Be Told, how the military bamboozled Congress on the program through 1943. The enormous atomic bomb project was buried in a series of War Department sub-accounts within the impenetrable military budget. Even the War Department bureaucrats responsible for allocating the money were largely in the dark. Groves talks about a “bad moment in late 1943,” when Rep. Albert J. Engel (R-MI) got wind of a major construction project in the Tennessee woods at a place called Oak Ridge. Engel wanted to make a trip to Oak Ridge to see what was going on. “In reply,” Grove writes, “he was told that this work was highly secret, and that the information he wanted could not be given to him; eventually, he was persuaded to forget his contemplated visit.”

Ironically, while Groves and his atomic bomb babysitters were able to keep most of Congress, the vice president, most of the war and foreign policy bureaucracy, and all of the American people in the dark, that didn’t work with our sometimes ally and long-term adversary throughout the twentieth century—the former Soviet Union. Stalin and his spymasters knew a great deal about the secret endeavor and were quickly able to demonstrate their own explosive prowess with atomic science.

The Manhattan Engineering District—the cover name for the atomic bomb program—created what Groves called the “country’s greatest single scientific success.” It also created a couple of enduring myths. First, the bomb builders’ success fed the notion that large, government-directed and -funded scientific and engineering programs can overcome almost any technical, political, or social obstacles. The later success of the Apollo moon project reaffirmed that belief. The residue of that notion of government-driven science can be seen in the subsequent history of public policy in the twentieth century, and today. The Nixon administration’s hopelessly hubristic War on Cancer in the early 1970s exemplified the lingering paradigm of the Manhattan Project, as did the Carter administration’s support for creating a giant synthetic fuels industry in the 1980s, which turned into a colossal flop. Today, in the bowels of the Department of Energy, the Manhattan mentality remains, fueling research and development in such areas as: how to capture and stuff into the ground carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants; how to economically turn sunlight directly into electricity; and how to midwife a new generation of nuclear power technologies.

Almost immediately after the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States went nuts over nukes. The shadowy world of the atom, rumored in technical journals and occasional “gee-whiz” newspaper or magazine article in the pre-war press, burst onto the scene in 1945. The result was a tidal wave of enthusiasm for anything and everything atomic. Anyone associated with the atom was a rock star; the atom was the future of the universe; and the United States seemed the master of that universe. The nation was enthralled by hyper-optimistic notions about what the atom could do, beyond blowing up enemy cities and spreading radioactive fallout around the globe. Trains, boats, and planes would be atom-powered. Tiny atomic reactors would sit in our basements and heat our houses. Government would beat into peaceful plowshares the most terrible sword humankind had ever developed.

Writer Daniel Ford, who covered nuclear energy for the New Yorker twenty-five years after Hersey, described in his book, Cult of the Atom, a “general euphoria” about atomic energy. Ford linked that feeling to the undercurrent of guilt left from the bombings. “Instead of reflecting on the horrors visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki or on whether the bombs should have been used in the first place,” Ford wrote, “news reports helped to alleviate the nation’s feelings of repulsion and guilt by focusing public attention on the more congenial aspects of ‘the new force.’”

A mere two weeks after bombs fell on Japan, Newsweek gushed that “even the most conservative scientists and industrialists were willing to outline a civilization which would make the comic-strip prophecies of Buck Rogers look obsolete.” In December of 1945, just four months after the attack on Japan, Popular Science magazine proclaimed in a cover story headline “We can harvest the Atom.” The article went on to say, “you will soon see mobile engines running on U235, and cities heated by steam from stationary graphite piles.” A 1953 Look magazine article by Gordon Dean, one of the original members of the postwar Atomic Energy Commission, was titled “Atomic Miracles We Will See.”

Over the years, the hyperbole rolled on.

