With Atomic Power


From Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

After being discharged from the Air Service at the end of the Great War, Buck Rogers was hired by the American Radioactive Gas Corporation as an inspector; while investigating a mine, he was overcome by (what else?) radioactive gas, and it preserved him for some 500 years. When he woke in the year 2430, Rogers discovered a world filled with villains whom he regularly bested in a syndicated comic strip, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D.” That strip, which began in 1929, led to nearly four decades of Buck Rogers pop culture prominence, not just in the comics, but on radio, in books, and at the movies. The Buck Rogers franchise was so popular it spawned imitations, contemporary and far in the future, from Flash Gordon to Star Wars.

As the late historian Ferenc Morton Szasz argues in his charming and sophisticated book Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront the Nuclear World, the Buck Rogers stories also constituted the classroom in which many Americans of the 1930s and early ’40s learned about the amazing new world of atomic energy. For instance, the Daisy manufacturing company (best known for its BB guns) produced a Buck Rogers Atomic Disintegrator Pistol, which capitalized on the comic saga’s many Depression-era atomic references, including an adventure during which Buck commands: “Drop Atomic bombs. Then we’ll land and mop up.” Of course, whatever Buck Rogers did, Flash Gordon copied, adding flair. “In a 1940 daily strip,” Szasz writes, “(Flash’s girlfriend) Dale Arden is grabbed by a man-eating Octoclaw. To save her, Flash rips the sole power source from the land/sea rocket car and ‘blasts the monster with atomic power.'”

Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon were certainly not the only means by which ordinary Americans learned their nuclear lessons in the years before Trinity; there were science fiction books and magazines and, on the science-fact side, a significant contingent of journalists who dealt seriously with subatomic matters. But before Hiroshima, Szasz argues, Rogers and Gordon were by far the most popular portrayers of this new world, which included not only the danger of then-still-imaginary atomic bombs, but also a vague, immense potential for a glorious, leisure-filled future: “[O]verall, the weapons could be controlled, and the promised energy seemed potentially limitless. In other words, the ‘atomic future’ would surely, somehow, work out for the best.”

“Buck Rogers and the atomic education of America”, John Mecklin, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists