Gaming The Atomic Age

The international hazard warning trefoil for radiation. The first radiation trefoil was used in 1946 at UC Berkeley, and was originally magenta on a blue background.

The international hazard warning trefoil for radiation. The first radiation trefoil was used in 1946 at UC Berkeley, and was originally magenta on a blue background.

Few things hold the sort of allure that our own world’s history does. Gaming can give us the opportunity to step backward in time, becoming a secret part of history. The Atomic Age isn’t all that far off from our own, and its links to the present still endure. If we wind back the lock in a game, characters may be the spies and smugglers who saved scientists, shadowy government bureaucrats, reporters, engineers. There’s more roles than that in the Atomic Age, but even the grocery clerk in a mysterious government town could play a role in the shape of things to come. At any decade of the Atomic Age, you can use, remix or adjust history in games based in the real world. Whether you’re a GM or a player, consider this your whirlwind tour of the Atomic Age.

Man With a Silver Tongue

When journalist William L. Laurence coined the phrase “atomic age,” he was working for the New York Times. He saw Trinity, while standing next to Richard Feynman. He saw the bombing of Nagasaki. Laurence was the only journalist afforded that close contact with the project. But his expenses were covered by the War Department, so his reporting, from the view afforded by the present day, has to be taken with an exceptionally large grain of salt due to that ethics situation.

Theories In The Dark

There are a handful of scientists you can use as your jump-off point to research the early years of the Atomic era. This list is in by no means exhaustive, so think of it as a post-it note dose of people to start with.

  • Henri Becquerel
  • Marie Curie
  • Ernest Rutherford
  • Albert Einstein

Becquerel and Curie noticed the strange emanations (radioactivity) of uranium (Becquerel) and thorium (Curie). Einstein’s special theory of relativity explained some of the phenomenon of radioactivity, Rutherford brought up the possibility of atomic energy and came up with a theory about atomic nucleus structure. These developments (and the birth of the Atomic age) run from 1896-1911. These works are a foundation of what becomes the understanding and use of nuclear sciences. Without Curie, it’s possible the development of x-rays for medical use would have taken longer, which means none of the soldiers she put through x-rays in WWI after their injuries would have been given that additional diagnostic chance at life. We can theorize all we want about how and when x-rays would have progressed without her, but the world would be undeniably different without that side benefit of her research. Niels Bohr was active in this period, and his model of the atom is something you may have seen over and over again without knowing its origin or his work, which intersected with that of Ernest Rutherford.

From 1932-1942, research and theories begin to rapidly accumulate. Ida Noddack was the first scientist to put forth the concept of nuclear fission, in 1934. Lise Meitner, with her nephew Otto Frisch, were the first to publish a theortetical intreptation of nuclear fission (the term was created by her nephew). James Chadwick discovers the neutron, Enrico Fermi conducts research that leads to the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Nuclear chain reactions are part of what makes our nuclear power plants possible.

Leona Woods (you may find her listed in some places as Leona Marshall Libby) was a physicist who contributed to the building of the first nuclear reactor and the first atomic bomb. Fermi was her mentor, and she worked alongside him and a number of other scientists on the Manhattan Project.

Arms Race

Amidst all of the research and experimentation going on in the United States, the nuclear weapons arm race was occuring in Germany, Japan, and Russia. These programs, and their increasing devotion of resources, cause Albert Einstein and Leó Szilárd to send a letter to President Roosevelt. It emphasized that the U.S. needed to get involved in atomic bomb research. Roosevelt puts an order into effect in December of 1941 to join the race to completing an atom bomb.


The Manhattan Project

The American effort to build an atomic bomb required multiple sites and a massive number of scientists, engineers, military personnel, and a dizzying array of support staff.  Sites in the United States of historic note in the Manhattan Project:

  • Oak Ridge, Tennessee
  • Los Alamos, New Mexico
  • Argonne, Illinois
  • Hanford, Washington State

There were over a dozen sites involved with the Manhattan Project, but those four are arguably the most famous. There were a handful of locations outside the U.S. as well. The U.K. and Canada also played a role in Manhattan Project information sharing and research. To emphasize the massive scope of a single cite, the Hanford reactor had a boomtown attatched to it to deal with the workload, and it employed 900 buses to move workers around the area, a larger transportation fleet than the city of Chicago’s. More than 50,000 employees worked at the reactor on behalf of the Manhattan Project, with a sizable number of those same men and women bringing (or starting) families with them when they moved to the site.

Trinity’s Children

The Trinity test occurred on July 16th, 1945. The atomic bomb they tested exploded, and the iconic mushroom cloud created that day from the blast has been immortalized in scientific literature and popular culture. On August 6th of the same year, America would drop two atomic bombs on Japan, just a handful of days apart. Manhattan Project sites, like the reactor at Hanford, contributed the atomic payload that made up the bombs known by the codenames Fat Man and Little Boy. The death tolls were immense,with Hiroshima’s only starting at an initial dead toll of 40,000, those killed during the bomb drop. Thousands more would die from radiation exposure. More than 60,000 would die when Nagasaki was bombed.

Until the bombing of the Japanese, less than 1% of Hanford personnel knew they’d been working on nuclear weapons. As of 2013, those two atomic bombs are the only nuclear weapons used in history.

After The Bombs Dropped

In terms of espionage, politics and warfare, the atomic bombing of Japan was not the end of atomic research and arms races. Nuclear energy was the Utopian fantasy of nuclear proponents, while the horrifying images of the bombing of Japan acted as counter-argument to the operation of nuclear reactors. Fall out shelters are constructed and children have nuclear war drills. Irradiating food  is found to is found to slow down spoiling of perishables, nuclear medicine continues to advance. Nuclear weapons programs spread across the globe. The Cuban Missile crisis happened.

In the post-war period, there was a utopian hope that nuclear energy would wipe out our use of coal and oil. The farther you get from that initial post-war period, that sense of nuclear optimism dies. And that optimism dies with lives lost to nuclear events. Due to the effects of radiation, those death tolls are also slow moving throughout decades, a terrible form of living history. Incredible groups of people have emerged after some of the critical nuclear events, such as the Liquidators at Chernobyl, and the Fukushima 50 of the Fukushima reactor in Japan. The understanding of the consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear power is continually evolving, and there is no perfect clear picture of what comes next.

The Shape of Things To Come

People talk about the Atomic Age with a sense of it having passed into history, an age of deadly naivete and optimism. Wherever you mark its start or its ending, there are still others who say it isn’t done yet. That we are the inheritors of the Atomic Age, and it’s up to us to decide what that may mean. If you bring the issues of the Atomic Age into a game, that concept of history yet to be written may appeal the most to your players. With the giants of history behind them, it will be up to those brave characters to see the Atomic Age to its true end, whatever—and when ever—that may be.

If you’ve used elements of the Atomic Age in your games, I’d love to hear about them! You can also leave recommendations for atomic age documentaries, books and other historic sources for folks who want to use the era in their games, or simply to learn more about the birth of nuclear science.




About l

L is a freelancer currently working as a writer, editor, journalist and game designer. She hauls a suitcase decorated in stickers as she blogs, travels, and tours. She makes her home in Washington, California, and wherever the tour stopped last night. You can follow L on twitter (@lilyorit )

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