The atomic age

The explosion of an atomic bomb above Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 came as a shock to Australians. The existence of the weapon was a well-contained secret – physicist Sir Mark Oliphant was one of the only Australians directly associated with the atomic bomb project – and the front pages of Australia’s newspapers were accordingly full of fear and wonder.

On 9 August, the Melbourne Argus reported: ‘The terrific effects of the atomic bomb were admitted by Tokyo Radio yesterday when it reported that all living things, both human and animal, were seared to death by the bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima on Monday.’

That same day a second atomic bomb exploded over Nagasaki.

Then, on 15 August, nine days after the attack on Hiroshima, Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender.

Newsreels of prime minister Ben Chifley’s tour of Japan the following year soon personalised nuclear warfare for Australians.

In July 1946, just short of a year after the Japanese drops, the blasts were reprised: the United States detonated two atomic bombs (‘Able’ and ‘Baker’) in the Bikini Atoll lagoon, 6000 kilometres to the northeast of Australia.

The Bikini tests were covered live on Australian radio, exhaustively filmed at sea level and captured in aerial photographs. ‘Radio pictures’ (faxes) appeared on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald on 2 July, the day after the first explosion, and newsreel footage was in Australian cinemas as early as 19 July. The Mercury in Hobart presciently reported: ‘The atomic age will be the age of poison. Even the peaceful use of atomic power will generate deadly rays and radioactive particles.’

As the atomic fallout and radioactive seawater from the Bikini tests slowly circled the planet, Australia’s two newspaper syndicates, owned by Keith Murdoch and Frank Packer respectively, sourced and sponsored a British-designed ‘Atomic Age’ exhibition that would travel to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

The original exhibition had been initiated by the Daily Express and was held at Dorland Hall, London, in January 1947. It was curated by Chapman Pincher, the paper’s science and defence correspondent, and reflected growing anxieties in the immediate post-war years. The British had been denied access to the atomic bomb technology by their closest ally, fuelling tensions in the lead up to the Cold War.

The United States had a monopoly on the weapon from as early as December 1945, but Allied intelligence reported that the USSR was making ‘great efforts’ to develop the technology. In an attempt to head off certain proliferation, the so-called Baruch Plan was presented to the United Nations in June 1946 by the United States. But its terms were rejected by the Soviets, who exploded their first bomb, ‘Joe-I’, three years later.

The Atomic Age opened in Brisbane on 14 August 1947 as part of the ‘Ekka’ (the Royal Queensland Show). Its drawcard was a recreation of the Hiroshima explosion using a son et lumière display. The impact of these A-bomb presentations led Brisbane’s Courier-Mail to warn that children under the age of twelve years would not be admitted.

The exhibition comprised three sections: the science of the bomb; the physical effects of the five bombs detonated by 1947; and the immediate and future benefits of atomic energy.

The Cold War anxieties of the British exhibition were carried through to Brisbane, both in the graphic presentation and the accompanying text. The keepsake catalogue produced by the Courier-Mail foregrounded the threat of attack and the physical effects of an atomic bomb explosion:

A piece of uranium is like a machine gun. Bursts of high speed atomic ‘bullets’ are continually triggered off by stray neutrons in the air. These, together with gamma rays [and] super x-rays also produced by splitting atoms, can destroy flesh.

It also warned that uranium-235 must be shielded by dense concrete to avoid these ‘bullets’ and ‘death rays’.

The catalogue featured a simplistic sketch of the bomb, but emphasised that the exhibition itself would display ‘An accurate working model of the atomic bomb’.

To add verisimilitude to the section devoted to the bombing of the Japanese cities, the display featured an extensive audio-visual experience that began with a ‘blinding flash’ and footage of atomic explosions. The Courier-Mail reported:

The highlight of the exhibition is the reconstructed bombing of Hiroshima. By means of animated models and sound track, the dropping of the first atomic bomb to be used in war will be re-enacted every few minutes whilst the exhibition is open.

No doubt reeling from the son et lumière of an atomic blast, patrons were funnelled into an optimistic illustrated review of the benefits of nuclear power in energy production, medicine and scientific research – protected, of course, by several metres of concrete impenetrable to the ‘death rays’ of atomic energy.

When the conclusion of the Ekka neared, it was announced that the exhibition would be extended. And although the Courier-Mail continued to encourage requests from school groups, it reminded readers that the exhibit was not suitable for young children.

