No industry cheerfully accepts the prospect that a newly developed technology could make it obsolete. Executives and investors earn much of their wealth by constantly evaluating potential threats to their business. They invest time, energy and resources in conceiving and implementing response or prevention plans.
“Inside the Atom” is a 1948 vintage snapshot of the state of atomic research at the Chalk River Laboratories in Canada. One of the useful aspects of this short (10 min) film for modern audiences is the fact that its creators were not bound by the limitations on atomic energy knowledge and public communications that were imposed on American scientists and engineers by the US Atomic Energy Act of 1946.
Though produced within 3 years of the end of World War II, the film illustrates the great strides that had been made in industrial and medical uses of radioactive isotopes. It also introduced the topic that was creating enormous excitement among members of the scientific and engineering professions and among most members of the general public.
That same topic, however, had to have been the source of a great deal of angst among at least a few very wealthy and powerful people in the world’s fuel business.
“Many forecast a world of plenty if man can tap the colossal store of energy that resides in even the tiniest fragments of matter. In many regions of the present-day world a new industrial revolution would loom if atomic energy were harnessed. Vast social and economic benefits would become possible for millions. Even highly industrialized countries would find their best fuels obsolete for a power supply more than 2 million times more effective than coal lies within the atoms of uranium 235.”
What businessman or investor would cheerfully consider the prospect that a newly discovered technology was 2 million times more effective than its primary product? Who among the vast number of people whose livelihoods depended on servicing the world’s hydrocarbon consumption habit could avoid trying to prevent a situation where their “best fuels” became “obsolete?”
As statements in the film demonstrate, by 1948 there were widespread efforts underway to impose controls over atomic energy development, to instill fears in the segments of the population who could be scared, and to emphasize the difficulties remaining before atomic energy could begin to fulfill its promise of providing virtually unlimited power to the people of the world.
Hermann Muller had begun decade-long, his Rockefeller Foundation-funded speaking and publication tour. He was telling anyone who would listen, especially in the scientific and medical circles where he traveled, that radiation was dangerous and could harm genetic materials with even the lowest possible dose.
He specifically denied that he was a “scare-monger,” but he was adamant about his belief that mankind needed to reduce radiation exposures. He warned against developing technology that might increase the number of people whose reproductive organs were being exposed to radiation.
In 1948 H. J. Muller’s, a Novel Laureate in Medicine or Physiology, attracted some media coverage, but reports about his warnings generally received only back page attention. The below article excerpt appeared in the April 2, 1947 issue of the New York Times on page 36 of 56. The complete article is less than 8 column inches. There were no illustrations. To the right of the column was a selection of advertisements for resorts; to the left was a report on the funeral of Homer Collyer, one of the world’s earliest known hoarders.
Transcription of article excerpt
Radioactive Rays Held Peril to Race.
Dr. H. J. Muller, Nobel Prize Winner, Warns of Exposure to Changing Germ Cells
With the use of radioactive substances increasing, doctors must see that the public becomes better informed than it is now about the great danger involved. Dr. Hermann P. Muller (sic), Professor of Zoology at Indiana University, declared yesterday. Unless adequate precautions are taken in laboratories and factories, mass exposure to high-energy radiation can doom the human race, he warned.
Dr. Muller, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine last year, spoke at the opening of a three-day institute on public health in the New York Academy of Medicine, 2 East 103d Stree.
Rays Change Germ Cells
Protesting that he did not wish to be considered a “scare-monger” he reviewed some of the data upon which he based his warning.
The medical community long has known that radiation can cause changes in human germ cells that result in the appearance of a hereditary defect, he observed.
The effect of widespread production of human mutations by radiation eventually would add so much to the sum of human ills that the race would cease to exist, he said. “It is a blot on the profession or radiologists that they have so long hush-hushed and pooh-poohed these known effects,” he asserted.
“With increasing medical, industrial and military use of X-rays,” he continued, “it becomes mandatory for radiologists to see to it that their technicians, their patients, they themselves, and even bystanders have their reproductive organs protected from scattered radiation so far as possible, by means of simple lead screens.”
Dr. Muller added that applications of atomic energy, no matter for what purpose, would make the problem more acute.