The whoosh that killed 92,000

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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’. 1 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’. 2

A number of articles commented on the accuracy of the diorama, describing it as ‘convincing and authentic’, and noting that it was constructed using ‘data from official photographs and reports’. 3 Even the New South Wales State Governor, Lieutenant-General Northcott, a ‘keen student of atomic warfare’, was enlisted to provide his expert opinion. Recalling a visit to Hiroshima in 1946, Northcott declared the model to be ‘extraordinarily accurate’. 4 Emphasis on the accuracy of the model, and the ‘scientific’ credentials of the exhibition as a whole, reinforced the message that this was a serious, educational effort. ‘To-day’s world is in desperate need of an understanding of what atomic energy is capable of doing’, commented the Brisbane Courier-Mail, ‘We must educate ourselves’. 5

Not only adults, but children needed to be equipped to deal with the demands of this new age. Publicity efforts often focused on visits by young people and school groups. 6 Phyllis’s journey through ‘Atomic Wonderland’ was chronicled by the Sun as evidence of the exhibition’s suitability for a young audience. The ‘story of the atom’, Phyllis affirmed, was ‘easily understandable to a child’. 7 The Herald offered additional incentives to young visitors, organising an essay competition for ‘atom-minded schoolchildren’. For a chance to win a trip to Mount Buffalo or a Healing portable radio, children were invited to ponder the topic, ‘What the atom means to me’. 8

Unsurprisingly perhaps, competition winners proved proficient at mouthing accepted atomic aphorisms. ‘I am 10 years old and have been told that I am growing up in the Atomic Age’, wrote Julian Napper, ‘What will the Atomic Age mean? Will it mean a world of war or will it mean a world of ease and peace?’ Ian Robertson won a bicycle for his essay which concluded: ‘Actually “What the Atom Means to Me” could be summed up by the words—peace and progress, or destruction’. 9 Their responses seem as artificial as the Hiroshima model, as safe and well-managed as Phyllis’s crossroads epiphany. Did Phyllis even pause as she raced between the model of Hiroshima and the ticking geiger counter? Did she notice the signpost? Did she care?

Phyllis’s crossroads choice was a journalistic invention, a moment fashioned to fit the story, and yet the journey beyond was real enough. Like the competition winners, she was ‘growing up in the Atomic Age’. What was it like? How do they remember it? If Julian or Ian found a copy of their essays amongst the family archives, how would they feel—embarrassed, nostalgic, amused? The idea of a scale model conveying, with a whoosh, Hiroshima’s horrifying fate seems almost quaintly naïve. But it also fits our expectations of the Atomic Age as an era that can somehow be defined by the absurdities of ‘duck and cover’, or by the rampaging radioactive monsters that menaced B-grade movie audiences. It is a world both bizarre and familiar, a cultural theme park whose alarming innocence only serves to reassure us of our own sophistication. We recognise the films and the fashions, but do we recognise the people?

The Atomic Age Exhibition toured Australia in 1947 and 1948, and yet it somehow seems to be a very fifties phenomenon. Historical periods always tend to be a bit blurry about the edges, but the exhibition’s assumption of progress and its overwhelming faith in the power of science and technology seem close to the core of fifties culture. This sort of temporal fuzziness is a result of the way we organise and deploy the past. As John Murphy argues, ‘the Fifties’ is no longer merely a decade, ‘it is an adjective’. ‘The Fifties’ provides contemporary critics with a convenient metaphor for all that is ‘bland, suburban, unimaginative, repressed, intolerant and complacent’. At the same time it signals ‘our distance from what we imagine the fifties to represent’. 10 Both ‘the Fifties’ and the ‘Atomic Age’ embody a sense of uncritical naivete that we imagine ourselves to have outgrown. But this feeling of superiority comes at a cost, it results in ‘one-dimensional history’ which drains the past of its complexity, and robs its inhabitants of their humanity. 11 Instead of trading in easy adjectives, Murphy suggests that ‘we need to recollect the contingent and often fragile ways in which people built their lives’. 12

What was Ian thinking when he sat down to write his essay? It’s easy to read his parroting of the exhibition’s rhetoric as evidence of an uncritical acceptance of the ‘progress versus destruction’ story, but perhaps he just wanted the bike. Ian had his own hopes, his own benchmarks of success, and was presumably just as capable of understanding the expectations of the competition’s organisers as we are. Once we begin to assume that labels such as the fifties or the Atomic Age represent ‘an expressive unity’, it is easy to lose sight of individual motivations, to find in the personal and particular merely examples of an age.

