1953 cartoon about atomic energy

"A is for Atom" is a 1953 science cartoon with a snazzy soundtrack and a genially authoritative narrator. It's about 12 minutes long. A downloadable version of "A is for Atom" is available at Archive.org.


  1. i like how they completely gloss over what SCIENCE! then does with plutonium. This cartoon is extremely interesting.

  2. I can’t help but wonder what made a country that viewed science with such positive attitude and had such bright hopes for the future to reverse course and fall back to basically medeval scientific theories based in religion.

    In most other cases improved understanding of the world around us leads to social and personal enlightenment and increased humanism, not fear and mysticism.

    1. I’ve had a similar question banging around in my head, and I’ll repost here something I blogged about earlier:

      “There was a time when this culture embraced science for science’ sake. Now it seems to be vilified as blasphemous by the religious, and wasteful by the secular. Moon missions don’t feed the poor, and every new scientific advance seems to take us farther and farther from the literal word of the hastily scribbled mystery books upon which western societies have in part been founded. By popular definition “Liberals” think these big scientific endeavors are wasteful because all we need to do is step back from the brink of industrial madness and let Gaia Earth Mother braid our dreadlocks and give us sweet berries and rainbows to eat, and “Conservatives” don’t know what the hell the point is of all this fancy book learning when all you need to do to work at Wal-Mart and not be some sort of god-hating elitist is some basic arithmetic and phonic reading.

      Science is politically uncomfortable, and sociologically uncertain in its plastic certainty, and the beauty of that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.”

      1. Nicely said.

        I sometimes get the feeling that there has been a backlash against science because as well as giving us all the neat toys, it striped bare some of our most cherished delusions and replaced them with a reality that settles the responsibility for our future squarely on our shoulders, and at the same time gave us the means to destroy ourselves. There is something very comforting in the notion that no matter how badly we screw up it is all according to some cosmic plan that will work out in the end.

        Of course, the truth is that if we really screw up, we’re extinct, so we’d better not screw up too badly.

    2. That’s a much bigger question than you might realized squashee. Although there is a lot more to it, these are the two major factors.

      First, how people lost faith in technology. Back in the 1800s people lived the kind of lives you might imagine from a cowboy movie: horses, candle light, outhouses, fireplaces and so on. By the 1920s you could be driving you car on a freeway, working in a sky scraper and calling your girlfriend to go to the movies. At the pace technology was going we’d be living in a utopia in a few decades. Then environmental impact started setting in: the air, land, water and consequently people, were being poisoned. The pace of progress seemed to slow. All the minor technical problems that should have been solved in a few years turned out to be harder than anyone imagined.

      Second, bureaucracy can make people feel they’re not in control of their lives. For example, if you’re sick and want to try a drug, you have to see a doctor. After waiting several days and then going at an inconvenient time to get the doctor’s permission, you have to pay high prices at the pharmacy, deal with side effects that make you sick and the drug may not even work. Another example, religion has become a spectator sport. You go to church and spend most of the time silently listening to long sermons by a preacher, with only minor participation on your part.

      When the fear and hopelessness are combined, it can lead to additional feelings of paranoia and cynicism. For example, how can these companies NOT know the harm they’re doing? They have to hide the truth because they’re making such unimaginably large profits they’d be ruined if the truth got out. Technology starts to seem like the slave/monster that benefits The Powerful and destroys The Weak.

      To regain a sense of control, rather than use a rigorously tested drug, people may may turn to an unproven herbal remedy because it’s cheap, they can decide when to start and stop taking it without needing permission and it’s not a chemical that comes from a dangerous laboratory. They may follow a New Age religion because they can control how and where and what they worship. They might eat organically grown food and/or reject immunizations, to avoid substances that big business may be hiding the dangers of.

      As I said above, these aren’t the only reasons people reject science but I’m trying to keep my comments short. Hopefully I’ve shed some light on the subject.

  3. Maybe it’s just a problem with people seeing benefits?

    I mean, when the atom bomb was still new and amazing, the discoveries came rapidly.. as the video says, major advances in medicine and industry came to be.

    Since then, the science has gotten more difficult to the point that a high school education doesn’t even suffices as an overview. The groundbreaking results are both less frequent, and more impossible to understand. Costs for running experiments have skyrocketed as well.

    I know it’s wrong to ignore science because it’s “too hard”, but I find it hard to blame society for wanting to devote attention (and money) to more visible problems.

    Being an employee at Fermilab, I’ve always found it hard to justify to people (in a way they can appreciate) the significant amount of tax money it takes to keep the lab running. You start talking about theoretical physics and identifying the structure of the universe, and they get glassy-eyed and want to know when it will make their life easier.

  4. I’ll stay out of the real discussion and add this:

    “When I grow up, I’m going to Bovine University!”