The exhibition’s next stop was Melbourne, where it opened at the Royal Exhibition Building in the summer of 1948.

The exhibition was radically reshaped before the launch. The Brisbane catalogue had reproduced, in near facsimile form, the Cold War text from London. The cover artwork was lifted from the Daily Express publication with only slight modifications (a new mushroom-shaped cloud was pasted in).

In Melbourne, where the exhibition had been rebranded the ‘Atomic Age and Industrial Exhibition’, the catalogue cover featured an unusual personification of atomic energy, described by nuclear historian Tim Sherratt as an ‘atomic genie … emerging from the atomic cloud … electrons whizzing around his head like bush flies’.

The Victorian organisers also had reservations about the inherited catalogue text. Kim Keane, a journalist for the Herald, re-wrote it under the guidance of professors LH Martin and H Rathgeber of the University of Melbourne and Dr CE Eddy of the Commonwealth X-ray and Radium Laboratories. The updated introduction reported that ‘an attempt has been made, despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to place the emphasis primarily on the constructive aspect of atomic energy’.

Keane’s catalogue essay delivered a detailed narrative of atomic discoveries as well as profiles of scientists and laboratories, and in doing so reduced the deadly consequences of the Japanese bombings to a minimum.

The Herald also revised the Sturm und Drang exhibition design, resulting in a somewhat perplexingly juxtaposition of Victorian products and industry with the development and use of the atomic bomb. The result was surreal boosterism: Melbourne’s toy manufacturers and pesticide retailers spruiked atomic-themed products such as ‘atom power toys’ (‘Any little Atom can push them along’) and KIX DDT spray (‘Flies know the Atomic Age is here when KIX hits them!’).

The Melbourne public’s enthusiasm for the scholarly display was muted and attendances were modest.

After Melbourne’s lacklustre showing, the Sydney version returned to the darker themes of the original exhibition. Sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, the exhibition opened in March 1948 in the Manufacturers’ Hall at the Royal Easter Show with a purpose-built cinema that could hold 470 patrons.

While the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph retained the ‘atomic genie’ cover for the new catalogue, the text reverted to the Brisbane version, jettisoning the scientific narrative developed in Melbourne. The exhibition and catalogue also featured an aerial photograph outlining the section of central Sydney (from the northern shore of Botany Bay to Circular Quay) that would be destroyed by the power of a Hiroshima-scale atom bomb.

The Australian Women’s Weekly gave its approval to the dramatic experience:

[The] highlight of the [Sydney] exhibition is a 265-square-foot (24.6 square metres) arrangement showing the atomic horror of Hiroshima. A recorded description, aided by flashing lights, gives a vivid impression of the bombing and its catastrophic effects. An accurate working model of the bomb itself will also be on display … Rounding off the exhibition is a free cinema show in a specially built theatrette seating 470. Films to be shown include captured Japanese documentaries made after the atomic bomb explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Although mimicking much of the Brisbane exhibition, the Sydney version elevated the levels of angst and fear by introducing a compilation of British Pathé newsreels, including footage of the fourth explosion at Bikini Atoll. Titled ‘Experiment with Death’, the compilation began with a scrolling introduction:

The Daily and Sunday Telegraph present these Pathé Newsreels as a grim reminder of the enormous destructive power of the Atomic Bomb. In the exhibition which you have just seen we attempted to show you, simply and unemotionally, something of the nature of atomic energy, its application in war and its future industrial possibilities. Science has given us an incalculable new force in atomic energy. It is the responsibility of us all to see that it is used to benefit man, not used for destruction.

The narrator described the Bikini Atoll explosion as a ‘heaving maelstrom of steaming water’ that brought ‘atomic death’ to all those within its range, explaining that the atom bomb ‘kills by heat, by its blast and its terrible radiation which penetrates the thickest concrete’.

[A]nimals were later to die mysterious deaths from the deadly effects of gamma rays, so great is the danger that many people have lost all hope. … Think for a moment of what it could do to Australian cities – one bomb: 80,000 dead in Sydney, half a million homeless in Melbourne; one bomb: Adelaide or Brisbane or Hobart in utter ruins.

The exhibition received considerable attention in Sydney. Daily attendance to the Royal Easter Show was in excess of 100,000 visitors per day, with 121,600 on the opening day.