Barraged by increasingly graphic images of destruction, both real and imagined, it is difficult for us to believe that anyone could have considered the Hiroshima model to be ‘realistic’ or ‘lifelike’. A ring of lights embedded in a scale model of Hiroshima seems a ridiculously inadequate means of representing the power of the atomic bomb. Whoosh! But as audiences struggled with the possibility of atomic war, such devices might have offered a fleeting connection between the experience of Hiroshima and their own fears for the future. Immediately after the first atomic attack, newspapers attempted to translate the scale of devastation into more familiar terms. The Herald placed the unsuspecting town of Swan Hill at ground zero, and illustrated the extent of the bomb’s effects with a large ring superimposed on a map of Victoria. ‘Houses 200 miles away would feel the blast’, it noted. 13 The following day it calculated how much of Melbourne would be ‘wiped out’ by a bomb dropped on the Exhibition Building. 14 Such images and calculations would have been familiar to many of those who visited the Atomic Age exhibition. ‘One atomic bomb dropped on Sydney would exterminate all life and destroy all buildings in a broad track from Botany Bay to Circular Quay’, noted a preview in the Daily Telegraph. 15 For all its supposed scientific accuracy, the Hiroshima model was also a ‘warning’. A simple ring of lights could help convey the message—today Hiroshima, tomorrow… Sydney or Melbourne?

Only a few years before the Atomic Age Exhibition hit town, Australia had been under attack. The experience of war was still strong in memory. How many visitors to the exhibition had witnessed its horrors first hand? How many had lost loved ones in the fighting? And now, as young families sought to rebuild their lives, what did that simple ring of lights say to them about their future, their children’s future? The newness of the Atomic Age did not wash away memories, it did not obliterate the past. Standing at the crossroads, what would ‘progress’ have meant to someone who little more than a decade earlier had been thrown out of work during the Depression? And what images of ‘destruction’ would the signpost have conjured before a former POW, a grieving widow, or a refugee from the Holocaust?

The Hiroshima diorama enabled visitors to view the bombing as if they were ‘flying above’ the pain and devastation. 16 But a nearby theatrette offered a less comfortable perspective. Here, courtesy of a captured Japanese film, visitors were invited to ‘walk through the streets’ of the ruined city, surveying the ‘razed buildings’ and ‘crumpled masonry’ and observing the ‘effects of the bomb flash on survivors’. 17 We must make the same transition. Flying along in the comfort of 21st century sophistication, we observe the past from a distance, far, far below. From this distance it is easy to generalise, to attach labels that lump together a range of experiences as if they represent some coherent totality. But the people are invisible. ‘We disempower the people of the past when we rob them of their present moments’, writes Greg Dening, ‘We dehumanise them, make them our puppets’. 18 If we want to avoid merely confirming our own assumptions about the Atomic Age, we have to find a way to walk the streets.

Restoring to the past its own present is a task that demands empathy and imagination, but it also challenges us to consider the nature of the distances across which our imagination must work. We are forced into the effort of recovery by the feeling that we have moved on, that our journey has carried us away. The past is behind us, separated from our own experience by an ever-widening gap. Time begets distance.

The development of the mechanical clock heralded a change in perception. 19 From the sixteenth century onwards, improvements in time-keeping technology meant that time could be divided, and divided again. The rhythms and cycles of daily life began to be plotted on a grid of hours, minutes and seconds. Existence was reduced to a series of moments, each adding to the flow of history, but each representing a break, a birth, something new. Each tick of the clock added another chapter to the story of civilisation.

But if the present was created through the accumulation of moments, then so was the past. It became possible to measure the distance between present and past events just as it was possible to locate lines of latitude on the surface of the globe. 20 Events had an order, a chronology. Enlightenment thinkers, chafing under the oppressive authority of the ancients, could point to the vast gulf in time that separated them. The imminence of ancient philosophies faded across the accumulation of years. Moreover, the ticking of the clock signalled a break between old and new: the past was dismissed as time used up, while the present was welcomed as the realm of creative action. The modern mind created a space for itself in time.

