Pulp SF magazine's role in atom bomb

George Pendle, author of the terrific bio of rocket scientist Jack Parsons, wrote a nice piece about an SF story in Astounding Science Fiction magazine that did such a good job of predicting the atom bomb that it got the story's author in hot water with the US government.

The story in Astounding that had caused such uproar in the Manhattan Project was typical of science fiction yarns of the time. Written by author Cleve Cartmill it was called Deadline and described an earth-like planet, in which a commando, albeit one with a prehensile tail, was assigned to destroy a giant bomb. The story was packed with technical data describing "atomic isotope separation methods" and the dangers of being able to control the explosion of a U-235 bomb. While the bomb described in the story didn't exactly resemble that being constructed in Los Alamos, the story's descriptions of difficulties in separating uranium into fissionable and non-fissionable isotopes did speak of one of the major problems currently under investigation at the Manhattan Project. The federal authorities believed that these references could only have come from classified research.

Counter-intelligence agents were immediately sent round to Cartmill's house in Los Angeles, but Cartmill assigned all blame to his editor, Campbell, who had provided him with the technical details. When Campbell was asked how he had come upon such classified information he explained that he was a physics graduate from MIT, and that he had come up with the idea by basing all his suppositions on information freely available to the public. He calmly showed where he had found out about Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman's discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 and how he had worked through the normal extrapolation process so common in his magazine's stories.


Reader comment: Deb says: Your posting on cites a fairly recent article about Cleve Cartmill's best-known SF short story. But for more depth on the whole affair, see Bob Silverberg's notes in Asimov's here and here."

Reader comment: Dead Programmer says: I wrote an article about this a while back.

"William Jenkins aka Murray Leinster was in a rather unique position at
the time – he was both a sci-fi writer and worked for the War
department. In an introduction to one of his books he described this
atom bomb episode:

"During the late lamented World War Two, the FBI had occasion to check
on me. They decided that I wasn't subversive, and made due note of the
fact. As a consequence, one day I had a telephone call. A voice said
pleasantly that it was the FBI calling, and they'd like to talk to me.
I searched my conscience hurriedly, and then asked where I should come
to talk. The voice said graciously that he'd come to see me. He did.
In a hurry. With a companion.

One was a large man with a patient expression, and the other was quite
young and looked rather shy. They produced credentials and proved who
they were, and I obligingly proved who I was, and then one of them
said, "Tell me, have you ever read the Cleve Cartmill story,

I said I had. The larger FBI man asked interestedly, "What did you think of it?"

"A pretty good story," I said, "and the science is authentic. Quite accurate."

Then there was a pause. A rather long pause. Then he sighed, and
reluctantly inquired, "Well, what we want to know is: could it be a

"At this point my hair stood up on end and its separate strands tended
to crack like whiplashes. Because 'Deadline,' by Cleve Cartmill, was a
story about an atomic bomb, and this was a year before Hiroshima. The
bomb in the story was made of uranium-235, it was to explode when a
critical mass was attained, and there were other details. The story
described most minutely the temperature of an atom-bomb explosion, the
deadly radiation, the lingering aftereffects, the shock-wave, the
heat-effect, and all the rest of the phenomena that a year later were
observed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But I was being asked about it
before Hiroshima, and the Manhattan Project was perhaps the most
completely hush-hush of all the hush-hush performances of the war."

"He, himself became pretty famous for predicting a slew of things,
inluding the Internet in his 1946 story 'A Logic Named Joe.' Unlike
many other sci-fi writers Jenkins not only invented things in his
novels, but also in real life. He is the father of rear projection

… You know the Logics set-up. You got a Logic in your house. It
looks like a vision-receiver used to, only it's got keys instead of
dials and you punch the keys for what you wanna get. It's hooked in to
the Tank, which has the Carson Circuit all fixed up with relays. Say
you punch "Station SNAFU" on your Logic. Relays in the Tank take over
an' whatever vision-program SNAFU is telecastin comes on your Logic's
screen. Or you punch "Sally Hancock's Phone" an the screen blinks an
sputters an' you're hooked up with the Logic in her house an' if
somebody answers you got a vision-phone connection. …