What is the Doomsday Clock? A Timeline of Catastrophic Threat | History Hit

What is the Doomsday Clock? A Timeline of Catastrophic Threat

Harry Atkins

30 Mar 2023
A clock set to two minutes to midnight
Image Credit: Linda Parton / Shutterstock.com

The Doomsday Clock is a symbolic clock used by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to indicate how close humanity is to global catastrophe. The nearer the clock is to midnight, the closer we are to destruction.

The clock was devised in 1947 – with an initial time of 23:53 – in an effort to convey the urgency of the issue in an instantly familiar format and “frighten men into rationality”, according to the Bulletin‘s first editor. You won’t be surprised to learn from the Doomsday Clock timeline below that the clock has crept considerably closer to midnight since 1947.

Since then, it has been set and reset 22 times, with a recent adjustment occurring in January 2020. In response to concerns about nuclear weapons and climate change, the clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it’s ever been to Doomsday.

What is the Doomsday Clock?

The Trinity test of the Manhattan Project was the first detonation of a nuclear weapon

Image Credit: United States Department of Energy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the Doomsday Clock date to 1947, when a group of atomic researchers who had been involved with developing nuclear weapons for the United States’ Manhattan Project began publishing a magazine called Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Two years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this community of nuclear experts was clearly troubled by the implications of nuclear warfare. As a result, the Doomsday Clock first emerged as a graphic concept on the cover of the Bulletin’s June 1947 edition.

Who sets the Doomsday Clock?

From its conception until his death in 1973, the clock was set by Manhattan Project scientist and Bulletin editor Eugene Rabinowitch, largely according to the current state of nuclear affairs. His first adjustment, in October 1949, reflected an increasingly parlous set of circumstances. The Soviet Union had tested its first atomic bomb and the nuclear arms race was just hitting its stride. Rabinowitch set the clock forward four minutes to 23:57.

Since Rabinovitch’s death, the clock has been set by a panel of experts comprising members of the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board and its Board of Sponsors, which includes more than a dozen Nobel laureates and other international experts in key technologies.

Any decision to adjust the clock emerges from biannual panel debates. These aim to assess the current state of global imperilment and decide if the world is safer or more dangerous than it was the previous year.

A timeline of the Doomsday Clock

The evolution of the Doomsday Clock through the years

Image Credit: Dimitrios Karamitros / Shutterstock.com

Looking back at a timeline of the Doomsday Clock offers an interesting overview of 75 years of geopolitical ebbs and flows. While the overarching trend has undoubtedly been towards heightening danger, the clock has been set back on eight occasions, reflecting a perceived reduction of catastrophic threat.

1947 (7 minutes to midnight): Two years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Doomsday Clock is first set.

1949 (3 minutes to midnight): The Soviet Union tests its first atomic bomb and the clock leaps forward 4 minutes to reflect the commencement of the nuclear arms race.

1953 (2 minutes to midnight): The nuclear arms race escalates with the emergence of hydrogen bombs. The US tested its first thermonuclear device in 1952, followed by the Soviet Union a year later. The clock is closer to midnight that it will be at any point until 2020.

1960 (7 minutes to midnight): As the Cold War developed the 1950s saw a succession of nuclear close calls, such as the 1956 Suez Crisis and 1958 Lebanon Crisis. But by 1960 there was evidently an impression that measures were being taken to dampen tensions and allay the threat of nuclear catastrophe.

1963 (12 minutes to midnight): America and the Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting all test detonations of nuclear weapons except for those conducted underground. Despite tense nuclear standoffs like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Doomsday Clock assessment heralds the treaty as an “encouraging event” and knocks a further five minutes off the clock.

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1968 (7 minutes to midnight): A turbulent geopolitical period resulted in a substantial five-minute addition to the clock. Along with the intensification of the Vietnam War, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by France and China, neither of which signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, contributed to a ramping up of global tension.

1969 (10 minutes to midnight): With most countries in the world (bar India, Israel and Pakistan) signing the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Rabinovitch detected a significant steadying of nuclear instability and the Doomsday Clock was adjusted accordingly.

1972 (12 minutes to midnight): The threat of nuclear devastation was further diminished thanks to the US and Soviet Union signing two more treaties: the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty.

1974 (9 minutes to midnight): After 14 years of the Doomsday Clock moving in a reassuring direction, the Bulletin reversed the positive trend in 1974. It noted that the “international nuclear arms race has gathered momentum and is now more than ever beyond control”.

1980 (7 minutes to midnight): The US refused to ratify the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, the Soviet-Afghan War began and the Bulletin moved the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight, citing the “irrationality of national and international actions”.

1981 (4 minutes to midnight): Nuclear tensions ramped up considerably. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and America adopted a more hard-line Cold War position following the election of Ronald Reagan. The Hollywood actor turned President argued that the only way to end the Cold War was to win it and dismissed arms reduction talks with the Soviet Union.

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1984 (3 minutes to midnight): The Soviet-Afghan War intensified and the US continued to escalate the arms race, deploying missiles in Western Europe. The Soviet Union and most of its allies boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

1988 (6 minutes to midnight): US-Soviet relations improved with the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This banned all of the two nations’ land-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with ranges of 500–1,000 km (310–620 mi) (short medium-range) and 1,000–5,500 km (620–3,420 mi) (intermediate-range).

1990 (10 minutes to midnight): The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain signal that the Cold War is nearing its end. The clock is put back another three minutes.

1991 (17 minutes to midnight): The US and USSR signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) and the Soviet Union dissolved. The clock was further from midnight than it had ever been.

1995 (14 minutes to midnight): The clock edged three minutes closer to midnight as global military spending showed no sign of decreasing and the eastward expansion of NATO threatened to cause Russian unrest.

1998 (9 minutes to midnight): With the news that India and Pakistan were both testing nuclear devices, the Bulletin noted a heightened sense of peril and moved the clock forward by five minutes.

2002 (7 minutes to midnight): The US vetoed a series of arm controls and announced its intent to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty due to the perceived threat of a nuclear terrorist attack.

2007 (5 minutes to midnight): Along with news of North Korea’s nuclear tests and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the Bulletin highlighted the threat of climate change. It moved the clock forward by two minutes.

2010 (6 minutes to midnight): The New START nuclear arms reduction treaty was ratified by the US and Russia and further disarmament talks are planned. The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference recognised that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the present day and that actions should be taken to keep any temperature increases to below 2 °C.

2012 (5 minutes to midnight): The Bulletin criticised a lack of global political action to address climate change and decrease nuclear stockpiles.

2015 (3 minutes to midnight): The clock edged forward another two minutes with the Bulletin citing “unchecked climate change, global nuclear modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals”.

2017 (2 ½ minutes to midnight): President Trump’s public dismissal of climate change and comments about nuclear weapons prompted the Bulletin to move the clock forward by half a minute.

2018 (2 minutes to midnight): Under Trump’s administration, the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Information warfare and “disruptive technologies” such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and cyberwarfare are cited as further threats to humanity.

2020 (100 seconds to midnight): The end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) between the United States and Russia and other mounting nuclear concerns were cited by the Bulletin as the clock moved closer to midnight than ever before.

Harry Atkins