Nonetheless, Sydney proved to be the exhibition’s last hurrah.

Even though the exhibition – with its models of Hiroshima, replicas of the atomic bomb and small sample of uranium-235 – was discontinued, the expression ‘atomic age’ had been implanted in the nation’s consciousness.

During the immediate post-war period, Australian clerics such as Rev. JR Blanchard, head of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, thundered from their pulpits that ‘only the Church could answer the challenge of the atomic age’. The nation’s clergy were fluent in the language of the apocalypse. In Brisbane, Rev. FT Smith warned that ‘unless we repent, what happened to Japanese cities is likely to happen to ours’. Sydney’s Rev. A Walker, a Methodist, warned that ‘unless man adjusts his living and the purposes of his institutions to God’s will, a quick end of civilization … will result’.

Unwilling to trust in science or God’s capricious mercies, the nation’s political leaders began to explore more practical strategies. In 1948, as the Cold War continued to gather intensity, candid reports on the physical effects of atomic explosions appeared at the highest government levels.

In January of that year, the Canberra Times reported:

Startling disclosures regarding the effects of newly developed weapons were made to Cabinet yesterday … Top-secret information on the effects of high explosive bomb damage in London and atomic bomb damage at Bikini and Hiroshima communicated to the Australian Government through Britain and America stressed the need for the dispersal of vital industries.

The spreading out of industry and government agencies to protect the nation from missile and bomb attack became an immediate concern. CB Cutler, leader of the NSW Country Party, emphasised the need for decentralisation in a speech from late 1948:

[W]e should be giving urgent attention to the need for decentralisation. Virtually all of our industrial undertakings have been concentrated on the seaboard. All our industrial eggs have been placed in one basket, where they will be most susceptible to the atomic bomb.

Encouraged by Cutler’s address, rural newspaper Farmer and Settler editorialised that the threat of atomic war could act as an incentive for citizens to live in the country.

Similarly, the Cairns Post reported that moves had been made towards decentralisation:

The Commonwealth Government has decided that steps shall be taken to protect industry and public utilities from atomic and guided-missile attack. This may involve a complete recasting of plans for the future development of cities and major towns throughout Australia.

The need for atomic shelters was also placed on the national agenda. HH Kane, of the Commonwealth Department of Works, had been briefed by the 1948 Cabinet report on the physical effects of the Japanese blasts and subsequently ‘advocated the widest dispersal of industry, the erection of underground factories and offices, for essential undertakings and lowering population density as far as possible.’ He told a gathering of the Institute of Engineers of Australia in mid 1949 that the ‘only safe place for anything is well underground’.

Informed by the Commonwealth’s specialist reports and the promise of government funding, the first wave of bomb shelter construction began in 1950. Shelters were established for the Melbourne Telephone Exchange, two Commonwealth office buildings in Brisbane and the Administration Building in Canberra (now the John Garton Building).

Yet in the five years following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts – despite the ‘startling disclosures’ of the Commonwealth-commissioned studies from atomic bomb specialists; despite the pulpit histrionics; despite the sombre warnings of the USSR’s first atomic bomb test; and despite the terror tour of the Atomic Age exhibition – Australia’s social and political responses never approached a critical mass.

After some enthusiasm for a Commonwealth-funded bomb shelter program for government offices, the initiative fizzled under the pressure of budget shortcomings. And although Canberra established its atomic shelter in the Parliamentary Triangle, there are no records to suggest bomb drills were held or that the shelter was stocked or supplied.

Did the Atomic Age exhibition inspire a revulsion against atomic bombs or atomic bomb testing? It does not seem so.

The unspoken intent of the Atomic Age exhibition was to induce anxiety, evoking the physical manifestations of fear and then calming those emotions with the soothing application of scholarship and scientific certitude. In that respect, the exhibition paved the way for Australian acceptance of the twelve British nuclear tests conducted in West Australia and South Australia, and laid down the footings for the nation’s British-supported nuclear reactor program at Lucas Heights, NSW.


An earlier version of this paper was delivered at the Unnatural Futures conference, Tasmanian College of the Arts, Hobart, 2–4 July 2014.


Michael Bogle

Michael Bogle is a historian specialising in modernist Australian architecture and design. He is an occasional tutor in the Faculty of the Built Environment, University of New South Wales.

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