The Iconic Design of the Doomsday Clock Was Created 75 Years Ago: It Now Says We’re 100 Seconds to Midnight

Image via The Bul­letin of the Atom­ic Sci­en­tists

Last year, the fates hand­ed the New York Times’ Maria Cramer an envi­ably strik­ing lede: “Human­i­ty is 100 sec­onds away from total anni­hi­la­tion. Again.” That we all know imme­di­ate­ly what she was writ­ing about speaks to the pow­er of graph­ic design. Specif­i­cal­ly, it speaks to the pow­er of graph­ic design as prac­ticed by Martyl Langs­dorf, who hap­pened to be mar­ried to ex-Man­hat­tan Project physi­cist Alexan­der Langs­dorf. This con­nec­tion got her the gig of cre­at­ing a cov­er for the June 1947 issue of the Bul­letin of the Atom­ic Sci­en­tists. She came up with a sim­ple image: the upper-left cor­ner of a clock, its hands at sev­en min­utes to mid­night.

Asked lat­er why she set the clock to that time in par­tic­u­lar, Langs­dorf explained that “it looked good to my eye.” That quote appears in a post at the Bul­letin address­ing fre­quent­ly asked ques­tions about what’s now known as the Dooms­day Clock, “a design that warns the pub­lic about how close we are to destroy­ing our world with dan­ger­ous tech­nolo­gies of our own mak­ing. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the per­ils we must address if we are to sur­vive on the plan­et.” In the 75 years since its intro­duc­tion, its minute hand has been moved back­ward eight times and for­ward six­teen times; cur­rent­ly it still stands where Cramer report­ed it as hav­ing remained last Jan­u­ary, at 100 sec­onds to mid­night. 

To the pub­lic of 1947, “mid­night” sig­ni­fied above all the prospect of human­i­ty’s self-destruc­tion through the use of nuclear weapons. But as tech­nol­o­gy itself has advanced and pro­lif­er­at­ed, the means of auto-anni­hi­la­tion have grown more diverse. This year’s Dooms­day Clock state­ment cites not just nukes but car­bon emis­sions, infec­tious dis­eases, and “inter­net-enabled mis­in­for­ma­tion and dis­in­for­ma­tion.” Ear­li­er this month, the Bul­letin remind­ed us that even as 2022 began, “we called out Ukraine as a poten­tial flash­point in an increas­ing­ly tense inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty land­scape. For many years, we and oth­ers have warned that the most like­ly way nuclear weapons might be used is through an unwant­ed or unin­tend­ed esca­la­tion from a con­ven­tion­al con­flict.”

Now that “Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine has brought this night­mare sce­nario to life,” many have found them­selves glanc­ing ner­vous­ly at the Dooms­day Clock once again. This also hap­pened after the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, which prompt­ed the Vox video above on the Clock­’s his­to­ry and pur­pose. Its icon­ic sta­tus, as cel­e­brat­ed in the new book The Dooms­day Clock at 75, has long out­last­ed the Cold War, but the device itself isn’t with­out its crit­ics. Bul­letin co-founder Eugene Rabi­now­itch once artic­u­lat­ed the lat­ter as meant “to pre­serve civ­i­liza­tion by scar­ing men into ratio­nal­i­ty,” a some­what con­tro­ver­sial inten­tion. One could also raise objec­tions to using an inher­ent­ly lin­ear and uni­di­rec­tion­al con­cept like time to rep­re­sent a prob­a­bil­i­ty result­ing from human action. Yet some­how more tech­ni­cal­ly suit­able images — “100 cen­time­ters from the edge,” say — don’t have quite the same ring.

Relat­ed con­tent:

19th-Cen­tu­ry Skele­ton Alarm Clock Remind­ed Peo­ple Dai­ly of the Short­ness of Life: An Intro­duc­tion to the Memen­to Mori

J. Robert Oppen­heimer Explains How He Recit­ed a Line from Bha­gavad Gita — “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroy­er of Worlds” — Upon Wit­ness­ing the First Nuclear Explo­sion

The Night Ed Sul­li­van Scared a Nation with the Apoc­a­lyp­tic Ani­mat­ed Short, A Short Vision (1956)

53 Years of Nuclear Test­ing in 14 Min­utes: A Time Lapse Film by Japan­ese Artist Isao Hashimo­to

Pro­tect and Sur­vive: 1970s British Instruc­tion­al Films on How to Live Through a Nuclear Attack

How Clocks Changed Human­i­ty For­ev­er, Mak­ing Us Mas­ters and Slaves of Time

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • Jonathan Collins says:

    Typ­i­cal look at me non­sense. “Oh no! The dooms­day clock is at 100 sec­onds to mid­night!” Lol as long as you have lunatics in charge of nuclear weapons, then what’s the point of the dooms­day clock? Think they care? Lol

  • Brian of Nazareth says:

    Nope, it’s AFTER mid­night. It’s start­ed. Zom­bie Michael Jack­son has clawed his way out of the grave to boo­gie. Putin has thrust his hand into a giant pile of shit and is fling­ing it all over Earth like an enraged chimp. There’s no turn­ing back the clock on this shit. In the words of Linus from “It’s the Great Pump­kin, Char­lie Brown”, “we’re fuu­u­u­ucked!” I live in a rur­al area. No swift kiss good­bye to my wife and kids while we’re cooked in a split sec­ond. No, it will be a slow star­va­tion snd sick­ness filled end of life for me, watch­ing my loved ones die one by one of a hor­ri­ble death. I’m a paci­fist, but I almost wish I could buy a gun to end things quick once they start.

  • Jason says:

    Sure­ly it is iron­ic that it’s after Trump was defeat­ed and Biden had tak­en his place that Putin did what he did?
    Not just iron­ic but instruc­tive.

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