The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
ANDY WILSON AND HIS RADIOACTIVE DOG
The picture at the top of this page can be found all over the internet. Visually arresting, as it was meant to be, the image of a prototypical happy 1950s boy and his dog in front of an atomic explosion leads to thousand questions, most of which can be boiled down to: WTF?
As with almost all of the millions of retrofuture images posted on the thousands of retrofuture sites, little or nothing else is said to put the picture into context. Internet browsers are merely expected to laugh at the stupidity of their grandparents and go on to the next image of something equally dumb, like a picture of, say, a flying car or of food pills.
And as is also almost always true, this image has a fascinating story behind it. That's where I come in.
The story starts in 1941. The epic madness of the Golden Age of comic books is at a peak. A bunch of nobodies, ne'er-do-wells, and yutzes are suddenly making fortunes from the lowest form of literature since Tijuana Bibles and the paper restrictions that would give the field a body blow in 1942 aren't yet on the horizon. Every kid wanted comic books and so did a tremendous number of adults in an America that failed to see half its population graduate from high school. The field - less than a decade old - was too new to have firm boundaries. Any random 64-page title might contain a western, a new superhero, a crimebuster, a kids' story, a science fiction epic, a humorous tale, and a historical epic in eight-page segments, with a bunch of random stuff as one-page fillers.
Albert Lewis Kanter, a 44-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant and serial failure, had bounced around the country in a variety of jobs before landing in New York with the Elliott Publishing Company.
Albert Lewis Kanter
For unknown reasons, he believed that a comic book treatment of the great classics of literature would be an equally great hit. He found some money and launched Classic Comics in October 1941 with issue No. 1 being the rousing saga of The Three Musketeers. This was a comic you could take home to mother. The usual tawdry ads were missing, with educational material taking their place. Moreover, in an era where comics were more ephemeral than mayflies, kids and parents could count on Classic Comics always being available as they, unlike all others, were reprinted regularly once the idea took off. As their number increased, lists of titles were given so that readers could look for the whole set.
Success was immediate. Kanter formed his own company, Gilberton, in 1942. The comic's name was changed to the more familiar Classics Illustrated in 1947 with issue #35. No matter how wholesome, though, comics were demonized continually in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A sample, from Fredric Wertham's inflammatory Seduction of the Innocent.
Comic books adapted from classical literature are reportedly used in 25,000 schools in the United States. If this is true, then I have never heard a more serious indictment of American education, for they emasculate the classics, condense them (leaving out everything that makes the book great), are just as badly printed and inartistically drawn as other comic books and, as I have often found, do not reveal to children the world of good literature which has at all times been the mainstay of liberal and humanistic education. They conceal it. [italics in original]
Wertham's book was the culmination of the anti-comic hysteria. By the time it appeared in 1954, Kanter already was trying a new approach that might appease the critics and, even better, appeal directly to the teachers in those tens of thousands of schools already buying comics. He idea was turned into reality by the whiz kid he hired almost right out of school, Eleanor Lidofsky.
Eleanor Liebman was born in 1927 and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1948. By the end of the next year she had a job and a husband, a graduate student at Columbia University. After a brief stint doing publicity for the United Way, she settled in at Gilberton. Officially, she was hired to do public relations, but in the real-world way a talented individual makes their mark in a small firm, she had a hand in everything, all for $50 a week.
Eleanor spent hours researching at the 42nd Street Library, turning that material into the inside front and rear covers for the comics. She wrote synopses for the "Famous Operas" series. She copy edited the texts. And she became the public face of Gilberton, lunching with publishers, flying out to Hollywood to look for tie-ins. (Gilberton had a show business tie-in of its own: Kanter's oldest son, Hal, had already begun what would become a 50-year career as a writer, director, and producer.) When Disney released its version of Treasure Island in 1950, Eleanor arranged for theaters to sell Classics Illustrated #64, the adaptation they had fortuitously released as the October 1949 issue. Even better, when she was promoted to public relations director in 1951 Eleanor got to go on television talk shows to make the case for the good in comic books, one time debating Wertham himself. "I made scrambled eggs of him" she would later say.
