The Doomsday Clock

Learn all about the doomsday clock that counts down to our destruction. The revamped issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences.

It was a bold way to introduce the revamped issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences. The June, 1947 issue of that magazine featured a seven inch by seven inch clock face. The hour hand of the clock was set to twelve, while the minute hand was set at seven minutes to the hour. The clock, the magazine went on to explain, was indicative of the situation facing mankind. Midnight was Doomsday. We were precariously close to the end of the world. According to an editorial in the magazine in July of 1947, the clock "˜represents the state of mind of those whose closeness to the development of atomic energy does not permit them to forget that their lives and those of their children, the security of their country and the survival of civilization, all hang in the balance as long as the spectre of atomic war has not been exorcised.'

From it's introduction more than half a century ago, the Doomsday Clock has kept watch on international goings on. It has been reset more than a dozen times. The clock has caught the imagination of the news media and the public alike. Whenever an international incident threatened to flare up, worldwide speculation would turn to the Doomsday Clock. Would the clock be reset?

The Doomsday Clock was the inspiration of the wife of one of the founders of the bulletin. She was an artist by the name of Martyl. She came up with the idea to "˜symbolize urgency.' As far as setting the clock at seven minutes to midnight, she said that this was simply a matter of "˜good design.'

The first movement of the clock came in 1949, when United States President Harry S. Truman publicly stated that his country had evidence that there had been an atomic explosion in the Soviet Union. This was vehemently denied by the Soviets. The publishers of the Bulletin, however, tended to give credence to President Truman's assertion. The hands of the Clock were advanced to Three Minutes to Midnight. Explaining the move the editorial of the October, 1949 issue of the Bulletin stated "˜ We do not advise Americans that doomsday is near and that they can expect atomic bombs to start falling on their heads a month or a year from now. But we think they have good reason to be alarmed and to be prepared for grave decisions.'

In September, 1953 the hands of the clock were moved for a second time. This as a reaction to the explosion of a Hydrogen Bomb by the United States in 1952 and the subsequent explosion of a Soviet Hydrogen Bomb. The Editorial in the Bulletin for September, 1953 said the following, "˜ the hands of the clock of doom have moved again. Only a few more swings of the pendulum, and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western Civilization.'

In 1963 the clock was, thankfully, set back for the first time. The editors of the Bulletin were encouraged by positive moves throughout the decade, including the signing of a Partial Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. The clock was set at twelve minutes to midnight.

Five years later came the next move for the Doomsday Clock. With China and France becoming nuclear and wars raging in Vietnam, the Middle East and on the Indian sub-continent, the clock was set back to seven minutes to midnight, its original setting. In 1969, positive news came through with the ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by the United States Senate. The clock was set back at ten minutes to midnight.

The first SALT Treaty in 1972 saw the world become a little safer still and the clock was set back once more, this time to twelve minutes to midnight. With the deadlock in talks regarding SALT 11, however, and the increasing of terrorist actions in the late seventies, along with some nationalistic wars, the tide again turned towards disaster. The clock was advanced to seven minutes to midnight in 1980 and then four minutes to midnight in 1981. Three years later it was advanced another minute. This was due to the frightening escalation in the arms race.

Since 1984 the clock has steadily moved back. In 1991 it was set at it's earliest time ever, at seventeen minutes to midnight, partly due to the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). In 1998 it was set at it's current position, that being nine minutes to midnight.

The Doomsday Clock was an idea that has caught the imagination of the masses. If it's goal was to sell magazines, it certainly achieved it's ends. In the process it also allowed us to keep tabs on just how close we are to the end of civilization. Perhaps this realization has been the one thing that has prevented the clock from striking midnight.

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