  5. On a slightly less serious note, does anyone else think that the nuclear “giants” resemble Dr. Manhattan from the Watchmen?

    I definitely watched a ton of films like this in grade school. Our teachers would pull down a white shade in front of the chalkboard or use one of those easel-screens to show the movie on a reel-to-reel.

  6. This is evidently a cut version — The narrator comes in in the middle of a sentence.

    IMDB lists it at 14 minutes. There’s no way to tell if the two or so missing minutes were cut from the beginning or elsewhere.

    Unless the longer version’s online somewhere…

  7. 240,000 people had died from the atomic bomb that was dropped seven years before this movie was made

  8. I think it’s great how this 57-year-old film is still relevant. It’s a very nice way to explain this process. If this film was done today, it would probably involve a lot more heavy-handed moral lessons. There is a place for that, but not in a science film. The ability to make a film about science without having to be PC may be one reason why people who were educated in the 50s got a better science education than today, even factoring in all we’ve learned since then.

  9. If only we hadn’t let hippy activists funded by oil companies frighten the population into essentially banning the cleanest and safest source of energy yet devised, we would not be worried about global warming, nor oil-funded middle east terrorism and the subsequent wars. Essentially, the two biggest sources of the current worlds problems would not exist.

    Even if you somehow blame the Hiroshima and Nagasaki on nuclear power (despite the fact that nuclear weapons are an entirely different technology than nuclear power)… and factor in the deaths caused by Chernobyl… it wouldn’t get anywhere near deaths caused by a single small oil war in the middle east.

  10. They show an excerpt from this film in the Atomic History Museum in Las Vegas. Besides the Liberace Museum it is the only good reason to visit Vegas. A very good reason.

    1. Having lived in Vegas for 3 years, I say: hear hear! Liberace museum, Atomic Research Museum, and a few good restaurants.

  11. I couldn’t help but notice the first artistic rendering of a mushroom cloud by it’s size compared to the earth would be, and this a guess, produced by the likes of a 100 GT-ton thermonuclear bomb going off*, the cloud reaching into space, beyond low-earth orbiting satellites or even something on the order of the Yucatan asteroid impact.

    I know it’s cheesy and hokey 50’s era hand-painted gels, but still, way to go with the overboard hysteria.

    * [which would be an extremely fascinating, if macabre technical discussion of what would happen if such a super-nuke punched a column of superheated energy straight through the atmosphere into space. Would it be like the opening of a drain in the bathtub, or just create a center of molecular-expansion (i.e. wind); that would pretty much scour the planet? hmm… cheerful subject, huh? Growing up “under the shadow,” of the bomb couldn’t be very psychologically healthy for my fellow MAD-generation(s).

    Cheerio! :-]

    1. …what would happen if such a super-nuke punched a column of superheated energy straight through the atmosphere into space. Would it be like the opening of a drain in the bathtub…

      I’m pretty sure gravity would continue to work even if you set off a “super-nuke”. The air is already at the bottom of the gravity well and unless the blast was big enough to accelerate the air to escape velocity most of it would settle back even with cartoon sized blasts. Maybe when the sun starts throwing off its outer layers near the end will enough energy hit the atmosphere to strip it from the planet.

      I don’t think I’d like to see the idea put to a test though.

    2. I’m going to go with artistic license on that whole mushroom cloud thing. You know, same with the giant glowing man emerging over the horizon…

      Nuclear power will remain in the small minority of power generation until people stop equating radiation with magic.

  12. It’s so weird how the Internet is in love with nuclear power.

    It’s like nobody understands basic thermodynamics… if you use bio-based fuels inside a closed loop dynamic equilibrium, you have least disturbance of the existing environment. If you dig stuff up that is inherently limited in supply and force its energies out of potential and release them into the air as heat (which is where it all ends up, eventually) you cannot possibly fail to readjust the equilibrium in some fashion.

    Humans are too unreliable, lazy and stupid to use nuclear power safely anyway. We’ll always put the process in the hands of the lowest bidder, who will cut costs until there is an accident. That’s how the business cycle works.

    1. Y’know, it looks like nuclear power works pretty well in France. Laziness, unreliability, and stupidity of humans notwithstanding.

      1. @cicada: Would you really trade France’s energy system for ours? It’s completely controlled by a technocratic bureaucracy. Maybe that’s what you’d like in the U.S., but for most Americas, that’s not really compatible with the way they like things to work.

        More generally, I think all these comments about how this video shows that people loved science in the old days and now they’ve turned against it are just total nonsense. This was a propaganda video! The nuclear power industry was in the midst of building social momentum for a technology that had yet to be proven to work, let alone to work at a reasonable cost.

