The Doomsday Clock Ticks Forward

The Doomsday Clock Ticks Forward

The cover of the "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" with Martyl Langsdorf's clock, 1947.

On January 25, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists made its annual Doomsday Clock announcement. In the words of former Bulletin Executive Director and Publisher Kennette Benedict, the clock symbolizes "how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making."

This year, the Bulletin set the clock at two minutes to midnight. It is the closest the clock has been to midnight since 1953, when both the United States and the Soviet Union had recently tested their first thermonuclear devices. In its statement, the Bulletin cited a number of factors behind its decision, including the progress of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, tense US-Russian relations, and the threat of climate change. "In 2017, world leaders failed to respond effectively to the looming threats of nuclear war and climate change, making the world security situation more dangerous than it was a year ago--and as dangerous as it has been since World War II," it warned.

The Bulletin was founded after the end of World War II by Manhattan Project scientists in Chicago who were concerned about the dangers of nuclear weapons and believed they "could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work." Suzanne Langsdorf, daughter of physicist and Bulletin co-founder Alexander Langsdorf, remembers her father's concerns: "He was very upset by what was going on. He was on a lot of committees, went to a lot of meetings, and he just gave up after a while because people really stopped listening to the worriers."

The Doomsday Clock first appeared on the cover of the Bulletin in 1947. The design was created by artist Martyl Langsdorf, Alexander Langsdorf's wife. As Benedict recounts, Martyl Langsdorf "came up with the idea of a clock, because she felt the urgency that the scientists were expressing... Secrecy was how the bomb was born and secrecy would keep the bomb from being understood by the broad public. This urgency is what she wanted to represent."

“It was the idea of the bewitching hour, the midnight hour, things happening at midnight,” Suzanne Langsdorf adds. “It’s in our consciousness, from fairytales. I always thought it was Cinderella – the coach turns into a pumpkin at midnight. Something’s going to happen at midnight if you aren’t careful. That’s kind of what popped into her mind, and so she did the hands of a clock.”

Martyl Langsdorf's clock has now become an iconic symbol of the nuclear age. The 2018 Doomsday Clock announcement generated headlines around the world, and the Washington Post profiled Martyl Langsdorf as part of its coverage of the announcement. For more information on the Bulletin's history, visit their website or watch AHF's "Ranger in Your Pocket" program on the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory and its legacy.