In 1953, Kanter, seeing which way the wind was blowing, decided to double down on educational comics by creating Picture Parade, nonfiction comics designed to be sold only to teachers for their classes. To ensure cooperation, each came with a teacher's edition, full of supplemental material and quizzes. The come-on, wrapped around Picture Parade #1, was a masterpiece of promotional chutzpah written, presumably, by Eleanor herself.
How could a teacher resist? An educational tool that would be paid for by the students themselves! Nine issues for 75¢ was a bargain at a time when one issue of Classics Illustrated cost 15¢, though I wonder how many schoolkids in 1953 could get 75¢ out of their parents for comics, even for school, and what happened when one poor kid out of twenty didn't fork over the money.
This paragraph also reveals the magnitude of the con job.
PICTURE PARADE's editorial policy is based on our findings from an exhaustive series of tests, research and consultation with experts in the fields of education and visual aids. The selection of subjects for the 1953-54 school year (see next to last cover page) was based on the recommendations of elementary school teachers from almost every state in the Union.
Yeah, right. The selection of subjects was done by the person who would write them, Eleanor Lidofsky. And she wrote them based on her interest and her ease of research.
All anyone thought about atomic energy was the bombs that had been dropped on Japan. My husband was a professor of nuclear science at Columbia and he gave me the information about the good things that nuclear power can bring.
That graduate student she had married, Leon Lidofsky, had finished his Ph.D. and stayed on at Columbia for the next four decades. Technically, Leon was only a Research Associate at the time, but he became one of the original nine members of the faculty of the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, retiring in 1992 with Eleanor (Elly) at his side.
Kanter picked Peter Costanza to do the art for the first issue. Costanza started in pulp magazines in his early 20s. He moved over to Fawcett Comics in 1939, where he became the assistant to C. C. Beck in creating the Captain Marvel Family. Except for time in the service during WWII he stayed with Fawcett until 1953, when they folded all their comic lines after losing a lawsuit over Captain Marvel's plagiarism of Superman stories. Costanza must have been snapped up immediately after if his art was ready to go for a September release.
The project sold well, Eleanor would recall. The near total disappearance of all teacher's editions and the scarcity of the regular editions makes me wonder. One glitch Gilberton should have foretold. "Picture Parade" had already been used as a title for a variety of products, including an ongoing newspaper supplement. The lawyers weighed in. As of #5, January 1954, the series abruptly changed its name to Picture Progress.
Eleanor wrote all nine issues for the 1953-54 school year. Costanza drew 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8. Lin Streeter, another comics professional, drew 4, 6, 7, and 9. Here's the complete credits for the year. Titles are taken off the cover page. If they were included in a later listing of available issues that title is added in parentheses.
#1, Sept. 1953, "Andy's Atomic Adventures." Reprinted in Adventures in Science, Special Issue #138a, June 1957.
#2, Oct. 1953, "Around the World with the U.N." (The United Nations)
#3, Nov. 1953, "The Adventure of the Lost One." (The American Indian)
#4, Dec. 1953, "A Christmas Adventure."
#5, Jan. 1954, "News in Review - 1953."
#6, Feb. 1954, "The Birth of America." Reprinted in The Story of America, Special Issue #132a, June 1956.
#7, Mar. 1954, "The Four Seasons."
#8, Apr. 1954, "Paul Revere's Ride." Reprinted in The Story of America, Special Issue #132a, June 1956.
#9, May 1954, "The Hawaiian Islands."
Eleanor left Gilberton in 1954 to have her first child. She later became a teacher in the New York school system.
Whatever happened to copies when June rolled around, the series did well enough to be brought back for the 1954-55 school year. No record remains of who wrote these issues. Art was provided by Costanza, Streeter, Tom Hickey, and Norman Nodel. A volume three was started in 1955, but only the September and October issues were ever released.
A more anodyne set of topics could hardly be imagined, even in 1953. What was thought proper for children hadn't advanced an inch over what was taught in Moving Ahead from 1944. That was for sixth graders and Picture Parade was written at the fourth grade level, but little else changed.
Except that some of the topics didn't exist in 1944. Eleanor believed that schools hadn't caught up to the present. Her bold plan meant using comic books to update textbooks. William B. Jones, Jr. interviewed her for his Classics Illustrated- A Cultural History, 2d ed.
"At that time, there was little information about the United Nations in school textbooks," she recalled. "And there was also a lot of fear among schoolchildren about the atomic bomb. I said I thought schoolchildren should know about the UN and should learn about the benefits as well as dangers of atomic energy. Then Al said, 'Go write 'em.'"
