I’m not sure exactly how I came to be on its mailing list, but for the past decade my inbox frequently pings with email blasts from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In the right-hand corner of each email is the emblem showing the top-left quadrant of a clock face with the hour hand on 12 and the minute hand between 11 and 12. An accompanying slogan ominously reads: “It is 100 Seconds to Midnight.” This is the symbol for what the editors branded the “Doomsday Clock.” Although its simple graphic presence sends chills up my spine— and the words “atomic” and “doomsday” trigger nightmarish imagery—I’ve never unsubscribed. Nor have I ever had the urge to dig deeper into the origin of this newsletter or its prophetic Doomsday Clock.
With the recent publication of The Doomsday Clock at 75 by Robert K. Elder and J.C. Gabel (Hat and Beard Press), at last I am formally introduced to a history of a symbol that for some reason is arguably less well-known than other popular cautionary signs.
“The Doomsday Clock is many things all at once: It’s a metaphor, it’s a logo, it’s a brand, and it’s one of the most recognizable symbols of the past 100 years,” write Elder and Gabel in the introduction to their fascinating origin story.
The ominous clock was designed in June 1947 by Chicago landscape artist Martyl Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf, who went by the mononym Martyl, for the cover of the nonprofit Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the same publication that I have been receiving in a digital format. “The Clock sits at the crossroads of science and art,” they add, “and therefore communicates an immediacy that few other forms can. As designer Michael Bierut says, the Clock is ‘the most powerful piece of information design of the 20th century.’ The Doomsday Clock has permeated not only the media landscape, but also culture itself.”
The book documents iterations and the modern manner in which the clock is used visually and linguistically. The slogan “It is 100 seconds to midnight” has been adopted into the global vernacular. “When it first appeared, Martyl’s Clock was simply called ‘the Clock’ or the ‘Bulletin’s Clock,’” the authors write. “In 1917 American poet Vachel Lindsay wrote, ‘The fatal hour is striking in all the doomsday clocks.” J. Robert Oppenheimer, perhaps the most tormented of the scientist/inventors of the atom bomb, wrote about a metaphorical “atomic clock” in the pages of the Bulletin in 1953. He’s quoted as saying, “conflict, tension and armaments are to be with us. The trouble then is just this: During this period the atomic clock ticks faster and faster. We may anticipate a state of affairs in which two great powers will each be in a position to put an end to the civilization and life of the other, though not without risking its own. We may be likened to two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.”
The clock is a terrifying specter in the popular imagination, and such a familiar shorthand for the end of days that in 2021 it was added to the Oxford Dictionary. “One unobtrusive indicator of how popular the Clock is in the imaginations of people is how many people have tried to essentially steal it,” continue the authors, who have done a thorough job of examining how the time on the Clock has changed over the years, and how different designers (and artists in general) have interpreted it as “a symbol of danger during an [ultra-dangerous] period of world history when the bomb alone is not the only countdown symbolized by this image.”