I was recently reading an essay by Churchill titled “Fifty Years Hence” from 1932, wherein he discusses the inevitability that scientists will "spark a nuclear bonfire", he was apparently taught the basic Physics by his friend Frederick Lindemann. He also discussed it in his essay "Shall We All Commit Suicide" from 1927 in much more vague terms; about how scientific supremacy in the future could destroy liberal societies, with no mention of the science itself.

Was this the first instance of a Politician(or any Non-Scientist) coming to terms with the reality/inevitability of weapons of mass destruction? I can't seem to think of anyone who would have had such foresight in the 1920s; when the idea of another world conflict was beyond the pale.

  • $\begingroup$ @Carl Witthoft: The difference is that this was written 10-15 years BEFORE it came to use, and even before the chain reaction was discovered. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2021 at 12:59
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko see my answer for more accurate response $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2021 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ Wells speculated about atomic bombs back in 1913 in The World Set Free. The novel was read by some physicists that came to work on the actual bomb, and by Churchill, who mused about it in Shall We All Commit Suicide? already in 1924. But other weapons of mass destruction (chemical) were used already in WWI, and the Hague Declaration against their use dates back to 1899. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Mar 10, 2021 at 13:09

2 Answers 2


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When scientists realized how much binding energy was in atoms, and when Einstein's theory of specal relativity included the equation E = mc2, showing that mass and energy were the same, it became natural to speculate whether it could be possible to release the energy of atoms somehow and produce vast amounts of energy.

So there were early science fiction stories using types of atomic energy, which seem more or less plausible - often much less plausible - according to modern knowledge, since the early 1900s at least.

One example is H.G. Wells's 1914 Novel The World Set Free.

Wells's knowledge of atomic physics came from reading William Ramsay, Ernest Rutherford, and Frederick Soddy; the last discovered the disintegration of uranium. Soddy's book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt praises The World Set Free. Wells's novel may even have influenced the development of nuclear weapons, as the physicist Leó Szilárd read the book in 1932, the same year the neutron was discovered. In 1933 Szilárd conceived the idea of neutron chain reaction, and filed for patents on it in 1934.[8]

Wells's "atomic bombs" have no more force than ordinary high explosive[dubious – discuss] and are rather primitive devices detonated by a "bomb-thrower" biting off "a little celluloid stud."[9] They consist of "lumps of pure Carolinum" that induce "a blazing continual explosion" whose half-life is seventeen days, so that it is "never entirely exhausted," so that "to this day the battle-fields and bomb fields of that frantic time in human history are sprinkled with radiant matter, and so centres of inconvenient rays."[10]

Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.[11]


With the coming of pulp science fiction magazines beginning in 1926, stories about peaceful or warlike use of atomic power became rather common, such as E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space (1928), begun in 1915.

So the phrase "atomic bomb" was used in some early stories.

For example, atomic bombs are used in Stanley G. Weibaum's short story "Redemption Cairn", Astounding Stories, March, 1936. Those were about the size of hand grenades, and much less powerful than real atomic bombs, and apparently were available for civilian as well as military use.

But nobody had any idea how to make atomic bombs in real life, until uranium fission was discoverd in 1938, and in the next few years various governments began projects to develop fission reactors for energy production and/or atomic bombs for war.


I read that column, and noticed there is no mention of fission, only fusion:

Nuclear energy is incomparably greater than the molecular energy which we use today. The coal a man can get in a day can easily do five hundred times as much work as the man himself. Nuclear energy is at least one million times more powerful still. If the hydrogen atoms in a pound of water could be prevailed upon to combine together and form helium, they would suffice to drive a thousandhorsepower engine for a whole year. If the electrons, those tiny planets of the atomic systems, were induced to combine with the nuclei in the hydrogen the horsepower liberated would be 120 times greater still.

Further, my take is that he's not primarily warning of war, but rather commenting on the pace of technological development and its effect on peacetime society.

  • $\begingroup$ This does not answer the question, whether he was the first, among politicians. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2021 at 13:05
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko yes it does, in that I disagree that this speech in any way, shape, or form anticipates a fission reaction, let alone wartime use of nuclear energy. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2021 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ Fission wouldn't be discovered till 1938, and was something of a surprise, so I doubt it would be anticipated by politicians or sci-fi authors. Similarily, Szilard is generally credited with the idea of a nuclear chain-reaction, and that wasn't until 1932. But the general realization that nuclear reactions were high energy, and theories that this energy could be harnassed for useful work (or blowing things up) came pretty quickly after Rutherfords discoveries, hence Churchill and Welles early speculations. $\endgroup$
    – simplicio
    Mar 10, 2021 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ @simplicio - more like the Curie's discoveries in radioactivity. They established the energy released in the various decays. $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 10, 2021 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ Of course Churchill could not know the details which scientists themselves did not know at that time, but the general idea that atomic energy will be used soon, with enormous consequences for mankind, is highly non-trivial for the early 1930s. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2021 at 19:06

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