Designing the Unthinkable

Martyl, cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists featuring the first Doomsday Clock, 1947.

Michael Bierut

Designing the Unthinkable

In 1943, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf Jr. was summoned to Chicago to work on a secret project, a nationwide effort called the Manhattan Project, becoming one of the thousands of scientists who would be consumed, day and night for two years, by the race to create an atomic bomb. They were a success: their scientific work made possible the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II. But, like many of his fellow scientists, with that success came profound ambivalence. What were the social and political implications of this powerful new weapon? How would its use be controlled? And what did it mean that the human race had invented the means to render itself extinct?

To gain a wider audience for their ideas, Langsdorf joined other concerned colleagues in publishing of a new magazine, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Langsdorf’s wife Martyl was not a scientist. She was a successful landscape painter, known in the gallery world by her first name. Her fame was even greater within her husband’s circle. As she once said, “I was the only artist these scientists ever knew.” So it was inevitable that when the Bulletin‘s founder, Hyman Goldsmith, needed a cover design for the magazine, he turned to Martyl. It was a low budget job, two colors, a lot of type. There wasn’t much extra room, but Martyl wanted to include an image that would somehow suggest the urgency of their cause. She did a number of sketches and finally hit on something she thought would work. And it did work. In fact, it might be considered the most powerful piece of information design of the 20th century. It became known as the Doomsday Clock.

For more than fifty years, arguments against nuclear proliferation have been contentious and complicated. The Doomsday Clock translates all the arguments to a simple — a brutally simple — visual analogy. The Clock suggests imminent apocalypse by marrying the looming approach of midnight and the tense countdown of a ticking time bomb. Appropriately for an organization led by scientists, the Clock sidesteps the overwrought drama of the mushroom cloud in favor of the cool mechanics of an instrument of measurement. The Clock was Martyl’s idea, but she admitted she had help from a friend, Egbert Jacobson, design director of Container Corporation of America. Jacobsen suggested that the clock appear in the same design but a different color background on every issue.

There was one last crucial suggestion. Martyl had set the minute hand at seven to midnight on that first cover “simply because it looked good.” Two years later, the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear device and the arms race was officially launched. “We do not advise Americans that doomsday is near and that they can expect atomic bombs to start landing on their heads a month or a year from now,” wrote the Bulletin‘s editors. “But we think they have reason to be deeply alarmed and to be prepared for grave decisions.” To emphasize the seriousness of the moment, the Clock was moved forward to three minutes to midnight. The static graphic emblem was thus transformed into a sort of political performance art, and the clock has been moved 18 times since, each time signifying an intensification or moderation of nuclear tensions.

With each change, Martyl’s Clock became more deeply entrenched in the public imagination. The Doomsday Clock has been referenced in songs by Iron Maiden, The Who, and Bright Eyes. As a theme it dominates Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen and Senator Tom Harkin’s treatise Five Minutes to Midnight. Over the years, the non-specific simplicity of the symbol was able to accommodate the new threats of climate change and bioterrorism. Finally, in 2007 (with — full disclosure — some advice from Armin Vit and me) the Bulletin’s publishers adopted the clock as their organization’s official identity.

The power of the Doomsday Clock was demonstrated again today. Citing “a more hopeful state of world affairs,” the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board moved the Clock’s hand back by one minute as the world watched live online. “For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material,” said the Board. “And for the first time ever, industrialized and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable.” There is cause for cautious relief, but the threat remains, and Martyl’s Doomsday Clock continues to tick. It is now six minutes to midnight.