The Radium Terrors

Science Fiction and Radioactivity before the Bomb

in Nuncius
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At the beginning of the 20th century the collective imagination was fascinated and terrified by the discovery of radium. A scientific imagery sprang up around radioactivity and was disseminated by public lectures and newspaper articles discussing the ambiguous power of this strange substance. It was claimed that radium could be used to treat cholera, typhus and tuberculosis, but at the same time there were warnings that it could be used for military purposes. The media and the scientists themselves employed a rich vocabulary influenced by religion, alchemy and magic. The ambivalent power of radioactive elements exerted a great influence on science fiction novelists. This paper will examine some significant works published in Europe, America and Russia during the first decades of the 20th century and their role in the creation of the complex imagery of radioactivity that seized the public imagination long before the invention of the atomic bomb.

The Radium Terrors

Science Fiction and Radioactivity before the Bomb

in Nuncius




Richard E. Sclove“From Alchemy to Atomic War: Frederick Soddy’s ‘Technology Assessment’ of Atomic Energy, 1900–1915,” Science Technology & Human Values1989 14:163–194.


Spencer R. WeartNuclear Fear. A History of Images (Cambridge, Mass.–London: Harvard University Press1988).


See for example Kirk Willis“The Origins of British Nuclear Culture 1895–1939,” Journal of British Studies1995 34:59–89; Maria Rentetzi Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early Twentieth Century Vienna (New York: Columbia University Press 2007); Matthew Lavine The First Atomic Age. Scientists Radiations and the American Public 1895–1945 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2013).


For instance Frederick Soddy“Some Recent Advances in Radioactivity,” Contemporary Review1903 83:708–720; Id. “The Disintegration Theory of Radioactivity” The Times Literary Supplement June 16 1903:201; Id. “Possible Future Applications of Radium” The Times Literary Supplement July 17 1903:225; Id. “The Energy of Radium” Harper’s Monthly December 1909 120:52–59; Id. “Transmutation: The Vital Problem of the Future” Scientia 1912 11:186–202. For an overview see Sclove “From Alchemy to Atomic War” (cit. note 1) pp. 163–194. Ernest Rutherford also wrote a popular science book about radioactivity and atomic science: Ernest Rutherford The Newer Alchemy: Based on the Henry Sidgwick Memorial Lecture Delivered at Newnham College (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1937).


Tom ZoellnerUranium. War Energy and the Rock that Shaped the World (New York–London: Penguin2009) p. 18.


Frederick SoddyThe Interpretation of Radium. Being the Substance of Six Free Popular Experimental Lectures Delivered at the University of Glasgow 1908 (London–New York: John Murray, G.P. Putnam’s Sons1909). The dedication of The World Set Free reads: “To Frederick Soddy’s ‘Interpretation of Radium’ / This story / Which Owes Long Passages To The Eleventh Chapter Of / That Book / Acknowledges And Inscribes Itself.”


Herbert George WellsThe World Set Free (London: Macmillan & Co., 1914, Project Gutenberg Ebook, produced by C. Keller and D. Widger2012) pp. 16–18.


Thomas F. GierynCultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line (Chicago: University of Chicago Press1999). On this topic see also Susan L. Star James R. Griesemer “Institutional Ecology ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology 1907–1939” Social Studies of Science 1989 19:387–420.


Frederick SoddyWealth Virtual Wealth and Debt. The Solution of the Economic Paradox (London: George Allen & Unwin1926).


Dottor Ry“Sull’abitabilità del pianeta Marte,” Corriere della SeraAugust 6 1907. See also Giovanni Caprara L’avventura della scienza. Sfide invenzioni e scoperte nelle pagine del Corriere della Sera (Milano: RCS 2009) pp. 92–98.


Ibid. p. 26.


Ibid. pp. 59–61.


Ibid. pp. 72–74.


Ibid. pp. 60–61.


Ibid. pp. 146–147.


Koshu Iwamura“Sekai no Saidai Himitsu” (“The Biggest Secret in the World”) Shin-SeinenAugust 1920:24–31. For a critical analysis see Maika Nakao “The Image of the Atomic Bomb in Japan before Hiroshima” Historia Scientiarum 2009 19:119–131. On the public reception of The World Set Free see: Lavine The First Atomic Age (cit. note 3) pp. 127–128; Zoellner Uranium (cit. note 13) p. 19; Paul A. Carter The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press 1977) p. 125; “War Map Business Has a Great Bomb” New York Times 30 August 1914:8. Wells’s novel was also read by some of the scientists participating in the Manhattan Project including the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd.


Albert DorringtonThe Radium Terrors (Boulder Colorado: Shelf2Life, University Libraries2010) which was first published in 1911. Little is known about the life of Dorrington; for a brief biography see: Ken Stewart Dorrington Albert (1874?–1953) in Australian Dictionary of Biography National Centre of Biography Australian National University (accessed 9 July 2013); this entry first appeared in print form in the Australian Dictionary of Biography vol. 8 (MUP: 1981).


Ibid. p. 92.


Ibid. p. 64.


Sax RohmerThe Mystery of Doctor Fu Manchu (London: Methuen1913).


Ibid. p. 3 pp. 46–47 p. 104 p. 123 p. 160 and p. 210.


Ibid. p. 149 and p. 186.


Ibid. pp. 72–73.


Ibid. p. 154.


Ibid. p. 251.


Rudolf BrunngraberRadium. Romanzo di un elemento (Milano: Bompiani1937). Brunngraber also worked with Otto Neurath. An introduction to Brunngraber can be found in: Jon Hughes “Facts and Fiction: Rudolf Brunngraber Otto Neurath and Viennese Neue Sachlichkeit” in Interwar Vienna: Culture Between Tradition and Modernity edited by Deborah Holmes Lisa Silverman (Rochester NY: Camden House 2009) pp. 206–223.


Ibid. p. 295.


Ibid. p. 55.


Ibid. p. 174.


Ibid. p. 328.


Ibid. p. 120.


K. ČapekThe Absolute at Large (Nebraska: University of Nebraska2005) pp. 1–35. First edition 1922.


K. ČapekKrakatit (New York: Macmillan1925). The first edition was published in 1924. A short summary can be found in: Bleiler Science-Fiction. The Early Years (cit. note 38) p. 119.


Aleksej Nikolaevič TolstojThe Garin Death Ray (London: Methuen1936).


Herbert George WellsThe Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (New York: Doran & Co., Doubleday1928).


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