Mrs. Langsdorf was already a successful artist by the time she was asked to design the cover of the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Against an orange background, she set a quarter of a clock face, with a black hour hand pointing to the “12” position as a white minute hand approached 11:53.
Even without the accompanying articles about the danger of nuclear weapons, the implication was clear: The fate of the world was in doubt unless an escalating arms race could be stopped before it reached the doomsday hour of midnight.
“It’s such an intuitively tension-building image,” graphic designer Michael Bierut, who updated Mrs. Langsdorf’s design in 2007 and is on the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said Saturday in an interview. “To be able to reduce something that complex to something so simple and memorable is really a feat of magic.”
It was the first and last magazine cover that Mrs. Langsdorf designed.
Two years later, in 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, and the Cold War began in earnest. The scientists who guided the bulletin — including Mrs. Langsdorf’s husband, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf Jr. — reconfigured the image of the Doomsday Clock by moving its hands four minutes closer to midnight.
In one stroke, Mrs. Langsdorf’s design had been reinvented as a wide-reaching symbol of the age. A powerful idea was expressed in a visual image containing four dots and two lines.
“The scientists decided to use it imaginatively as a metaphor,” Bierut said. “That’s really a complex thing. “To wed this almost childish cliche to this fear of the annihilation of the Earth, that’s really remarkable.”
During World War II, Alexander Langsdorf had helped develop the atomic bomb as a member of the Manhattan Project. After bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, leading to the end of the war, he began to have misgivings. He was one of about 70 scientists who signed a letter to President Harry S. Truman, pointing out the “solemn responsibility” of the United States to control the use of nuclear arms.
Mrs. Langsdorf’s simple visual image entered pop iconography as an element in songs by the Who, Iron Maiden and Bright Eyes. It was featured in novels and nonfiction books and became a near-universal symbol of the dangers lurking in the modern world.
In 2007, Mrs. Langsdorf recalled a visit to Japan with her husband in the 1970s.
“We were on a train that stopped in Hiroshima and everybody gets off to look at the monument,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He didn’t get off the train. He refused to. And he had tears in his eyes, he was so upset at that whole thing.”