There is a symbol or icon for an atom that is instantly recognizable and is associated with nuclear physics and with chemistry. A search for "nuclear atom symbol" (on 3/23/2023) shows what the essence of the symbol is:

enter image description here

While there are variations (3 or 4 orbits, nucleus shown or not, electrons shown or not), the orbits always seem to be circular, not coplanar, and stationary.

The US atomic energy commission adopted this icon in 1949, and both General Electric and the town of Richland, WA used it in 1948, see below:

enter image description hereenter image description here

Sources: left and right panel

By this time, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by nuclear (fission) bombs. Both the US and the USSR were developing nuclear reactors with a view to produce electricity, and to power submarines. Quantum physics had developed more sophisticated (but less picturesque) models of electrons bound to the nucleus (in a wave-particle duality and considering the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which did not support orbits).

Fifteen years earlier, the Bohr-Sommerfeld model posited elliptical orbits, as shown in this sketch by Bohr:

enter image description here

Source: https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/PT.3.1978

My question is whether there are examples of the atom icon that are pre-1948 and might have been the model for the 1948 examples that are shown above. How did we transition from many ways of depicting the structure of the atom to this iconic common one?

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    $\begingroup$ I posed a question on the Chemistry site asking about the reason the orbits are not coplanar. While similar, the question here is about popularization of the icon in the 1940s. $\endgroup$ Mar 23 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ Popularizing is one thing but the atomic model was first posited by Ernest Rutherford in 1911 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutherford_model $\endgroup$
    – DJohnson
    Apr 23 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @DJohnson Yes, I have a link to the relevant paper on the SE Chemistry post. Rutherford did not make claims about the electrons (the data support that the positive charge was in a nucleus). Instead, he wrote "The electrons may be supposed to be distributed throughout a spherical volume or in concentric rings in one plane". These depictions, on the other hand, have electrons on individual orbits in multiple planes. $\endgroup$ Apr 23 at 17:27

2 Answers 2


Prompted by some strange answers from chatGPT, I googled "atomic energy artists 1940s", which led me via a Pinterest collection of images to Herbert Bayer.

Hebert Bayer provided an image for a New York Times article published on August 12, 1945 (six days after the US detonated the atomic bomb over Nagasaki, and three days before the Emperor of Japan announced surrender) titled "We enter a new era - the atomic age":

enter image description here

Source: https://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2012/08/17/the-end-of-the-nuclear-age/

The artist, Herbert Bayer, worked for General Electric and published a promotional booklet "Electronics, a new science for a new world" in 1942 containing this image:

enter image description here

Source: https://twitter.com/lett_arc/status/1373318441474605066

In a lower resolution view of the double page in the booklet, you can see the Bohr atomic model on the right: enter image description here

Source: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/57280226491896307/

One of the scientists shown in the collage (based on this photo) is Irving Langmuir, a physical chemist who worked at General Electric. He was fully up-to-date on the developments of quantum mechanics, having attended the 1927 Solvay conference. The first Langmuir prize, named after Irving Langmuir and financed by his brother, was awarded to Linus Pauling in Buffalo, NY in 1931 for applying quantum mechanics to chemical bonds. With this high-profile physical chemist at General Electric, it is surprising that Herbert Bayer chose to show electrons in orbits rather than illustrating the more accurate quantum mechanical description that was already used to understand chemistry and electronics.

One page of this booklet (reproduced in black and white in the NY Times article) shows some atoms with electrons in orbits of varying radius, while one atom (on the far right over the yellow planet or sun) is the now common depiction with three orbits of equal radius:

enter image description here

Source: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/ge-general-electric-electronics-1860813924

Another work by Herbert Bayer from 1942 advertises radios (to be available after war-time restrictions) from General Electric, also showing the atomic whirl. enter image description here Source: https://miscman.com/product/j874your-coming-radio-as-forecast-by-general-electric/

While there might be other earlier drawings, the booklet from a major company combined with the image in the New York Times Magazine probably helped popularize this representation of the atom. General Electric continued to use this symbol when they started to advertise its nuclear power plants years later.


I'm adding this as an extended comment, taking advantage of the answer modality. It changes the subject a little, since the "atomic" fib is the 500lb gorilla in the room: The electron pseudo-planetary orbits of your iconic picture, indelibly connected in the popular imagination with nuclear energy, not chemistry!, have little to do, conceptually, with nuclear physics, energy, or weapons. Perhaps a separate question on the fib would attract interesting answers...

The symbolism for "atomic energy", "atomic bomb", "atomic age", etc... so misnamed and established in the popular consciousness after the Smyth Report (1945) and the establishment of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (1946), deliberately avoid "nuclear" as a summary of the fundamental processes involved. (Sure, you split the atom after splitting its nucleus, but the dominant processes and energy scales are those of nuclear, not atomic physics.) Here is the report .

I have heard the story, but lack documentation, that H dW Smyth deliberately avoided the darker "nuclear" in his report, in favor of "atomic" which had a benign image in popular science reporting of the 20s and 30s, and importantly, the science/fiction & fantasy circles of that time. Whether they used the planetary picture avatar there, I don't know, but it is in the purview of your question.

So, perhaps, the not-quite-ancillary question is of the actual adoption of that planetary symbol (classical as opposed to quantum mechanical, so deeply misleading even for atoms, to boot!) to paradoxically represent and summarize nuclear processes and energy in the popular imagination and memory.

Many nuclear programs all over the world have followed suit and blithely (mis)use that symbol in emulation... The silliest explanation is the one the Bing chatbot provided, that "atomic" refers to the "atomic nucleus": as though "atomic" is the crucial qualifier, lest one contemplated cellular nuclei?

Addendum : I have recently found

The original title of the report, before it was published in book form, was Nuclear Bombs: A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Nuclear Energy for Military Purposes Under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945. The word "nuclear" was changed to "atomic" because while the former was favoured by physicists, it was not in common use by the general public at that time. This was the title used on the copyright certificate. The book was copyrighted to Smyth but issued with the statement that "reproduction in whole or in part is authorized and permitted". Groves had the report copyrighted by Smyth in order to prevent someone else from copyrighting it. [pp 183-185. Smyth, Henry DeWolf (Spring 1976). The "Smyth Report". Princeton University Press. pp. 173–190. ISSN 0032—8456].

  • $\begingroup$ Already in 1914, H G Wells had used the fantasy term atomic bomb. $\endgroup$ Oct 2 at 21:08

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