Her timing was excellent. On August 12, 1953, the USSR exploded a hydrogen bomb, sending official Washington into panic mode. President Eisenhower insisted on staging a public relations campaign of his own to give Americans a more realistic picture of "the danger which confronted the Nation," as pundit Stewart Alsop wrote. "Operation Candor," as it came to be known, involved speeches by the President and a series of nationwide radio talks by administration officials. The speeches reassured no one; they may even have inflamed the public. So in December Eisenhower switched course and delivered his "Atoms for Peace" speech to the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953. He pledged a campaign to “hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people.”
That day never came. But Albert Kanter, Eleanor Lidofsky, and teachers across the country must have crowed that they had already put the good side of nuclear energy into the hands of schoolchildren at the beginning of the school year.
It's time, then, to take a close look at Picture Parade #1 and get past that bizarre cover to the real messages inside.
Surprisingly, the interior splash page reinforces the cover's scary militarism. No scene like this ever existed in reality. Although troops were exposed to the effects of some of the bomb tests, they didn't do so rifles at the ready, about to charge. The image is antithetical to every point the story tries to make; it could only exist because somebody thought it would look cool.
Page 2 introduces us to Andy's prototypical suburban family. Everyone looks and acts healthy and normal but two bits of foreshadowing appear. Andy's Mom needs some type of treatments and Spot isn't on a leash, always a guarantee in comics of the dog disappearing.
Here's where we slip into the world of comic book plotting. Real test ranges were sealed to the public. Nor was Andy likely to bike 30 miles across desert to get close to the blast. Bombs were tested regularly and even a kid would know to stay far away. Does Andy understand what an a-bomb test meant? He sure does. To him it means death, just as it does to virtually everybody else in American society in 1953.
Eleanor saves the day with a large blast of good atom propaganda. It may seem odd that any family living next to a testing range wouldn't have mentioned earlier that Mom was getting radiation treatments but adults tended not to share medical problems with their kids in the 1950s.
Did nine-year-olds know what atoms were in 1953? I did when I was nine a few years later, but I wasn't exactly typical. Nevertheless, a basic lesson is called for. A nice touch by Eleanor is using a woman to give the lecture. We never find out what Miss Raymond's role is. She's not a doctor, isn't referred to as a nurse, and doesn't button her lab coat. Maybe she was in public relations.
Another sign this is 1953: Andy puts on a suit to visit the hospital.
Notice that Andy never gets an answer to his question about what kind of atoms are being used. Nor does the image look like a ray. In 1953, radiation therapy was most likely to use Cobalt-60, a radioactive isotope, to shoot out gamma rays, high-energy photons. Mom's treatment is drastically simplified as well. She would have been on a table, with the machine close to her body to pinpoint the radiation on the tumor. Radiation therapy, then as now, was serious medicine although much cleaner than any invasive treatments.
Andy gets Mom and Spot back on the same day. Or does he? We're not even halfway through the comic. Even nine-year-olds would know what that meant.
Do kids stick their heads out of the window in today's era of air conditioning and seat belts? They're missing a lot of good, fresh wind filled with the particulate emissions from pre-catalytic converter engines. The air had a taste in the good old days.
Spot's radioactive! Will he get superpowers? Thankfully, Stan Lee was still stuck in comic-book limbo so we get a more realistic result. Radioactive dust on pet hair is a real and serious concern.
But I have no idea what's going on here. The way to deal with radioactive dust is the same treatment applied to Meryl Streep in Silkwood: a careful and thorough shower. Why Spot needs another week is a mystery. Cobalt-60 has a much longer half-life than a week. Was Eleanor thinking of a course of radioactive iodine to remove radioactivity from the thyroid? This is one of many instances (I almost wrote "spots" but that wouldn't do) where the science is so simplified as to be made meaningless. Was Leon being of no help or was he in scientist mode, giving her so much detail she couldn't find a way to cut it down to size?
Wait. An atomic cannon? Yes, this was real and another example of how the quick turnaround of comic books made it possible to introduce "ripped from the headlines" current events into classrooms years before textbooks could catch up.
