Badass of the Month: Martyl and the Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock first appeared in the June 1947 issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a newsletter-turned-journal for the discussion of science and policy related to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The Bulletin included this statement on the inside of the back cover:

When the bomb fell on Hiroshima, it broke a six-year silence which security imposed on the atomic scientists. It also shattered the scientists’ “ivory tower” of detachment from the social and political implications of their discoveries. For the scientists — who had six years to consider the implications of atomic warfare before these implications exploded on a stunned world — recognized that they had a responsibility to see that this force would be used for the benefit and not the destruction of mankind.

One of the greatest works in all of information design, The Doomsday Clock was a brutally visceral symbol of how the world was now (and possibly forever) near to nuclear war. With the hour hand near midnight and the minute hand only seven minutes away, the clock cut through all the rhetoric and hyperbole of nuclear politics with a clear and clinical measurement: This is where we are. This is how close we are to the end of everything. We are seven minutes away.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Cover, June 1947

Two years later, the clock moved forward four minutes after the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Three minutes to midnight.

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 reason to be deeply alarmed and to be prepared for grave decisions.

The designer of The Doomsday Clock was Martyl Langsdorf, an accomplished visual artist with a fondness for landscapes. Known to the art world by her first name, by the age of 25 Martyl had sold a painting to George Gershwin at a private showing, painted a now-iconic New Deal mural of African American history, and beat classmate Tennessee Williams in a playwriting contest.

Martyl Langsdorf

Her husband Alexander was a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project only a few years earlier. They once took a train through Japan that stopped in Hiroshima, to allow all the passengers to step off the train and spend a moment at the Peace Memorial. He stayed in his seat, crying.

Road Ink, Martyl

The Langsdorfs bought a landmark Paul Schweikher home in 1953 and never moved out, drawing the constant attention of the CIA, FBI, and State Department through their activism for peace.

Martyl died March 26th. She was 96 years old.