Category Archives: atomic bomb

150: David Nye’s American Technological Sublime

In American Technological Sublime, David Nye investigates the history of the social construction of the sublime in America from about 1820 to the early 1990s.  Nye’s American sublime is somewhat like 18th century European concepts of the sublime, which involve human apprehension of something so big, beautiful, and incomprehensible that the mind is seized with terror, awe, and pleasure all at once; these extremes dominate the human mind, so that the person transcends the material world and comes into contact with the divine.  However, while the European sublime was a category of experience accessible only to educated individuals in contact with nature or sacred architecture, the American sublime has distinctly populist, nationalist, and capitalist overtones.  As early as the 1830s, American travellers in the West were reporting on the sublimity of the natural landscape, while people in the presence of massive new technologies were experiencing a transcendence usually reserved for nature or high art, and revivalists were recommending sublime tourist sites like Niagara as places to get in touch with the divine.  The American sublime was thus a popular, communal experience rather than an elite individual one; it was associated with emotions of awe, pleasure and terror rather than worldly transcendence; it could involve feats of engineering as well as high art and natural beauty; and its ties to American technological transformations of the landscape meant that the experience could be incorporated into nationalist narratives (love of country) and commodified into landscapes of fantasy and pleasure (Disneyland).  As Nye argues, the American sublime is key to American cultural identity.

Although the chapters are roughly chronological, Nye is more interested in talking about sublimeS rather than THE sublime, so that differences of time, place, and personal experience only add to his discussion.  Technological sublimes include the railroad as a “dynamic sublime” that awed in its ability to unite, expand, and enrich the nation; bridges and skyscrapers as a “geometric sublime” that “appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk…. the triumph of reason in concrete form;” factories, electric power plants, and other manufactories as a new “mechanical sublime, which regulates the mind and technologically supersedes nature;” the electrified urban landscape as an accidental “electrical sublime” that dominated night, embodied the values of capitalism and “transformed the appearance of the world;” the atomic bomb as a new, more terrifying form of the dynamic sublime, and Vegas and Disneyland (with nods to Niagara and the Grand Canyon) as the “consumer sublime,” commodified pleasure landscapes that provide the rush associated with dislocation from the world of work in simulation of the sublime.

Throughout, Nye traces the ways in which increased articulations between the sublime and mass American culture have led to a watering down of what was once a transcendent, otherworldly dislocation from reality, even as they make that experience accessible to more people.  While he argues that the sublime is at once an individual and collective experience, he also shows how top-down and structurally conditioned that experience has been.


90: Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May shows how the Cold War policy of “containment” shaped and was shaped by the combination of anti-Communism and the 1950s cult of domesticity.  May builds her argument around the newly available (in the 1980s) Kelly Longitudinal Study, a 20-year psychological study of the development of personality in marriage that covered the 1930s through the 1950s and included some 600 informants, as well as movies, newspapers, popular magazines, and contemporaneous writings by professionals in various fields.  In doing so, she explains that the nuclear family became far more important for the white American middle class in the 1950s than it was at any other time in the 20th century because of a broader shift toward privatization and individualization of social ills in an age of profound national insecurity.

Per May, the 1950s were less about placid cultural stasis than they were about controlling potentially “explosive issues,” particularly sexuality and the bomb.  Because ‘fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of rapid social crisis,’ sexuality and the bomb became linked both visually (as with ‘bombshell’ Rita Hayworth’s image on the bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll) and culturally (as with crusades against homosexuals and pop culture fantasies of sex and violence).  Sex was forbidden to women outside of marriage, but once in a marriage, women were expected to be highly sexual, always-attractive partners, as though sex, like nuclear power, could simultaneously destroy and hold together families.  They were also expected to stay home with their children, in their own nucleated, sexually charged version of containment.

Within these restrictive suburban nuclei, many women, especially educated ones, felt isolated and insecure about their inability to live up to social expectations.  Unlike in the 1930s, however, in the 1950s people increasingly blamed themselves (instead of the larger system) for personal dissatisfaction, and the “therapeutic model” replaced political activism.  Because they contained sexuality and alienated women, families and the suburban homes in which they lived thus contained the seeds of the countercultural revolution.

While May’s sample is restricted to white, middle-class women and is thus not indicative of all women in the 1950s, she does effectively link cultural repression to the atomic insecurity that created it… and to the cultural explosion that it fomented.

