The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The making of the Doomsday Clock: Art, science and the atomic apocalypse

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The dust had settled from World War II, and some scientists at the University of Chicago, a few of whom had been instrumental in creating an atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project, were voicing misgivings — discussing, debating and putting their concerns in a pamphlet called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

It was 1947, and the Bulletin was turning into a magazine.

Its creators were searching for an artist to illustrate its cover, and Martyl Langsdorf accepted the challenge. Needing to find a way to convey urgency, she came up with a clock.

In June 1947, it appeared on the cover of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — a simple black-and-white clock over an electric orange background.

Langsdorf set the hands to seven minutes to “midnight.”

She made the decision “both because of the urgency that it conveyed and also because of the tick, tick, tick, tick nature of it — that it would move toward midnight unless we could push it the other way,” Rachel Bronson, president and chief executive of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said Thursday in an interview.

Over the past seven decades, the symbolic ticker has tocked between two and 17 minutes until destruction — a metaphorical measure of humankind’s proximity to global catastrophe. Each year, scientists and nuclear experts grapple over the state of geopolitical affairs and use the clock to try to illustrate it.

“When we set it, we think about two things: We think about, ‘How should we set the clock compared to last year?’ but we also think about, ‘How does it compare to history?’ ” Bronson told The Washington Post.

The Doomsday Clock just moved: It’s now 2 minutes to ‘midnight,’ the symbolic hour of the apocalypse

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists advanced the storied Doomsday Clock a notch closer to the end of humanity during its annual announcement Thursday, moving the minute hand ahead 30 seconds. The time is now two minutes to the apocalyptic “midnight” hour — with the group citing “the failure of President Trump and other world leaders to deal with looming threats of nuclear war and climate change.”

Langsdorf, the clock’s creator, was married to Alexander Langsdorf Jr., a nuclear physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb for the Manhattan Project during World War II.

“The publication known as the BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS came into being as a pamphlet in December 1945,” Martyl Langsdorf said in a history about the clock on the Bulletin’s website.

“It was published as a direct response by concerned scientists to the social implications of the bomb.”

She said as the publication was transforming, co-founder Hyman Goldsmith asked her for help.

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“There was no money available for different monthly covers or any art work at all,” she said. “By this time I had had numerous exhibitions of my drawings and painting around the United States, [so] Goldsmith thought me the logical one to help launch the BULLETIN as a full-fledged magazine.”

Kennette Benedict, a senior adviser to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said in a 2013 column that the artist initially thought about designing a cover using a “U” to represent uranium. But, “as she listened more intently to their conversations,” Benedict added, “she soon realized that it was the atomic scientists’ urgency about the looming dangers of this new technology that was most compelling.

“So she drew the hands of a clock ticking down to midnight. Like the countdown to an atomic bomb explosion, it suggested the destruction that awaited if no one took action to stop it,” Benedict said.

In her written history about the clock, Langsdorf called that idea her most “significant” design.

She first sketched the clock on the back of a copy of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, Langsdorf writes. “My idea was to repeat the clock every month on a different color background … the first color being bright orange to catch the eye.”

“The June 1947 issue was the subsequent result and the clock became the logo of the BULLETIN. We moved the clock’s hands forwards and backwards as the times indicated,” she added.

After Langsdorf’s death in 2013, The Post’s Matt Schudel reported:

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.

What was once a static image had become a dynamic illustration.

Schudel added:

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.

Bronson, the Bulletin’s president, said the publication credits Langsdorf for the Doomsday Clock.

“I think the power of the clock is that it was created by an artist,” she said. “It was an artist who deeply understood the scientists — these were her friends and her husband — she was very engaged in the issues they were studying.

“But the power of the clock is that it’s accessible. It’s a way for all of us to talk about these issues.”

Read more:

Martyl Langsdorf, designer of Doomsday Clock, dies at 96