The story of the atomic cannon is one of the great cautionary tales of the Cold War. A fiasco, a boondoggle, a waste of taxpayer's money, and a propaganda device, the only real purpose of the M65 atomic cannon project was to salve the wounded egos of top Army officials, who felt left out of the glamorous nuclear program. The Army started the program in 1949 and news of it leaked publicly in 1950. The rationale shifted from statement to statement. For example, an Army Chief of Staff saw it as a means of allowing Europe to defend itself, even though it was then illegal to place atomic weapons in the hands of any foreign country.
The M65 was rolled out literally for Eisenhower's inagural parade on January 20, 1953, giving it coverage in every paper in America, often with an accompanying photo.
The price of the M65 was estimated at $5,000,000 - real money in those days - but that ignores that the plant specially built to make it cost an additional $29,000,000. The M65 - nicknamed the Atomic Annie - naturally went from the parade to the Nevada Test Site so near to Andy's house. It was successfully tested on May 25, 1953, firing a nuclear shell for the one and only time in its history.
The Nevada State Journal in Reno covered the firing with a barrage of facts.
The atomic projectile was hurled a distance of between six and seven miles by the Army's giant T-131 rifle. It exploded 500 feet above an elaborate array of military targets. ...
[I]t appeared [from 35 miles away] as a moderately brilliant flash. It was followed by an unusual double fireball that lasted about nine seconds and then faded into the familiar mushroom cloud...
Observers estimated that it took 19 seconds from the time the circuit was closed to detonate the atomic shell until the warhead exploded over the proving grounds.
A flash of flame and white smoke went up from the muzzle of the 85-ton cannon as the projectile came out of the 44-foot barrel and sailed across the desert.
Anything the M65 could do could be done much better by a bomber and with equal accuracy. Despite having no military role except to frighten the Soviets at least a dozen of the cannons were deployed in Germany from 1955-1963.
I think Costanza confused uranium atoms with amoeba, but this is good enough for fourth graders.
Well, maybe ordinarily bright fourth-graders, but not Andy. Dare we speculate that's why his parents never tried to explain his mother's treatment to him?
Where exactly has Andy been hiding that bone all this time?
There was no chance of getting through a 1950s story about atomic power without a visit to a power plant. A reactor in the Oak Ridge facility had provided electricity for a light bulb in 1948. Getting a plant up and running took a while longer, and this was also a race that the U.S. lost to the U.S.S.R. The Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet "Science City" of Obninsk, started providing power to its electric grid in 1954. This was small scale and mostly for show. The U.S. did manage to open the world's first dedicated nuclear power plant - the Shippingport Atomic Power Station outside of Pittsburgh - in 1957, although it was not designed strictly for commercial use. Nevertheless, it lasted through to the end of its 25-year life without any meltdowns or mutations or, as far as the public knows, radioactive dogs.
All everybody in the 1950s could talk about was how small an amount of uranium would be needed compared to coal. Nobody ever asked whether a teaspoon of uranium cost more than 12 tons of coal, especially when the cost of the power plant was factored in. Comparing coal power to nuclear power would soon become a never-ending swamp of conflicting numbers based on arguments about what externalities to factor in. In hindsight, we would have been better off to junk the space program and pour all those billions into nuclear power plants while shutting down every coal mine. But hindsight is as related to reality as Andy's electric train is to Amtrak.
More ripped-from-the-headlines news. The Navy announced back in 1950 - the military was big on announcing their future plans in the 1950s, for obvious propaganda reasons - that it would build a nuclear-powered submarine. By late 1951 the vessel had been named the U.S.S. Nautilus, not just the name of a zillion earlier naval vessels but of Robert Fulton's first practical submarine. (What, you thought Jules Verne made it up? That's OK. The Baltimore Sun did, too.) The sub would be ready by 1954. The formal keel-laying ceremony took place in June 1952. The Sun soon ran a photo of a model.
That doesn't look much like what Costanza drew, though it's a fair version of the final sub. Costanza, or I should say Eleanor the actual researcher, could have easily missed this in the newspapers because most ran the story without this photo. What they undoubtedly used as a reference was a "symbolic model" that Westinghouse, which was building the atomic motor and would develop the vast majority of future atomic power plants, used as the header for an ad timed to the keel-laying. Costanza's version was a line-for-line duplicate.