81: Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light

Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age seeks to understand how the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 affected American culture, thought, and worldview in the first 5 years of the new “atomic age.”  Accordingly, the book uses a wide range of contemporary articles, books, editorials, letters to editors, radio broadcasts, movies, popular music, opinion polls, and the personal papers of prominent political figures to reconstruct both the history of nuclear energy and the new atomic culture.  Boyer argues that the culture industry was able to channel multiple fears and reactions to the bomb immediately after the blast into an understanding that “the dread destroyer of 1945 had become the shield of the Republic” by 1950.

According to Boyer, reactions to the bomb followed a rough trajectory from multiple viewpoints to a single viewpoint in less than five years.  Right after Hiroshima, Boyer found multiple expressions of a “primal fear of extinction,” which led to support for international control of atomic energy.  However, this movement failed because the atomic scientists and other proponents of atomic energy exploited widespread anxiety about a nuclear war between capitalist and communist states… which led not to international regulation but to anticommunist hysteria.  American attempts to quell the hysteria by searching for a silver lining in peaceful applications of nuclear energy also backfired as early as 1947, when writers began suspecting that nuclear energy’s positive impact had been “badly oversold.”  The strategy that ended up working was the one taken by the federal government and allied groups, which emphasized future peaceful applications of nuclear energy combined with arguments for the feasibility of nuclear civil defense and the need for supremacy in the arms race.

Boyer finds in this story the roots of 1980s nuclear policy.  I think it also provides a compelling cultural-technological explanation for the beginning of the Cold War, as well as a strangely anachronistic interpretation of post-war culture.  Perhaps the 1940s and 50s really were as top-down as the Culture Industry would have us believe?  After all, Boyer did get much of his cultural information from contemporary pop-culture stories…


Richard Rhodes – The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Rhodes is a novelist, and The Making of the Atomic Bomb is, as most reviewers have noted, a readable, and at times engrossing, epic (or as Hacker calls it, an “Atomiad.”)  It traces the development of the atomic bomb from the early 1900s, when physicists were just beginning to suspect the existence of an atom (though he locates belief in the “atom” as “an invisible layer of eternal, elemental substance” in ancient Greeks Leucippus and Democritus) through Los Alamos and WWII, and on to the development and testing of the “Super” or hydrogen bomb in the 1950s.  Various reviewers put their own political slants on Rhodes’ thesis, but Broad, I think, captures it most fairly: since 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, science has for the first time become powerful enough to challenge the state.  Critically, unlike technological determinists, Rhodes sees that though atomic technology has changed the way politics is enacted, the relationship between politics and technology is a two-way street – which means, following Bohr, that a peaceful, unified, global system is just as possible in the Nuclear Age as the current system of warring states.

It’s hard to summarize some 800+ pages in a single paragraph, but here are a few highlights.  The book is divided into three sections: Part 1, the development of nuclear physics from the early 1900s to WWII; Part 2, the wartime work on nuclear energy by both the Allies and the Axis powers; and Part 3, discussions of the explosions at the end of WWII – one at Trinity and the others in Japan.  The Epilogue traces the in-group politics at Los Alamos that led to the development of the “Super” hydrogen bomb, and moralizes against technological determinism and toward a “world system” precipitated by the desire to avoid the war to end all wars.  Actors include Szilard, Rutherford, Oppenheimer, and Edward Teller, who was apparently the only one interested in making more weapons – everyone else lobbied congress to get more political power for scientists (as the only people who really knew what the bomb was).  Espionage and politics abound.  (The reviews above are better for color than I would be.)
The book does make use of archival work as well as interviews with those participants still alive in the 1980s, and both academic and popular fact-checkers find the research to be sound (if over well-trod territory and a bit sweeping.)  Most reviewers refer to the narrative/ epic character of the book, and popular reviewer Broad very much liked Rhodes’ personal take on history.  But if Broad liked the attention to personality and the ‘network’ approach to technological development, Badash found the ‘psychological’ detail thinly researched and sometimes unnecessary.  Hacker echoed my criticism – that the attention to individual actors obscures the larger cultural context, and makes it look like a few charismatic scientists were entirely responsible for the development of the bomb.  In other words, by focusing so much on the motives and ideas of individuals, Rhodes falls victim to the ‘great man’ syndrome that plagues so many histories of technology.  In walking the line between networks and great men, Rhodes is in the company of folks like Langdon Winner and especially Thomas Hughes, who focused on great men (like Thomas Edison) to show that invention is more hard work and trial and error than a flash of genius.  But I do agree with Hacker – strong research aside, the novelistic flourishes and attention to character development that make The Making of the Atomic Bomb accessible to a non-technical audience tend to obscure the larger, more complex picture.
Rhodes, Richard.  The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.