The military, the civilian government, and the popular press touted nuclear power as a panacea to many of the military and domestic problems that faced the nation. Bizarre notions of the prospects of nuclear energy for enriching civilian life took hold in these influential circles. Take the family sedan. Ford Motor Co. in 1958 created a concept car, called the “nucleon,” designed to be powered by a tiny nuclear reactor. It existed, of course, only on drawing paper and a 3/8-scale clay mockup. But the Ford nucleon is evidence of how the atom was the dream of the age in the 1950s and 1960s.

Even comic strip characters were enlisted in the army of atomic acolytes. One was Dagwood Bumstead, the harried and harassed, suburban, sandwich-loving salary-man who was the ever flappable hero of the Dagwood and Blondie strip. The strip has been a fixture on newspaper comic pages for more than 70 years and was the prototype for generations of television sitcoms from the Honeymooners to Ozzie and Harriet and Ricky and Lucy to Mad Men.

In September 1948, Popular Science magazine carried an episode titled “Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom,” a piece of pure propaganda, but with considerable educational content. The following year, King Features, the syndicate that distributed the strip to newspapers around the country, published the Dagwood atomic energy strip as a free-standing comic book. The Dagwood comic book featured a foreword by well-known journalist Bob Considine and a formal endorsement from Gen. Leslie Groves. Although it is not clearly stated in the document nor is there any evidence to support the conclusion, it is hard to believe that the book did not have Atomic Energy Commission funding.

In 1951, the A.C. Gilbert Company of Fair Haven, Connecticut, maker of toys for budding scientists and engineers came out with the “U-238 Atomic Energy Lab,” a briefcase-sized case full of radiation goodies for inquisitive kids. The fifty-dollar kit (very expensive for the day) included four different types of uranium ore, a Geiger counter for measuring radiation, a spinthariscope for seeing atoms split naturally, and a miniature cloud chamber for tracking different sub-atomic particles. The lucky child also received a government-issued pamphlet titled “Prospecting for Uranium” aimed at aiding would-be prospectors (with the possibility of a ten thousand dollar reward from the government for a good discovery of uranium ore), and a copy of the Dagwood comic book.

While the bombs were bad, the atom was good. That was the message the government was pitching in the aftermath of the war. The popular president, Dwight Eisenhower, touted what he dubbed Atoms for Peace in 1954 (partly to overcome widespread feelings that the atomic scientists and bureaucrats were not delivering on their hyperbolic claims), and the Post Office issued a three-cent Atoms for Peace first-class stamp in 1955. Some 133 million stamps came off government printing presses.

Even Disney, the juggernaut of popular culture, got into the act of promoting the beneficial atom. Working with publisher Simon and Schuster in 1956, Disney produced the large-format book Our Friend the Atom, written by expatriate German physicist Heinz Haber. Disney artists illustrated the work. In the foreword, Walt Disney himself (or a ghostwriter) wrote, “Atomic science began as a positive, creating thought. It has created modern science with its many benefits for mankind. In this sense our book tries to make it clear to you that we can indeed look upon the atom as our friend.”

In 1954, New York publishing house Grosset & Dunlap relaunched a series of books aimed at ten- to fourteen-year-old boys intrigued with technology. The books were the second generation of Tom Swift kids’ science novels, named the Tom Swift Jr. line. Both the original Tom Swift books, which began in 1910 and saw distribution until 1941, and the post-war iteration of the 1950s through 1971, were aimed at similar generations of young readers, primarily boys, hooked on technology.

The putative author of the second run of books was Victor Appleton II: a concocted moniker for a group of writers working on a rigid formula that carried the series through a dozen books. Their inspiration was the phenomenal advancement of nuclear and military science that characterized the end of the war, as the public became drunk with the prospects of science and technology in the aftermath of the Manhattan Project.

When Tom Swift Jr. stepped onto the fictional stage, everything seemed possible.

