Infamous Innovations: The Atomic Bomb

On August 6th, 1945, the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare was detonated over Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, on August 9th, 1945, the second atomic bomb ever used in warfare was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. As a result of these actions, nearly 250,000 individuals were killed, and Japan surrendered WWII on September 2nd, 1945. While the atomic bomb was the product of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s team and part of the Manhattan project, the original idea was not the product of scientific thought, but the imagination of a science fiction writer. Over 40 years before the first successful test, H. G. Wells (1914) predicted the invention of the atomic bomb and the innovation it would bring in warfare, writing:

“In the map of nearly every country of the world three or four or more red circles, a score of miles in diameter, mark the position of the dying atomic bombs and the death areas that men have been forced to abandon around them. Within these areas perished museums, cathedrals, palaces, libraries, galleries of masterpieces and a vast accumulation of human achievement, whose charred remains lie buried, a legacy of curious material that only future generations may hope to examine.”

Wells had predicted the innovation of the atomic bomb in his book The World Set Free. Using an extremely rudimentary knowledge of physics and the understanding that radioactive decay, while slow, was extremely powerful, he envisioned the energy release being harnessed, accelerated, and used as a weapon of mass destruction. His predictions and insights were so powerful that, upon reading the book, Leo Szilard, one of the pioneers involved in the atomic bomb, patented the idea of a nuclear chain reaction in 1933 (Rhodes, 2012). Forty years later, on July 16th, 1945, Well’s ideation and innovation in warfare was realized when the US detonated the world’s first ever atomic bomb in Socorro, New Mexico.

Two key forces that impacted the ultimate success of the atomic bomb were technical and international factors. Technical factors came in the form of rapid development and understandings of physics. The first 30 years of the 20th century are referred to as the “golden age of physics” or the “age of new physics” and were characterized by a rapid understanding of the atomic and subatomic world (Davies, 1992). This rapid development of understanding and technical achievements in the areas of physics provided the knowledge of atomic particles and behavior necessary to theorize and develop the atomic bomb. International factors came in the form of WWII. After the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 and the theoretical explanation of its application by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, the development of the atomic bomb was made possible (Davies, 1985). The US, fearing this technology would be realized by other belligerents in the war, accelerated its efforts to harness and deploy this technology first. Additionally, facing a very costly mainland invasion of Japan to achieve surrender in the war (Giangreco, 2011) the US was influenced to pursue other alternatives which would have less of a human-cost to their forces. As a result, these international forces, increased by WWII, led to the development and ultimate decision to use the atomic bomb, resulting in realization of an infamous prediction by H.G. Wells some 40 years earlier.

References

Davies, P. (1992). The new physics. Cambridge University Press.

Giangreco, D. (2011). Hell to pay: operation downfall and the invasion of Japan, 1945-1947. Naval Institute Press.

Jones, V. C. (1985). Manhattan, the Army and the atomic bomb (Vol. 8). Center of Military History, US Army.

Rhodes, R. (2012). Making of the atomic bomb. Simon and Schuster.

Wells, H. G. (1914). The world set free: a story of mankind (Vol. 4496). EP Dutton.

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