A is for Atom (dir. Carl Urbano): educational propaganda film presents a mildly benevolent view of nuclear energy

Carl Urbano, “A is for Atom” (1952)

Created and produced by John Sutherland and sponsored by General Electric, this promotional / education film is aimed at junior high school students, perhaps to inspire them to consider taking up science and mathematics subjects at senior levels of high school as preparation for the appropriate university studies. The entire film is delivered as an animated piece in the style common to many cartoons of the 1950s with sharp-edged animated figures and a colourful, 1950s-“modern” look. An off-screen narrator delivers the involved science lesson in mildly bright and carefully neutral tones so as to suggest the neutral nature of atomic energy in itself.

The film begins by carefully and clearly explaining what atoms are, what they are made up of and how atoms can be used to create energy. The narrator goes into some detail about what atomic weight is (it’s determined by the total number of protons and neutrons in the atom’s nucleus) and how isotopes of an element may differ by the number of neutrons in the atom’s nucleus. Sprightly animation likens stable elements to ordinary middle-class denizens minding their own business and going to bed early in their own tidily numbered houses while radioactive elements are restless beatnik types dancing wildly to jazz! The narrator then continues onto the history of how atomic energy was discovered by scientists in 1939 and the process of transmutation that they used to split uranium atoms and obtain massive amounts of energy. With the discovery of nuclear fission and chain reactions within nuclear fission, physicists could go on to create and design atomic bombs, learn to use neptunium and plutonium in the process of nuclear fission, and discover uses for atomic energy in agriculture, industry, other areas of science such as biology, and medicine. The film concludes by speculating on further uses of nuclear energy in transport technologies and in society generally, and emphasises that human wisdom and control of nuclear energy will open up a new world of discovery and material comfort for future generations of people.

The bright clarity of the narration and the stylish yet funny cartoons in explaining what an atom is, what elements and isotopes are and how artificial transmutation of uranium-235 created atomic energy make this film highly relevant still to current generations of young school students. Visual explanations and metaphors are straightforward and moderately paced if at times a little bizarre and are sometimes an unintentionally funny commentary on social classes and life-styles of the 1950s! The science presented in the film appears to be fairly accurate although the strong and weak nuclear forces are presented as semi-transparent liquid glue. There is a lot of information given and a couple of viewings might be needed but the imaginative animation is great to watch and even the backgrounds and settings are smart and bright. Atomic energy is presented as a strong, silent, stern but benevolent muscular giant standing over cities, hospitals and farms: a little bit like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” or Zac Snyder’s reverent film of the same name but without that character’s dangly bits or moral hollowness. Of course this film having GE as its sponsor, the tone of the film is positive about atomic energy and completely ignores its potential for destructive annihilation and crippling long-term health effects on individuals, their families and communities.

Of course the reality in the 1950s was much more complicated: not all physicists and other scientists in the United States and other countries agreed with the use of nuclear energy for industrial, agricultural, scientific and military purposes. The adoption of nuclear energy for such uses in many countries was driven more by political and ideological motives than by economic need and was often against public opinion (Japan being a notable example where politicians like Matsutaro Shoriki and Yasuhiro Nakasone pushed for investment in nuclear power). In 1957, a nuclear accident involving plutonium waste stored underground in Kyshtym in the Ural Mountains in the Soviet Union rendered a large area of nearly 1,000 square kilometres highly radioactive (it still remains dangerous to this day) and resulted in the evacuation of 22 villages with a combined population of 10,000 people; the Soviet Union suppressed reports of the accident for a long time but it has been suggested that the CIA in the US had known about the accident almost as soon as it occurred and also hushed up publicity about it to avoid loss of public confidence in the US nuclear industry. Doubtless the sponsors of “A is for Atom” would have approved.


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