Another chapter in the atomic story

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Tom Hollway seemed destined for great things. Elected in 1947 as the youngest Premier of Victoria, he promised to champion the forces of free-enterprise and progress against socialist-style controls. ‘Young Hollway’ was someone to watch, argued Hard Comment, ‘Australia is due to hear much of him in the career now opening’. 1 As the nation began to shrug off the lingering burdens of war, Tom Hollway stood upon the threshold of achievement.

Opening the ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’ in January 1948, Hollway pondered the pace of change and the challenge of the future. ‘The atomic age was launched like a bolt from the blue’, he noted, leaving the world ‘aghast, awe-stricken and in wonderment’. A ‘new chapter in the lives of the peoples of the world’ had been opened by ‘the stupendous possibilities of atomic energy’. 2 So much could change so quickly. Within four years Hollway would be stripped of his leadership and expelled from the Liberal Party. As science and technology thundered ahead, Hollway’s political horizons contracted, his career suddenly came to a close. 3

Change is one of the characteristic features of our modern world, but few changes have seemed so dramatic as those wrought by the atomic bomb. In one cataclysmic instant a new weapon was unleashed, the end of a long and terrible war was brought within reach, science revealed its unsuspected mastery of the sub-atomic world, and tens of thousands of Japanese civilians were incinerated. It was a beginning and an end, a ‘bolt from the blue’ that had ‘hurled the world without warning’ into a ‘new era’. 4 Welcome to the ‘Atomic Age’.

Even as a battle-wearied nation embraced the prospect of peace, the development of a horrific, war-winning weapon provoked solemn contemplation. But attention quickly turned to the expanded horizons of human existence and achievement. ‘It may be that humanity stands on the threshold of scientific and economic possibilities of such a nature as to make the imagination reel’, pondered the Argus. 5 ‘Behind the smoke and the ruin of Hiroshima’, suggested another, ‘may lie the picture and plan of a happier life in a saner world’. 6 ‘Revolutions’ seemed imminent in power, in industry, in all aspects of daily life. A new age promised a new world.

This sense of ‘newness’ was central to the experience of the Atomic Age. ‘The whole thing is so new, so novel, so entirely different from anything that we have had that it would be absurd to speculate any further’, commented the zoologist WJ Dakin, shortly after the news from Hiroshima. 7 A year later, AD Ross told the physics section of the ANZAAS congress: ‘The era of atomic energy will see great changes. Old ideas and old methods will be swept aside. We must be ready to adopt and develop new principles and new means’. 8 ‘The atomic bomb’, Clem Christesen wrote in Meanjin, has ‘severed the old world from the new with guillotine-like decisiveness’. 9

Such unyielding novelty threatened to overwhelm the ‘man-in-the-street’, baffled by science, and intimidated by the power of technology. To counter this threat, the Melbourne Herald, the Brisbane Courier Mail, and the Sydney Daily Telegraph combined to import from London, ‘the world’s first exhibition to tell the full story of the Atomic Age in a way everyone can understand’. 10 The ‘Atomic Age Exhibition’ premiered at the Brisbane Royal Show in August 1947 before travelling to Sydney and Melbourne. 11 The ‘atomic-ignoramus’ was promised ‘a one-hour course in atoms and atomic energy’, capped off by a ‘vista of the atomic world of tomorrow’. 12 It was ‘something everybody should see’: ‘You owe it to yourself, to your children, and to civilisation…’ 13

The bombs that ‘changed the course of history’ featured prominently, even though the exhibition deliberately sought to highlight ‘the constructive possibilities of atomic power’. 14 But alongside the epochal events of recent times was presented a story that reached back into the dark ages. The ‘black magic’ of uranium separation was presented alongside a model of a ‘medieval alchemist’s den’. 15 The quest for transmutation of elements was traced from its mystical beginnings through to the work of Rutherford and the Cavendish Laboratory. A series of models and montages led ‘logically on through the atomic story, from first principles to ultimate applications’. 16 This new age had a history.

The exhibition was divided into three main sections: the ‘science behind the atomic bomb’; the effects of the five bombs exploded thus far; and the ‘immediate and future possibilities’ for the constructive use of atomic energy. The Daily Telegraph described these as the ‘three phases of the Atomic Age’—the past, the present and the future. 17 Visitors were not simply confronted with the wonders and horrors of this new age, they journeyed through ‘the story of the atom’. From a mere twinkle in an alchemist’s eye, to the beneficent servant of man, they watched the atom grow up.

To bolster the exhibition’s educative effect, the Herald published a ‘souvenir booklet’ recounting ‘the story of the atom’ in explicit detail. The atom’s life history was presented as part of an ‘age-old story of man’s groping for new power’‑the ‘story of human civilisation’. It was a ‘long story’, the booklet remarked, a story in which the Atomic Age had ‘opened a new chapter’. 18 This was not the end, of course, for the atom story remained unfinished. The ‘world’s best brains’ would ‘pick up the narrative’, and the ‘next chapter should be one of superb achievement’. 19 The dramatic newness of the Atomic Age was but a milestone marking the course of a familiar journey. ‘Such is the march of man’s progress’, explained the Argus. 20