        GE and Westinghouse, which had exclusive access to reactor technologies from their work during WWII, were trying to push reactors to commercialization quickly, so that they could secure dominant positions in the market. All kinds of companies could build coal power plants, but only the big two would end up able to build nuclear power plants.

        The companies — and some parts of the public and scientific establishments that they’d snowed — got so far ahead of themselves that they believed the “rate sheets” for nuclear power that showed ridiculously cheap nuclear power plants would be available soon. The problem was, they’d based their estimates on projections that were themselves built from projections of scale cost reductions. It was like saying, “This costs 100 now, but it’ll cost 10 in a year, and 1 in two years.” So you quote people 1, even though you don’t even have a good idea of how to get from 100 to 50, let alone 10.

        That had all kinds of consequences. With the price of electricity looking like it was going to approach zero (maybe not “too cheap to meter” but substantially cheaper than coal was, is, or will ever be), the economic models of the time said that there’d be ENORMOUS demand for electricity. Soon, the drumbeat was on to build more power plants to “meet future demand” — and find ways of using all that electricity like air conditioning in cold places, electric heating in warm places. And guess who sold all those appliances? GE and Westinghouse.

        When the prices never came down, environmental concerns ramped up, and the slow-footed utilities didn’t realize that consumer demand growth wasn’t anywhere close to where it’d been projected, they got burned. Many utilities were bankrupted by cost overruns building huge plants. That’s one reason no one wants to finance nuclear plants, even with the indemnity the U.S. government provides.

        These old school videos are hilarious and interesting, but they reflect the worldview of a particular set of engineers and scientists, not the entire country. (Coal power plant builders thought the nuclear industry cost projections were total bullshit, for example.) That same set of engineers and scientsts, by and large, is still very pro-nuclear — and they still haven’t dealt with the social problems that have hindered nuclear adoption.

        Alvin Weinberg, former head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory is particularly interesting on this subject in his book, “The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer.” Read it if you can find it.

        I’ve written a lot more about nuclear power and its relationship with electricity generally and green technology specifically here: http://bit.ly/19s0Zr

        1. That’s putting it short and sweet. One of the clearest explanations of the nuclear industry I have ever read.

  13. Lest I have the obvious pointed out to me that I’m seem to be a Pollyanna for thinking we are safer from thermonuclear war (as in ala War Games, Terminator, the Day After, On the Beach, etc, et al, ad nauseum) —

    I believe we are safer, since we gradually pulled back from the hair-trigger alert status of at least a half dozen countries with 10,000 plus nukes at their disposal. Fortunately the major powers decided that the Cold War was unsustainable and obviously logically insane and of course, bankrupting. Billions, nay Trillions have disappeared that could have used to build a paradise on Earth (okay, probably not, but still?) for this insane “biggest stick,” game writ large across the globe.

  14. It’s about financial fraud on a massive global scale. It’s far easier to defraud people who believe in “medieval scientific theories based in religion” than a more enlightened populace.

    The organized demonization of science is promoted by those fraudsters.

  15. Many images from this cartoon were used in “Atomic TV” on NIGHT FLIGHT in the 80s. A real classic of its kind.

  16. squashee: “I can’t help but wonder what made a country that viewed science with such positive attitude and had such bright hopes for the future to reverse course and fall back to basically medeval scientific theories based in religion.”

    — 1950s: “Science can do anything and Mother Nature is our plaything! Let PROGRESS TRIUMPH!”
    — 1960s: “Science can’t make me happy! Mother Nature is our friend! I taught this lion to eat tofu!”
    — 1970s: “Science makes drugs and lasers and those make me happy! Mother nature is part of science!”
    — 1980s: “Science makes me money, and that makes me happy. Mother nature can suck it unless she gives me money, too.”
    — 1990s: “Science makes computers and cell phones and new, designer drugs. These don’t make me happy, but are kind of fun? At least they don’t seem bad. Mother nature is keen, I guess.”
    — 2000s: “Science took a dump in my corn flakes. There’s plutonium in the river and oil in the sea and I have to buy a new $1,000 computer every two years while those guys from the ’80’s keep making money. Also, mother nature seems to hate us, and is killing us with disease and tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes. It’s all hopeless and all I can do is either blog about it, or pray about it, and try to feel a little less alone in the world. Oh God, we’re all going to die alone of cancer or natural disaster, everything is compromised, and I am an empty shell of a consumer. Somebody, please, fill me with Meaning!”
    — 2010s: Cephalopods evolve telepathy. Game Over.

  17. What I want to know is why we stopped developing the technology? Have any of you heard of Thorium reactors? No? Look it up. We need this kind of innovation.

  18. BTW, IIRC this film is on a loop at the Atomic Testing Museum in Vegas…

    Another museum you may not be familiar with, but enjoy quite a bit, is the National Crypto Museum in Ft. Meade, MD. Yep, it’s adjacent to the NSA building..

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