Have You Ever Heard About ‘Gamma Gardens’ And The ‘Atomic Gardening’ Fad?

The first public showing of an ‘atomic garden’ took place on March 4, 1961 at the Home and Flower Show in Cleveland, Ohio - (Photo by Frank Scherschel for Life)

The first public showing of an ‘atomic garden’ took place on March 4, 1961 at the Home and Flower Show in Cleveland, Ohio – (Photo:  Frank Scherschel for LIFE Magazine)

The ‘atomic gardening fad’ was part of the ‘Atoms For Peace‘ program – it occurred during the late 50s to the mid-60s. Citizen gardeners, were encouraged to compete with one another in the field of radiation-induced mutagenesis – using irradiated seeds for plants and crops in order to mutate the offspring to make them bigger, more colorful, more resistant to disease and parasites, or to enhance fitness in stressful environmental conditions, such as drought, frost, or poor soils.

Dr. Speas' Atomic Seed Advert

Dr. Speas’ Atomic Seed Advert, Chicago Daily Tribune (Graphic via LSF Magazine)

In 1960 dentist-turned-entrepreneur, Clarence J. Speas, founded Oak Ridge Atom Industries, Inc. to sell ‘atomic’ products. Speas, via Oak Ridge, became a major player in the citizen ‘atomic gardening fad’ – to encourage interest, Oak Ridge sponsored a contest for the ‘most unusual plant’ with a prize of $3,000 and agreed to ‘purchase or pay royalties on new varieties deemed to have commercial value.’

This atomic age fad has pretty much faded from history and is usually only referred to in relation to contemporary arguments that surround the use of GMOs by major corporate players like Monsanto.  Supporters for the use of GMOs argue that genetic modification of plants and crops is a part of agricultural history for thousands of years – the ‘atomic garden fad’ is an example of how state, corporate, and citizen cooperation can go a long way in viable research through understanding and acceptance of this fact. Those more suspicious of corporate GMO research and implementation of genetically modified plants and crops point out that the ‘atomic garden fad’ was a rare moment of open and shared information between science and the citizen – today’s genetic-modification programs are sheltered from discussion by copyright claims and intellectual property privacy.

Nanotechnology researcher and gardening enthusiast, Paige Johnson, hopes to shed some new light on this mid-century fad. From her research so far she notes that very little information is available about the results related to the citizen gardening. It’s possible that the government may have some research data but it is not easily found. An interesting 2011 interview is posted at the Pruned website here.

It’s interesting to note that while the atomic backyard gardening fad pretty much faded from public attention in the mid-60s, no one is quite sure how many irradiated seeds are still in circulation, or if and how many smaller crops are offspring from generations of genetically modified parents. Also, large scale radiation breeding never actually stopped and is now experiencing a renaissance due to the introduction of ‘new methods that speed up the identification of mutants.’ Below is a photo of the world’s largest ‘gamma garden’ located in Hitachiohmiya, Japan. It has an ‘88.8 Terabecquerel Cobalt-60 source, ringed by a 3,608-foot radius Gamma field, and a 28-foot high shield dike around the perimeter.’

Aerial view of the Institute of Radiation Breeding, Hitachiohmiya, Japan

Aerial view of the Institute of Radiation Breeding, Hitachiohmiya, Japan (Photo via Edible Geography)

Info and Photographic Resources:
Life Science Foundation
Edible Geography

The Present Technology Of 1955 – ‘The Future Is Now’ (Short Film)


A new language has come into currency. To the public it is a language of the future. To the scientist a language of the present. This then is a report on our ‘present-future.’ Some of it profound, some of it mere gadgetry.

The Future Is Now is an RKO-Pathé film short released in 1955. This documentary is notable as it presents a more realistic near-future of technology than a lot of the more fanciful visions of the time. All the examples have actual working prototypes.

We visit government research laboratories to see some of the products that will be used in the near future.

As with a lot of the technology documentaries of the time, the film begins at a nuclear reactor showing how, ‘Nuclear energy goes to work – not destroying, but serving mankind.’ Solar energy is then introduced – the prediction was that this form of energy would become more prevalent than nuclear power, even turning ‘deserts into lush green fertility.’

Part one covers computers, television, magnetic tape, the home videotape recorder, a videophone, an electronic music synthesizer, cordless lights, and an automated kitchen.

Part two continues with the futuristic kitchen including ‘preserving foods with gamma rays instead of refrigeration.’ A bit more alarming is the irradiation of crops that were an ‘important part of the Atoms For Peace program.’ The final examples of the present-future technology of 1955 are handling mechanisms for radioactive materials complete with music fit for a wondrous modern ballet.

In the final analysis however, the key to the future is not an apparatus, a machine, or an electronic tube, but the brainpower of man. Nothing will ever replace creative intelligence.

As a final thought, it should be noted that women researchers and developers are conspicuously absent in the final segment despite their major contributions to the technologies praised throughout the film – Marie Curie’s work with radioactivity, Grace Hopper in computer technology, and Hedy Lamarr’s work in spread spectrum communications and national defense, just to name a few. As a matter of fact, Lamarr’s contributions wouldn’t be appreciated and recognized until the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Sixth Pioneer Awards in 1997, when she and George Antheil were honored with special awards for their ‘trail-blazing development of a technology that has become a key component of wireless data systems.’ The absence of women as contributors to future technologies is perhaps more chauvinistic than misogynistic, but it certainly illustrates and helps to explain why none but the most spirited girls and women chose engineering and technological fields for study and careers during the time.

‘Atoms For Peace’ – ‘Emotional Management’ During The Cold War

Atoms For Peace

Atoms For Peace public awareness vehicle. Pic via Atomic Samba

‘Atoms for Peace’ was the title of a speech delivered by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the UN General Assembly in New York City on December 8, 1953.

I feel impelled to speak today in a language that in a sense is new – one which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use.

That new language is the language of atomic warfare.

The United States then launched an “Atoms for Peace” program that supplied equipment and information to schools, hospitals, and research institutions within the U.S. and throughout the world. The first nuclear reactors in Iran and Pakistan were built under the program by American Machine and Foundry.

The speech was part of a carefully orchestrated media campaign, called ‘Operation Candor’, to enlighten the American public on the risks and hopes of a nuclear future. It was a propaganda component of the Cold War strategy of containment. Eisenhower’s speech opened a media campaign that would last for years and that aimed at ’emotion management’, balancing fears of continuing nuclear armament with promises of peaceful use of uranium in future nuclear reactors. The speech was a tipping point for international focus on peaceful uses of atomic energy, even during the early stages of the Cold War. It has been argued that Eisenhower, with some influence from J. Robert Oppenheimer, was attempting to convey a spirit of comfort to a terrified world after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and of the nuclear tests of the early 1950s.

It presents an ostensible antithesis to brinkmanship, the international intrigue that subsequently kept the world at the edge of war.

via Wikipedia