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’.
In 1980, the prizes at my school speech night were awarded by the eminent nuclear physicist, Sir Ernest Titterton. ‘On these occasions I like to use the opportunity to say positive things rather than the usual generalities’, Titterton wrote to the school’s principal some months before the event. Titterton was, of course, well known as one of the country’s most outspoken advocates of nuclear energy, so it came as no surprise that his speech argued for the necessity of nuclear power to take over from dwindling fossil fuel reserves. Alternative sources of energy were ‘unproved’, he maintained, and in any case, ‘governments planning the future of nations cannot gamble on possibilities, they must bank on certainties’. I was annoyed, but not brave enough to wear my ‘solar not nuclear’ badge. I shook his hand, and took my prize.