Accumulated time proved a powerful tool, not only could the past be set at a distance, but the future could be brought within reach. Moment by moment the future became the present. Each tick of the clock brought the prospect of something better, a dream realised, a hope fulfilled. The possibilities of existence ballooned outwards as the future became the receptacle for humanity’s ambitions. The future was now a destination, and time was a journey of improvement. What was this journey called? A word which had previously applied to movement through space was borrowed to fill the metaphorical void, and so this journey became known as progress. 21

The language of space shapes the modern conception of time. Once we begin to imagine ourselves on a journey, distance and direction become the measure of experience. Happiness and success are promised to those who put the past behind them, and turn to face the future. Challenges come in the guise of crossroads and turning points, but there can be no turning back. Time marches on. Perhaps we do not so readily assume that this journey amounts to progress, but for all our heightened postmodern sensibilities we continue to enjoy the feeling that our distance from the past is a measure of our own sophistication. ‘Everyone, it seems, still wants to ride the wave of history’, writes Bernard Yack, ‘Never mind the fact that the very idea that history flows in a single direction is a manifestation of precisely the kind of unchastened, unreflective modern thinking that so many contemporary intellectuals explicitly reject’. 22

Progress separates us from the past both by totting up the mileage on our supposed journeys, and by offering each generation a sense of their own uniqueness—perching them on yet another fracture between the old world and the new. Progress is expressed through accumulation and disjunction, by finding amidst the parade of inevitability, a sudden break, a new beginning. 23 The practice of history is complicit in this process, born of the same time-keeping prejudices. Through the diligent efforts of historians, moments are corralled into a succession of ‘ages’, or ‘periods’, interspersed with ‘revolutions’ and ‘crises’. Continuity and change provide the two frames of analysis through which the historian measures moment against moment, age against age. Historians are confronted always with the temptations of inevitability, with the easy pleasures of the starting point.

The challenge is to develop empathy and understanding across the distances and disjunctions; to question our starting points, the temporal frameworks that define our position and direction; to imagine journeys that do not simply move from past to present, but intertwine them in a way that enriches our understanding of both. Beginnings and ends need not determine the limits of our enquiries, nor our hopes.

The Atomic Age did not burst into being at Hiroshima or Almagordo. There was no point of detonation when the components of the new world came together to achieve critical mass—Flash! Boom! The newness of the bomb was not forged in an instant, but has been regularly reimagined and reasserted. It has appeared in the rallying cries of anti-nuclear activists, in the strategies of military analysts, and in the theorising of cultural critics. And so, this is a history of the Atomic Age in Australia that ranges across time from 1901 to 2003. This is a history of the Atomic Age in which the bomb is consigned to the role of supporting player, providing neither beginning nor end, cause nor explanation. This is an exploration of contested ground where science battles ignorance, where nation confronts fear, where freedom is locked in a bitter struggle with control. The origins of the Atomic Age can be discovered just as readily in our own attitudes to time, progress, science and society, as they can in the research of nuclear physicists in the 1930s and 1940s. There is no safe distance from which we can observe the foolishness of the past.


  1. Courier Mail, 2 August 1947, p. 3.
  2. Herald, 21 January 1948, p. 4.
  3. ibid.; Courier Mail, 2 August 1947, p. 3.
  4. Daily Telegraph, 31 March 1948, p. 8.
  5. Courier-Mail, 9 August 1947, p. 2.
  6. For example: ‘Students see Atomic Age’, Courier Mail, 20 August 1948, p. 5; ‘Children throng atom show’, Herald, 3 February 1948, p. 5; ‘School parties visit atomic exhibition’, Herald, 5 February 1948, p. 5.
  7. Sun, 3 February 1948, p. 5.
  8. Herald, 31 January 1948, p. 5.
  9. Herald, 26 February 1948, p. 7.
  10. John Murphy, Imagining the fifties: private sentiment and political culture in Menzies’ Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, p. 2.
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid., p. 222.
  13. Herald, 7 August 1945, p. 1.
  14. Herald, 8 August 1945, p. 1.
  15. Daily Telegraph, 14 March 1948, p. 6.
  16. Daily Telegraph, 19 March 1948, p. 9.
  17. ibid.; see also ‘Jap film for atom age show’, Courier-Mail, 5 August 1947, p. 3.
  18. Greg Dening, Performances, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 204.
  19. Samuel L Macey, Patriarchs of time: dualism in Saturn-Cronos, Father Time, the Watchmaker God, and Father Christmas, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1987, ch. 4; Graeme Davison, The unforgiving minute: how Australia learned to tell the time, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 7-9; GJ Whitrow, Time in history: views of time from prehistory to the present day, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, chs 8 & 9. For the continuing influence of ‘clock time’ see, Barbara Adam, ‘Modern times: the technology connection and its implications for social theory’, Time & Society, vol. 1, no. 2, 1992, pp. 175-91.
  20. Samuel L Macey, The dynamics of progress, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1989, p. 46-7.
  21. Macey, Patriarchs of time, pp. 72-3; Macey, The dynamics of progress, p. 41.
  22. Yack, Fetishism of modernities, p. 138.
  23. Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Hard times: an Australian study’, in Klaus Neumann, Nicholas Thomas and Hilary Ericksen (eds), Quicksands: foundational histories in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 6.

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