Skip to main content
Move the World.

For roughly two decades in the middle of the last century, Americans believed it was only a matter of time until nuclear power ruled everything around them.

World War II was over and global leaders in government and industry believed the nuclear power that ended it could be harnessed domestically to lower energy costs and increase productivity. Some of the ideas hatched during this period are still with us today (see: irradiated food). But other ideas were so grand they existed only on paper.

Ideas like...

A Nuclear Bomb-Powered Shuttle

A 1951 article in Picture Show magazine anticipated a vibrant space tourism industry 10 years before Yuri Gagarin became the first person to orbit the planet, and 18 years before Apollo 11 landed on the moon. And because nuclear was all the rage in 1951, the magazine speculated that any space-bound rocket would probably be propelled by “atomic energy.” The magazine was half-right: In 1957, American nuclear physicist Ted Taylor, an alumnus of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, launched Project Orion while working at General Atomics. Taylor’s idea: Use a series of nuclear bomb detonations as thrust to power a rocket into space.

Taylor and his team believed that nuclear power, not “chemical propulsion”--i.e., conventional rockets--were the trick to get getting humans into deep space. As detailed in 1995 by Michael Flora, Orion “would have been more akin to the rocket ships of science fiction than to the cramped capsules of (Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri) Gagarin and (American Astronaut John) Glenn. One hundred and fifty people could have lived aboard in relative comfort; the useful payload would have been measured in thousands of tons. Orion would have been built like a battleship, with no need for the excruciating weight-saving measures adopted by chemically-propelled spacecraft.”

Why didn’t it happen? Questions about its usefulness as a weapon (which Taylor opposed) and fears about nuclear fallout from its rocket turned Orion into a hot potato that was passed from one U.S. government agency to another, with no one all that interested in funding it. The signing of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 made a nuclear propulsion system--and Orion--essentially impossible.

The Ford Nucleon

1958_Ford_Nucleon_06
Image via carstyling.ru

The 1958 Ford Nucleon looked a lot like the Mystere, a winged concept car Ford unveiled in 1955. The biggest difference? The Nucleon would run on nuclear power, as opposed to gas, and would travel 5,000 miles before needing to be charged. All it needed was a nuclear reactor that was small enough to fit in the trunk of a car without killing the vehicle’s occupants.

Why didn’t it happen? Ford never built a working prototype, possibly because they would’ve needed to build a nuclear reactor that could safely fit in the trunk of a car. It was an awesome idea, and one car manufacturers continue to embrace in spirit, though not specifics, with high-tech, never-to-be-built, one-off concept cars.

Nuclear-powered planes

nuclear-aircraft
Image via Popular Mechanics

No Atomic Age project (aside from, you know, actual nuclear reactors) came as close to realization as those developed by the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion program. Headed by GE and funded by the U.S. government, the program sought to apply nuclear propulsion to everything from planes to helicopters using small nuclear reactors.

Why didn’t it work? “American engineers figured out how to fit a reactor in an airplane and make it generate thrust without frying the crew,” according to the National Interest ’s Steve Weintz, but “American leaders couldn't figure out how to pay for it or why they needed it.” As with Project Orion, the ANP program failed the cost-benefit analysis and was shuttered in 1961, just as engineers were preparing to launch a test flight program.

Radioactive Golf Balls

atomic_golf_ball
Image via ModernMechanix

Imaginative uses for atomic energy weren’t limited to propulsion. In 1950, Dr. William L. Davidson of B.F. Goodrich (the tire company) unveiled a golf ball that couldn’t get lost. Embedded with 1/50th of a gram of “radioactive materials,” Davidson’s balls could be found in the deepest weeds with the use of a Geiger counter and headphones. The only problem? Golfers had to be within a few feet of their lost balls, and they needed to purchase (and lug around) a $25 Geiger counter; which, the Chicago Tribune then noted, would buy you about 25 golf balls.

Why didn’t it work? It kind of did, actually. While Davidson’s balls never made it to market — why hunt around with an expensive Geiger counter when you could simply drop a new ball while no one was looking? — his idea lived on. In 1990, the Seattle Times reported on a nuclear research center in Manitoba that irradiated golf balls for increased range.


Related video:

Up Next

Fashion
Digital IDs Add Transparency to Fashion
digital ids for clothing
Fashion
Digital IDs Add Transparency to Fashion
With RFID tags, clothing’s new “digital identity” could be the key to circularity in fashion.

With RFID tags, clothing’s new “digital identity” could be the key to circularity in fashion.

Future of Entertainment
Mind-Blowing Holograms Are Replacing Circus Animals
holographic circus animals
Future of Entertainment
Mind-Blowing Holograms Are Replacing Circus Animals
With pressure to eliminate circus animals, one show gets creative with holograms.

With pressure to eliminate circus animals, one show gets creative with holograms.

Sustainable Solutions
In a Circular Economy, Leaders Look to Eliminate Waste
In a Circular Economy, Leaders Look to Eliminate Waste
Sustainable Solutions
In a Circular Economy, Leaders Look to Eliminate Waste
A step further than recycling, a circular economy would eliminate the idea of garbage completely. But will consumers hop on board? We gave it a try, and here's our honest review.

A step further than recycling, a circular economy would eliminate the idea of garbage completely. But will consumers hop on board? We gave it a try, and here's our honest review.

Global Impact
Powering the Most Remote Areas on Earth
Powering the Most Remote Areas on Earth
Global Impact
Powering the Most Remote Areas on Earth
With off-grid solar power systems, this company is building sustainable communities in remote areas, providing a source of renewable energy and clean water.

With off-grid solar power systems, this company is building sustainable communities in remote areas, providing a source of renewable energy and clean water.

Future of Cities
Getting Aerial Ridesharing Off the Ground
Getting Aerial Ridesharing Off the Ground
Future of Cities
Getting Aerial Ridesharing Off the Ground
It’s been the ultimate futuristic dream for decades: flying cars! But now, the future finally has a deadline. At least to start, it will land in the form of a small air taxi operated by Uber, not something you’ll park in your garage.

It’s been the ultimate futuristic dream for decades: flying cars! But now, the future finally has a deadline. At least to start, it will land in the form of a small air taxi operated by Uber, not something you’ll park in your garage.

Challengers
Can This Startup Power the World With Nuclear?
Can This Startup Power the World With Nuclear?
Challengers
Can This Startup Power the World With Nuclear?
Leslie Dewan and her team at Transatomic believe they've figured out a safe, scalable, cost-effective way to power...
By Mike Riggs

Leslie Dewan and her team at Transatomic believe they've figured out a safe, scalable, cost-effective way to power the world with nuclear.

Challengers
Meet the Startup Developing Human-Level Artificial Intelligence
Meet the Startup Developing Human-Level Artificial Intelligence
Challengers
Meet the Startup Developing Human-Level Artificial Intelligence
The story of Vicarious' mission to build the world's first human-level artificial intelligence and use it to help...
By Mike Riggs

The story of Vicarious' mission to build the world's first human-level artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity thrive.

Challengers
An App for Global Trade
An App for Global Trade
Watch Now
Challengers
An App for Global Trade
Flexport thinks bringing trade into the 21st century could improve lives around the globe.
Watch Now

Flexport believes that nothing helps people improve their lives more than the ability to trade with one another. And, yet international shipping is still way too cumbersome. So Flexport built an in app to make it easier. If Flexport succeeds, nearly everything you buy will cost less.