The doomsday clock, which now reflects international security status, is one of the best-known symbols of nuclear danger. Originally referred to as the Bulletin Clock or the Clock of Doom, it debuted in the June 1947 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a publication founded in 1945 by Chicago-area scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the first atomic bomb. The Bulletin was designed as a forum to explore the implications of the new power these scientists and their colleagues had unleashed.
Originally in a newsletter format, the publication developed into a magazine. At the request of cofounder Dr. Hyman H. Goldsmith, artist Martyl Langsdorf, the wife of physicist Alexander Langsdorf, created the design. Better known for her landscapes, the artist hit upon “the idea of using a clock to symbolize urgency.” Langsdorf had planned on repeating the image of the upper-left quadrant of a clock face, with the minute hand approaching midnight, every month with a different background color. She drew her first sketch on the back of a bound volume of Beethoven sonatas. She credited “good design” as the deciding factor to start the clock at 7 minutes to midnight. The idea of moving the minute hand came later, in 1949, as a way to dramatize the Bulletin’s response to world events. The clock dominated most Bulletin covers until 1964. Langsdorf updated the clock’s design once more in 1989 by placing its hands on the globe.
Between 1947 and 2007, the minute hand has been moved back and forth 18 times. The first movement was to 3 minutes to midnight to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s explosion of its first atomic bomb. In 1953, the doomsday clock read 2 minutes to midnight to emphasize the Soviet Union’s and the United States’ testing of thermonuclear devices within 9 months of each other. The most peaceful movement occurred in 1991 when the doomsday clock was set back to 17 minutes to midnight. The United States and the Soviet Union had signed the long-stalled Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and announced further unilateral reductions in tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. In 2007, the minute hand moved for the 18th time. Five minutes to midnight was based on the United States’ and Soviet Union’s continued ability to stage a nuclear attack within minutes. North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, and many were worried that Iran had plans to acquire the bomb. The challenge of climate change and its toll on ecosystems was also factored in.
See also End-Time, Beliefs in; Extinction; Nuclear Winter; Time, End of; Time, Measurements of
Boyer, P. (1985). By the bomb’s early light: American thought and culture at the dawn of the atomic age. New York: Pantheon.
Moore, M. (1995). Midnight never came. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 51(6), 16-27.