The original Tom Swift series—also written, under the Victor Appleton pseudonym, by a collection of authors writing to formula—articulated a similar reverence for scientific advancement and its purported solutions. Tom Sr. invented the picture telephone, vertical takeoff aircraft, and a giant military tank—all prescient, though not all of his inventions eventually saw the light of day.

Tom Sr. also gave us the delightful Tom Swifties puns, which remain a parlor game among some aging pop literature raconteurs. In the game, one is asked to come up with adverbial, adjectival, or other puns with Tom quotes, mimicking the original Tom. For example:

  • “Who would want to steal modern art?” asked Tom abstractedly.
  • “Fire!” yelled Tom alarmingly.
  • “It’s a unit of electric current,” said Tom amply.
  • “Why invade Iraq?” Tom said ironically.
  • “Another batch of shells for me!” Tom clamored.
  • “George W. Bush?” asked a dumbfounded Tom.

Tom Swift Jr.’s escapades continued the tradition and exemplified the technological optimism of the nuclear world after the end of World War II. Tom was the son of the original, who by that time had made a fortune from his inventions.

An ebullient eighteen-year-old, Tom Jr. and his friends, relying on their own inventiveness, his father’s advice, and the money from his father’s engineering enterprises, were able to conceive and develop a series of new technologies, without the use of government funds and in astonishingly short time.

These inventions inevitably saved the nation from the nefarious plots of foreign governments. Our adversaries in the Swift books invariably were bogeymen from Eastern Europe or South America. They were dark-skinned, secretive, and motivated by hatred of the United States and a desire to supplant American power with their own.

All this played into the fears of the day. In the wake of the war, Soviet power advanced to conquer central and eastern Europe. Communism captured China. “Who lost China,” was the refrain of right-wing Congressional Republicans, as if Harry Truman and the Democrats—not U.S. support for the corrupt government of Chiang Kai-shek, which led to Mao Tse-tung and his agrarian Communists—were responsible.

But while the alleged traitors in our government, proclaimed by Republican Sens. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and John Bricker of Ohio and others in both parties, were said to be selling the nation down the drain, technology would rescue us. No one was as good as the United States at turning basic science into useful weapons, goods, and services. That the godless Commies had managed to develop their own nuclear weapons (which they thankfully never used) was solely a result of espionage and theft. This was the gospel of the friendly atom circa 1954.

The Tom Swift books represented the technological illusions of the post-war period. Tom was lanky, sporting a blond crew-cut, and almost always wearing a T-shirt with blue and white horizontal stripes, and blue jeans. True to formula, he had a heroic sidekick, Bud Barclay, who was darker, shorter, and stockier than Tom. A good athlete, Bud was not nearly as intellectually gifted as Tom (who was?). He often came to Tom’s rescue when the hero was captured by the enemy. Also in sync with the formula, Tom had a comic sidekick, Charles “Chow” Winkler, a former cowboy chuck-wagon cook who had become the Emeril Legasse of Swift Enterprises. He was prone to loud clothes and bizarre outbursts such as “brand my space biscuits” that are as charming as the earlier Tom Swifties. The infectious optimism of Tom Swift and his crew carried over to government policy makers, such as Lewis Strauss (pronounced “Straws”). A former shoe salesman, he became a wildly successful and rich investment banker. Appointed to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission by President Truman in 1946 and President Eisenhower’s choice as chairman in 1954, Strauss’s optimism characterized the times.

Strauss also symbolized the shift from the military to civilian control over the power of the atom in the United States. The Manhattan Engineering Division became the Atomic Energy Commission after a politically contentious battle, which in the end created a formal structure outside the military for the development of nuclear energy. The new structure, however, did little to dilute the power of the military over nuclear energy. The organizational chart changed, but the mind-sets of the masters of the atom remained militaristic.

More to Come

In the next chapter, “Manhattan Transfer,” an open fight for control of the development of nuclear power explodes between the newly created Atomic Energy Commission and the military services, with the politicians playing both sides against each other.

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available on Amazon.com and is serialized by permission.