Like the Iron Age or the Stone Age, the Atomic Age could be regarded as yet another phase in the development of human civilisation, another chapter in the story of progress. The release of atomic energy, AD Ross argued, ‘may probably rank with the discovery of fire as the most momentous in the history of mankind’. 21 His South Australian colleague, Kerr Grant, agreed, arguing that the use of the atomic bomb marked ‘an epoch in human history as definitely as does the first occasion, far in the prehistoric age, on which fire was first produced and controlled by human agency’. 22 Both sought to place this revolutionary moment within the continuing saga of scientific progress. This ‘bolt from the blue’ was in fact the ‘climax of a long series of laborious researches’, a product of humankind’s unquenchable curiosity. 23

‘Ever since man in his primitive state began delving into Nature’s mysteries’, the Argus noted, ‘the quest for knowledge has continued. And because his mind is what it is, the quest will not finish until his course upon this earth has been completed’. 24 Unfortunately, the coming of the Atomic Age also signaled that the course of civilisation might be completed rather sooner than previously imagined. If atomic energy could not be controlled, if war could not be banished, then the world may indeed have reached the final chapter‑end of story. Civilisation was at a ‘turning-point’, ‘a crossroads signpost in the history of human existence’. 25

The ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’ was intended both ‘as a lesson and a warning’. 26 The structure of the exhibition encouraged visitors to contemplate the constructive possibilities of atomic energy, but offered ‘a terrifyingly realistic side-glance into the atomic horror chamber’. 27 In the middle stood the crossroads, metaphor made exhibition prop. If the message was not clear enough, newsreels in the attached theatrette showed footage of the US atom bomb tests at Bikini Atoll—‘Operation Crossroads’. ‘Science has given us an incalculable new force in atomic energy’, the newsreel began, ‘It is the responsibility of us all to see that it is used to benefit man‑not used for his destruction…OURS IS THE CHOICE’. 28

The crossroads imagined the world at a unique point in history marked by the development of the atomic bomb, but the urgency of the choice came from the momentum of scientific discovery, from the continued unrolling of the atomic story. The crossroads represented both turning point and journey, both new challenges and ancient quests. It was, the Herald argued, ‘an old issue… restated now in terms which cannot be ignored’. ‘We either bring our moral values into line with our scientific skill, or we admit ourselves beaten’—this was ‘the one simple and inescapable condition of progress’. 29

The opening of the Atomic Age was not represented by the exhibition’s scale model of Hiroshima, but by a diorama portraying a scene in the New Mexico desert. There, at the ‘Trinity’ test site, the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded. Tiny model scientists watch in awe as a massive fireball lights up the horizon. And there, emerging from the billowing clouds, a huge, threatening figure. 30 The same figure, hands poised portentously, electrons whizzing round his head like bushflies, adorned the cover of the souvenir booklet. He was another representation of the scientific journey that had brought humankind to this testing moment. Would his power be used for good or evil? There was no avoiding the question, there was no turning back. The atomic genie was out of the bottle.



Notes:

  1. ‘Public Figures – Young Hollway’, Hard Comment, vol. 1, no. 9, December 1947, p. 3.
  2. Herald, 22 January 1948, p. 3.
  3. See obituary, Age, 31 July 1971, p. 2.
  4. Age, 29 May 1946, p. 2.
  5. ‘A miracle of science’, Argus, 8 August 1945, p. 2.
  6. ‘Atom bomb is fruit of long years of research’, SMH, 8 August 1945, p. 2.
  7. Quoted in ‘Atom bomb is fruit of long years of research’, SMH, 8 August 1945, p. 2.
  8. AD Ross, ‘Physical science in the post-war world’, Report of the 25th meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science,  Adelaide, 1946, p. 20.
  9. Clem Christesen, ‘Editorial’, Meanjin Papers, vol. 4, no. 3, Spring 1945, p. 149.
  10. Courier Mail, 29 July 1947, p. 1.
  11. The exhibition was displayed at the Exhibition Buildings in Melbourne from January to February 1948, and then in Sydney at the Royal Easter Show, March 1948.
  12. Robert J. Gilmore, ‘The mighty atom – and what it means to you’, Herald, 21 January 1948, p. 4.
  13. Daily Telegraph, 21 March 1948, p. 2; advertisement in Herald, 20 January 1948, p. 7.
  14. The Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition, Herald & Weekly Times, Mebourne, 1948, p. 50; Herald, 3 January 1948, p. 1.
  15. Gilmore, ‘The mighty atom’; for a picture of the ‘alchemist’s den’ see Courier Mail, 11 August 1947, p. 5.
  16. Herald, 3 January 1948, p. 1.
  17. Daily Telegraph, 11 March 1948, p. 9.
  18. Kim Keane, ‘The story of the atom’, The Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition, Herald & Weekly Times, Melbourne, 1948, pp. 6-9.
  19. ibid. p. 48.
  20. Argus, 8 August 1946, p. 2.
  21. Ross, ‘Physical science in the post-war world’, p. 14.
  22. Kerr Grant, ‘Historical, scientific and technical aspects of atomic energy’, in Kerr Grant and GV Portus (eds), The Atomic Age, United Nations Association, SA Division, Adelaide, 1946, p. 1.
  23. Ross, ‘Physical science in the post-war world’, p. 14.
  24. Argus, 1 July 1946, p. 2.
  25. SMH, 8 August 1945, p. 2; Christesen, ‘Editorial’.
  26. Gilmore, ‘The mighty atom’.
  27. ibid.
  28. The newsreel is available as Pathe newsreel, ‘Experiment with death’, Screensound: title no. 1070.
  29. Herald, 17 January 1948, p. 4.
  30. Gilmore, ‘The mighty atom’; for a picture of the diorama, see Courier Mail, 11 August 1947, p. 5.

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