What is atomic wonderland? As this introduction explains, the metaphor of ‘atomic wonderland’ is intended to connote a study more complex and revealing than one limited to the Atomic Age, or even ‘atomic culture’. Atomic wonderland brings challenges to our understanding of time, meaning, significance, and style.
This introduction traces the intellectual development of this thesis from the ‘turning point’ of Hiroshima, through to the problem of communicating historical complexity. It explains how an exploration of the Atomic Age in Australia became focused on the meaning of progress; how a story of pioneering scientists became a cultural history of Australian science; and how a thesis became an experiment in some of the possibilities of narrative.
As the twentieth century neared its end and pundits began to compile their lists of significant moments in history, it was hardly surprising to find that the development of the atomic bomb ranked high amidst the top ten turning points. With the destruction of Hiroshima, it seemed, the world had changed in an instant. The power of the bomb had obliterated a city, killed many thousands, and brought the end of the war suddenly near. But the bomb also wrought changes in politics and culture, as an unwary humanity was suddenly confronted with the possibility of its own apocalyptic demise. The Atomic Age had begun.
Delivering the 1956 Dyason Lecture, historian Arnold Toynbee reflected on the meanings of both democracy and the Atomic Age. They were, he argued, ‘portmanteau words’, whose contents had to be carefully unpacked. The Atomic Age comprised intellectual and technological elements, Toynbee noted, but the factor that loomed largest was apprehension inspired by the prospect of atomic war. The Atomic Age was a label, a period of time, an index of technological development, and a feeling. It is a phrase that conjures still a range of familiar images, from missile silos to ‘duck and cover’, from bad sci-fi to the prospect of a technological utopia. Where do we begin in a study of the Atomic Age—with the scientists? the technology? And what do we mean when we talk about the Atomic Age in Australia, a country whose involvement with the atomic energy has been largely as an exporter of uranium and testing site for British bombs? For something that seems so familiar, so obvious, so central to an understanding of the twentieth century, the meaning of the Atomic Age remains elusive.
What is progress? There are histories of progress that chart its meanings from ancient times to the present. There are treatises that explore its moral and spiritual dimensions, its eschatological origins, its apocalyptic fulfilment. There are the familiar economic definitions, of course, as well as attempts to factor environmental health and human happiness into the calculations of the number crunchers. But the most detailed studies of progress have been undertaken within the history of ideas, where JB Bury’s 1920 definition still provides a useful point of reference. Progress, Bury asserts, ‘is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men [sic] as slowly advancing… in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely’.
It seems almost self-evident to assert that science shapes our understanding of progress. Through continuing advances in knowledge and technology, science invests progress with much of its sense of dynamism and inevitability. This hold on the future was dramatised by the development of the atomic bomb. No longer, it seemed, could implications of science be ignored by any responsible government. The Atomic Age, nuclear physicist Ernest Titterton argued, was ‘an era in which science has become so important in our lives that all our decisions, including political ones, must be made with scientific considerations in mind’.
Science, as in this case, is commonly portrayed as something external to the revolutions it conjures upon an impotent and unsuspecting world, as an engine of change constructed to its own internal specifications. But just as the meaning of the Atomic Age cannot be simply read from the activities of scientists, so the relationship between science and progress is not one merely of cause and effect. To explore this relationship we have to lift the bonnet on the engine of science and tinker with the mechanics; we have to examine failed designs and superseded models; we have to ask who is doing the driving and why.
What started as a history of the Atomic Age has become something quite different. The supposed newness of the bomb has given way to a greater appreciation of continuity. Instead of setting the limits of this study to the temporal boundaries of the age, the way in which such limits are drawn, the nature of the turning points and dividing lines that structure our experience of the technology, have themselves become subjects for study. Instead of simply documenting an age, this history explores the nature of the journey that gives such turning points their power and meaning.
