Design Friday. Cold War Era Nuclear Fallout Calculators.

When you think about graphic design, the last thing you probably think about is total nuclear destruction, or chemical weapons, but back during the analog days of the cold war the two were oddly connected. The images below are analog calculators from the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. They come from a period of time when the world was locked in a cold war, with the possibility of it turning nuclear hot. These calculators were used by the military to quickly determine in the field things like blast potential, damage potential, fall out rates, chemical weapons effects. They are chilling, oddly fascinating, and in some ways striking examples of visual design.

Each of these calculators follows a basic design formula. They had to be easy to read, and use in extreme conditions. For the most part they follow that rule. Type faces are sans serif, color pallets are bright or minimal, legibility is good even though they had to cram so much data into each one, the layout while predetermined by the math, is visually appealing, and if you look at these objects removed from their original context, they are visually interesting. From a production standpoint we have to bear in mind that the original design for these objects was completely done by hand using ink pens, french curves, ruby-lith, and possibly type pasted up by hand. Pretty impressive when you think about the intricate curves, and type that is set on an arc.

If you want to know more about these devices, why and how they were used, click through to Calculating for some fairly interesting reading.

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One comment

  1. Wow… That brings back memories… In 1982-83 I was a soldier in Germany (which, at the time had the highest proliferation of nuclear warheads per square mile, on both side of the iton curtain) and stationed as a radio operator at division headquarters in Kassel.
    I was assigned to the barracks commander who simultaneously was the head of NBC (Nuclear-Biological-Chemical) warfare. That was the habit in the German army at the time…
    Our calculators were a little more on the fancy side and we had to also analyze the weather report (prevailing winds at various altitudes) to predict the area of the fallout. Along with those fallout values we had to include 12-24-48 hour calculation of the availability of the troops which were exposed (how many would be killed immediately and then a probability calculation of how many soldiers could still be used in combat over the next two days).
    …Good times…

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