Atomic powered cars? Most scientists pooh-poohed the notion, citing the weight of the lead needed for protection. Even so, atomic cars were too cool to rule out entirely. Eleanor certainly would have run into a United Press report about a speech that Benson Ford, one of the Ford Fords, gave to the Society of Automotive Engineers in 1951. He challenged the engineers to "design atomic-powered cars with electronic controls that will give the public greater safety and comfort." That might have been a step too far, but some of his other challenges became normal safety features on 21st century automobiles.
"Would it be possible, for instance, to attack an electronic control in such a way that when a collision is imminent , the brakes would be applied automatically?
"Can we devise some means of warning a driver - possibly through a flashing light on the dashboard - when there's a car approaching on the other side of a curve?"
Who in 1953 would be such a downer as to proclaim that a boy Andy's age might never see an atomic car in his lifetime?
The inevitable happy reunion.
An oddly somber bit of reflection for a happy ending. But who in 1953 would be such a downer as to predict that a boy Andy's age definitely would see an atomic war in his lifetime?
A colorful page of science facts - or factoids - graced the back cover. Enrico Fermi was a famous name but he wasn't the first to split an atom and he sure didn't use whatever that device is supposed to be. Today, the honor is generally given to John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, physicists who worked at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. Bombarding lithium with energetic protons split the atoms into two alpha particles, the cores of the helium atom. They received the 1951 Novel Prize for Physics for this work.
Fermi's 1934 experiments were different. He methodically shot slow neutrons at every element, going up the periodic table one at a time. When he got to fluorine the magic happened: a radioactive isotope was created as the neutron was captured. Most heavier elements reacted in the same way. An even more interesting result occurred with uranium. The U-238 turned into U-239 as the neutron was captured. But then, the neutron turned into a proton while emitting an electron (what we call beta emission) and became what we now know is Neptunium 239. After another beta emission Plutonium 239 is formed. Fermi was the first to produce transuranic elements but no fission was required. The Nobel committee gave him the 1938 Physics prize for this meticulous work.
Splitting the uranium atom came later but overshadowed all earlier work once its significance was realized. That happened in Germany in 1938 by the team of Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, with the Jewish Lise Meitner contributing theoretic work from the safety of Sweden. Only the two Germans got their names on the critical paper that led to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Hahn in 1944.
"Andy's Atomic Adventures" was stuffed with everything that a period teacher could want: an all-American white nuclear family, an adventure of a lost dog, friendly experts handing out science facts, information so popping fresh that no textbook would cover it, and a, pardon the pun, glowing vision of the wonders of the atomic age future. Nobody hid under desks, the Russians weren't mentioned except barely by implication, and American ingenuity and military might girded each page with pride and reassurance. It beat the new Tom Swift Jr. books into print by a few months as well. Little wonder that Kanter reused it as part of Adventures in Science, Classics Illustrated Special Issue 138a, June 1957. (In 1958 the A. C. Gilbert Company, no relation to Gilberton, also released a comic titled Adventures in Science to promote its science kits. The similarity can make them easily confused.)
If timing was essential to success, Kanter had a golden watch. A few months later, the U.S.S.R. launched Sputnik and Americans wondered if their science education had failed them. It hadn't - the delay had been entirely the work of military rivalries and overcautiousness - but the now eight-graders who had read Picture Parade were perhaps more prepared than most and Classics Illustrated had something to crow about.
It would take a few more years for many of them to realize how many lies the government had been feeding the public throughout the 1950s and how close to war the ever-pugnacious military came on far too many occasions. Remembering the 1950s as halcyon days of peace and prosperity where nobody had to worry falsifies history and falsifies the supposed changes for the worse we're living through today. People are never happy about the current day because they never know anything about tomorrow except that it's inexorably barreling down on them. That doesn't mean they were any stupider or more gullible than the contemporary public. The people of 2087 will look back at images of today with as much amusement as we do of Andy and his radioactive dog.
Addendum, February 26, 2020. The Army never changes. Pictures just popped up on the internet of a new cannon that instantly reminded cannon buffs of the M65.
The 1000 mile range eliminates most of the objections to the M65. What advantage this has over other already-mobile missile launchers in unclear.
Also unclear is whether these concept sketches will ever get the funding to be more than toylike pictures. If you want to read more about the SLRC, The Drive has a long article comparing it to the M65, complete with an Army film of the successful M65 test.
February 18, 2020