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Designer Of Cold War-Era 'Doomsday Clock' Dies

Apr 11, 2013
Originally published on April 11, 2013 4:49 pm
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We learn this week of the death of an artist who designed a simple but terrifying image. The artist was Martyl Langsdorf. And the image she designed in 1947 captured the Cold War fears of the moment.

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BLOCK: At a time when newsreels featured atomic tests and mushroom clouds, Langsdorf designed the Doomsday Clock, the clock you hope never reaches midnight.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The image appeared on the June 1947 cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It's a stark image. It shows just a slice of a clock face from 9:00 to midnight. And the minute hand seems to be ticking towards 12:00, a symbol of how close humanity was coming to nuclear annihilation.

BLOCK: The artist's husband, Alexander, was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. He and other scientists formed the Bulletin as a forum for debating the implications of what they had created. And they asked Martyl, a successful abstract painter at the time, to design the Bulletin's cover.

CORNISH: In the picture in 1947, the clock stood at seven minutes to midnight. Since then, the Bulletin has kept moving the minute hand depending on its assessment of how near or far mankind is to destroying itself.

BLOCK: The closest point to midnight came in 1953, just two minutes away after the U.S. tested the hydrogen bomb. Today, 60 years later, the clock stands at five minutes to midnight, still alarmingly close. The Bulletin's board says that reflects not just nuclear weapons but other threats such as climate change.

CORNISH: The Doomsday Clock's creator, Martyl Langsdorf, died in late March. She was 96 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.