The journey is known as progress. But even as this name is uttered, as the concept solidifies, as the metaphor endows a familiar sense of onward movement, progress gains its own set of limits—a feeling of unity and coherence, of distance and direction. This is a history of progress, but it is not the history of a single idea. Instead of taking for granted the image of progress as a unifying creed, an ideology of domination, as the inevitable outcome of scientific development, this thesis attempts to explore some of the practices, contradictions and assumptions that are gathered together under the heading of progress.
In setting out the scope of the argument and the contents of each chapter, it is obviously hoped that this thesis will display a certain logic. There is a beginning and an end, a literature to be addressed, problems to be solved, connections to be made. Each chapter is expected to build upon the last, to carry the reader onwards, perhaps even with a sense of inevitability. There is a familiarity to this journey, for the characteristics of a ‘good’ argument reflect our conception of progress. Point by point we proceed, as ideas and evidence accumulate towards enlightenment. This steady movement is punctuated by moments of insight and clarity that challenge our preconceptions and broaden our perspective. In a ‘good’ argument, all this is achieved within a framework of confidence and authority that gathers the reader’s trust. Alternatives are considered and discarded, problems are solved—the journey seems so natural, its conclusions loom inevitable.
In January 1948, Phyllis Nicholls stood at the crossroads. The signpost before her pointed one way to ‘Progress’ the other to ‘Destruction’—it was time to choose. Such a weighty burden for a thirteen-year-old.
Phyllis was visiting the ‘Herald Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’ in Melbourne’s Exhibition Building. Around her, according to the advertising blurb, was ‘one of the most remarkable, vital and timely Exhibitions ever produced’, depicting ‘the whole amazing, challenging story of Atomic Energy’. From alchemists to atom-smashers, the Atomic Age was displayed in miraculous detail. Phyllis, the Sun noted, was in ‘Atomic Wonderland’.
In the midst of this wonderland stood the crossroads signpost. The choice facing Phyllis was the choice confronting humankind. On one side of the exhibition a scale model of Hiroshima illustrated the destructive power of the atomic bomb. On the other side, displays highlighting the peaceful applications of atomic energy held out the promise of a cleaner, safer, and richer world. Which was it to be? The dawning of the Atomic Age had brought the world to a ‘turning point’, two paths stretched off into the future—it was time to choose.
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’. 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’. 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.
In August 1995, exactly half a century after the destruction of Hiroshima, the Canberra Times published a cartoon entitled ‘Fifty years on’. The cartoon shows a large, muscular genie emerging from a bottle labelled with the now familiar symbol for radioactivity. In one hand he holds a dove, in the other a skull, a death’s head. ‘C’mon make a wish!’, he demands of us. Fifty years on…
The atomic genie was obviously more patient than anybody had imagined in 1945. Fifty years on and he was still waiting for our decision. The genie, like the crossroads and the turning point, symbolised a critical moment in the history of the world. The bomb had fundamentally changed the conditions of human existence, confronting civilisation with an urgent and inescapable choice. And yet, the moment itself seemed impossible to grasp. Rather than being anchored in 1945, it hopped and jumped from year to year, constantly renewing its sense of urgency, and reasserting its challenge to humankind.
The centrepiece of the Atomic Age Exhibition was a 265 square foot diorama depicting the destruction of Hiroshima. Hanging above a reconstruction of the ruined city was a model of the atomic bomb, its workings revealed in cross-section. At regular intervals, the bomb whirred into life, and a recorded voice began to describe the events of 6 August 1945: ‘At 8.20am, when the 250,000 people of Hiroshima were beginning their work, the bomb was dropped…in a mighty flash brighter than the sun… the uranium in the bomb changed from a small cold lump of metal to a mass of swelling gas millions of degrees hot… The heart of the city vaporized. Ninety-two thousand men, women and children were killed’. A ring of lights flashed on the model city, indicating the area that had suffered ‘almost 100 per cent devastation’. It was, one writer enthused, an ‘amazingly lifelike table model’, showing everything from the triggering of the bomb, to the final ‘whoosh that killed 92,000’.