Astounding and the Atomic Bomb

In 1944 Cleve Cartmill’s atomic bomb story “Deadline” famously inspired an investigator from the War Department to visit Astounding’s editor. What few remember is that Cartmill’s story was actually the culmination of John W. Campbell’s long flirtation with atomic weapons in the pages of his magazine.

Alex Wellerstein’s Restricted Data, the Nuclear Secrecy Blog recently discussed Campbell’s nonfiction article “Death Dust”, published in a 1941 issue of Pic, and readers chimed in with numerous juicy details about its fictional corollary, Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” as well as the creative relationship between the editor and his leading author, and the sources of what they knew about reactors and U-238.

Bill Higgins supplied an outline of Campbell’s correspondence with Heinlein in 1940 and 1941 when “Blowups Happen” and “Solution Unsatisfactory” were in the works.

Heinlein biographer Bill Patterson also chimed in with several interesting comments, for example —

Estelle Karst [in “Solution Unsatisfactory”] is, indeed, an homage to Lise Meitner, who worked out the necessary mathematical support for the idea of fission in 1939 on a train fleeing Nazi Germany. In January 1940 Campbell wanted Heinlein to write a story about “uncertainty in the sub-etheric field” (he probably got that story in 1942 as “Waldo”), In the meantime, Heinlein had been talking with his friend physicist Robert Cornog about subjects related to a reactor, and Heinlein combined Cornog and Campbell and the result was “Blowups Happen.” At the time there was no reactor in existence — and not as much as a gram of purified U238 in existence, so most of the physics here was speculative.

Even Campbell’s granddaughter had something to say.

[Thanks to Gene Dannen for the story.]

1 thought on “Astounding and the Atomic Bomb

  1. While Patterson is techincally correct that there was no purified U-238 in the early 1940’s, it’s not relevant. “Purified U-238” is not very interesting, as it’s a good description of depleted uranium. The manuscript should refer to the absence of purified U-235.

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