Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook

The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was by far the most popular handbook of nuclear defense during the Cold War. Adapted from an original publication of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (1950),1 the handbook was amended and made commercially available for popular use (1957),2 revised (1962),3 reprinted (1964),4 expanded (1977),5 and even illicitly translated into Russian for use in the Soviet Union (1960).6 Edited by Samuel Glasstone, a prolific author of science textbooks, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was described as a “comprehensive summary of current knowledge on the effects of nuclear weapons” and commended by the Federal Civil Defense Administration as “the definitive source of information on the effects of nuclear weapons.”7

Idealized ranges for effects of air burst with heights of burst optimized to give the maximum range for each individual effect. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, April 1962, p. 630.

Confidently remarking on the ability to quantitatively determine the effects of a given thermonuclear attack, RAND Corporation’s military analyst Herman Kahn famously posited in a 1959 congressional hearing that even “Napoleon . . . would have been impressed with the relevance of quantitative calculations; impressed with the accuracy with which people predict what a nuclear war is like.”8 Despite such affirmations, though, the accuracy of the calculations and protection methods of the handbook proved exceedingly flawed. As early as 1962, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission acknowledged that the original mathematical models used for the publication required significant revision because recent tests in the Pacific Ocean had provided new insights on previously postulated knowledge regarding fallout rates and methods of preventing bodily damage. In line with this realization, the 1962 revised edition of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was accompanied by the “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer,” a circular slide rule devised to calculate with numeric exactitude the effects of a nuclear blast on the human body. Designed as a four-inch disk with two rotating “dishes” and developed by national defense contractors, these paper “computers” were intended to imbue the popular handbook with the aura of scientific precision.

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According to the accompanying pamphlet, the “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer” had been conceived by its authors “as a convenience to those interested in the effects of nuclear weapons.”9 By simply rotating the cursors of the device’s two rotating dishes, one could input the yield and range of a hypothetical bomb. As a function of these two parameters, the “computer” would calculate the predicted effects of “biologic trauma and structural damage” on humans expected by a given nuclear detonation at a certain distance and height. The indices and transparent “windows” of the discs would reveal probabilities such as “glass fragments penetrating 1cm of soft tissue,” “feet and legs fracture,” “skull fracture,” “eardrum rupture,” “lung hemorrhage,” and death. In the fortunate case of survival, the backside of the device could also provide indications on the degree of burns to expect from thermal radiation. What quickly becomes clear is that the true site of a detonation would not be the coordinates of a “ground zero,” the “city,” or the “fallout” territory at large. The true site of the detonation would be the individual body, at risk, for which the “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer” promised to produce highly customized prognostics.

The Lovelace Foundation, “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer,” 3rd revised ed., April 1962. Front side.

Regardless of the true computing power of the “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer,” the question that persists lies elsewhere. Why invent and distribute such a device in the first place? If its ability to deliver results with exactitude was highly debated, where did its true efficacy lie as a risk management tool? If one follows the instructions pamphlet of the 1962 edition, one could interpret the device as an architectural and environmental design tool that offered the “best available approximations for purposes of orientation and protective planning.”10 By this time, the high risk of nuclear attack associated with urban centers had set in motion a massive process of decentralization and suburbanization for the American city.11 It could be thus argued that the mere familiarization of urban planners with the parameters that determined the physical effects of a nuclear detonation could be of paramount importance.

The Effects of Nuclear Weapons and its accompanying “computer” became a vehicle through which highly classified test knowledge was distilled, amended, retracted, and even appropriated for popular use on both sides of the Atlantic. Knowledge in the making was to be presented not only as undisputed but also seemingly self-verifiable. As a combination of hardcopy handbook plus analog “computer,” The Effects of Nuclear Weapons can thus be understood as the mid-century evolution of medieval astronomy manuals, whose paper wheel volvelles calculated the positions of celestial bodies. Consisting of one or more rotating disks mounted on a page, volvelles have been associated with the act of deciphering the working of nature. Considering the “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer” as a descendant of the volvelle, one can infer a different understanding of its effective usefulness, that of a talismanic object, an apotropaic symbol, whose smoothly spinning mechanism provided the comforting illusion of preparedness against unprecedented risk.

Astronomical volvelle, attributed to the de Foxton Master, ca. 15th c., The British Library, The Harley Collection, MS 3719, ff. 156r.

Reconstructing the histories of composite textual media like The Effects of Nuclear Weapons invites us to reexamine not only the ways in which textbooks have been mobilized as a literary genre to determine clearly inscribed protocols of action but also the ways in which the concept of computation has been repeatedly and diachronically invoked to compensate for the lack of substantiated knowledge.

Evangelos Kotsioris is a PhD candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture, Princeton University. His Twitter handle is @oxotnic.

  1. Samuel Glasstone, J. O. Hirschfelder, Arnold Kramish, David B. Parker, Ralph C. Smith, eds., The Effects of Atomic Weapons (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950).
  2. Samuel Glasstone, ed., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1957).
  3. Samuel Glasstone, ed., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, rev. ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1962).
  4. Reprint of the revised edition, February 1964.
  5. Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, eds. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense / U.S. Department of Energy, 1977).
  6. Samuel Glasstone, ed. Deistvie iadernogo oruzhiia (Moscow: Voen. izd-vo Ministerstva oborony Soiuza SSR , 1960); reprinted in 1963 and 1965.
  7. Samuel Glasstone, ed., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1957), iii and v (quotes by Robert S. McNamara and Glenn T. Seaborg, respectively).
  8. Congress of the United States, Hearings before the Special Subcommittee on Radiation of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Eighty-Sixth Congress, First Session on Biological and Environmental Effects of Nuclear War, June 22, 23, 24, and 26, 1959, Part 1 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1959), 883. Kahn had been a military analyst working for RAND Corporation since 1948. At the time of the hearings, he was on leave to spend a semester at the Center of International Studies at Princeton University.
  9. “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer, Revised Edition,” based on data from The Effects of Atomic Weapons, revised ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1962).
  10. Ibid.
  11. Norbert Wiener, “How U.S. Cities Can Prepare for Atomic War,” Life, December 18, 1950, 76–86; Peter Galison, “War Against the Center,” Grey Room, no. 4 (July 1, 2001): 7–33.
Suggested Citation: Evangelos Kotsioris, “Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook,” History of Knowledge, June 4, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/06/04/spinning-the-risk/.