On location for HG Wells and the H Bomb

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As well as this documentary I’ve written this feature for BBC Culture about how the Atom Bomb changed our culture and imagination.

And I discuss it with Robert Elms on BBC London here. Listen from 1 hr 39 minutes.

In his 1914 novel The World Set Free, HG Wells imagined bombs that destroy civilization and lead to a new world order. But his “atomic bombs” – a name he conceived – are grenades that keep on exploding.

How did this idea become a reality? Producers Simon and Thomas Guerrier and I set out to explore the strange conjunction of science-fiction and fact that spawned the Bomb as Wells mixed with key scientists and politicians such as Lenin and Churchill. Churchill claimed Wells was solely responsible for the use of aeroplanes and tanks in the First World War. Thanks to Wells, Churchill was also ahead of many in writing about the military potential of nuclear weapons – as he did in his 1924 article for the Pall Mall Gazette, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”

How did HG Wells come up with the idea and the name of the atomic bomb? And what happens when you have an idea too dangerous to contain? Simon and Thomas Guerrier and I have made this Sunday Feature for Radio 3 about the chain reaction of ideas that followed HG Wells’ conception of a small device of infinite power. How a science fiction writer and his friendship with a powerful politician Winston Churchill and the impact of The World Set Free on a brilliant scientist Leo Szilard led to the creation of the A-bomb 30 years later. These are photos taken on location during the making of the programme.

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In London’s Russell Square, with nuclear physicist Dr Elizabeth Cunningham, we retraced the steps of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard who conceived the neutron chain reaction. Amid the bustle and noise of the capital in 1933, he suddenly realised how to exploit the potential of nuclear energy and – because he’d read Wells – the devastating impact it would have. Graham Farmelo, author of Churchill’s Bomb, and Michael Sherborne, author of HG Wells: Another Kind of Life reveal the scientific discoveries of the Edwardian age and how Churchill and Wells imagined their military potential. In his book and subsequent 1936 film Things To Come, Wells had imagined a civilisation-destroying world war carried out by aerial bombardment with a benign new world order eventually resulting. A view that seems deeply unsettling now. But when he died in 1946 he’d been working with Alexander Korda on a planned sequel dealing with the new world of the atomic bomb.

Professor Lisa Jardine reflects on her father Professor Jacob Bronowski’s friendship with Szilard and the terrible moral dilemma of scientists who worked on the bomb programme and witnessed the aftermath at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The experience featured in Knowledge or Certainty – the most famous episode of Bronowski’s landmark television series The Ascent of Man (1973).

And at the Science Museum in London, Churchill’s Scientists reflects on the British made bomb and  the optimism and pessimism cast by Wells’ fiction.

HG And The H Bomb is the Sunday Feature on BBC Radio 3 July 5th 645pm and on iPlayer after

And here’s one we made earlier: The Fundamentalist Queen

Further reading

How the Bomb changed everything (BBC Culture feature)

Was HG Wells the first to think of the atom bomb? (BBC News Magazine feature)

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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