Here's a piece from my new book, Welcome to Weirdsville, on the crazy stuff that happened during age when adding atomic energy to everything seemed like a good idea....
Fans of the old, but still wonderful, Road Runner cartoons might remember Wile E. Coyote's favorite one-stop-shop for mayhem: The Acme Company. A clever person – not one of us, alas – once said that Acme's slogan should be "We Add Rockets To Everything."
This, in a kind of round-about way, gets us to the 1950s and the near-obsession that certain engineers had back then with a certain power source. To put it another way, their slogan should have been: "We Add Nuclear Power To Everything."
In all fairness, reactors have proven – for the most part – to be pretty reliable. Submarines, commercial power plants, and even monstrous icebreakers have proven that nuclear power can be handy if not essential. But back just a few decades ago there were plans, and even a few terrifying prototypes, that would have made the Coyote green with envy – and the rest of us shudder in terror.
Both the US and the Soviet Union had engineers with lofty plans to keep bombers in the air indefinitely by using nuclear power. Most folks, with even a very basic knowledge of how reactors work, would think that was a bit (ahem) risky, but what's even scarier is how far along some of those plans got.
Take, for example, the various projects the US undertook. In one case, arguably the most advanced, they made plans to power a Convair B-36 bomber with a reactor. Scary? Sure, but what's even more so is that they actually flew the plane, with an operational reactor, a total of 47 times.
While that the reactor never actually powered the plane itself, and that there were huge problems to overcome, didn't stop the engineers from drawing up plans for a whole plethora of atomic planes.
But what was perhaps even crazier than just powered a plane with a nuclear reactor was the idea to use that power source as a weapon. Here, for example, is a beautiful representation of the Douglas 1186 system, which was supposed to use a parasite fighter to guide the warhead to the target – and keep the poor pilot from engine's radiation.
But the craziest of the crazy was the "Flying Crowbar." Not only was the Supersonic Low Altitude Missile (to be formal), aka SLAM (to be short), supposed to be a nuclear bomb deployment system but was also to use a nuclear ramjet drive as a weapon: roasting the ground under it to a Geiger-clicking nightmare while leaving a mushroom-cloud parade of bombs behind it. Shuddering, by the way, would be a perfectly appropriate response. Luckily, the Crowbar never got off the drawing board.
Leaving the air to the birds, other engineers had different nuclear dreams: In 1958 the Ford Motor Car Company, not satisfied with the success of the Edsel, put forth the idea of bringing radiation into the American home ... or, at least, the garage, with the Nucleon: a family car with an on-board reactor.
While some engineers played with the highways, a few looked to the rails. Though neither the United States of the Soviet Union got very far with powering a locomotive with a reactor, the USSR at least looked far enough ahead to draw up some plans.
The Soviets, in a literally sky-high dream, even envisioned a new approach to flying their reactors: use a Zeppelin!
Still other inventive types, determined to find a new use for the atom, scratched their heads and came up with quite a few interesting, if not dubious, ways of playing with nukes – but this time of the explosive variety. Plowshare is one of the most commonly quoted of those operations intended to put a smiley face in a mushroom cloud. A few of their suggested uses include what they called the Pan- Atomic Canal: in other words, using atomic bombs to widen the Panama Canal. They also suggested using nukes for mining operations, though never really solved the problem of dealing with then-radioactive ore.
It's ironic that – what with the need to urgently replace our finite and global-warming fossil fuels – that many are suggesting a new look at the power of the atom. We can only hope that we, today, can be as imaginative about it as they used to be back in the 1950s ... and a lot more responsible.