The Atomic Energy Commission Seal (1949)

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 13th, 2012

Jeffrey Lewis recently posted at ACW a rare piece of stationery that contains the seal of the General Department of Atomic Energy in North Korea. I thought it was interesting:

It’s basically the Juche Tower surrounded by some standard graphical representations of electron orbitals. (I also learned, from talking to a friend last week, that the North Korean missile names like Taepodong-2, Nodong, etc., are Western designations given based on the region in which they were first seen by intelligence agencies. The exception to this so far was the Unha-3 rocket that fizzled yesterday, which got its name from the fact that it basically had “Unha-3” written on the side of it. Unha apparently means something like Galaxy or The Milky Way. All of this was news to me, but I’m not a Korea-watcher. But I’m digressing.)

It got me thinking back to a topic I’m perennially interested in, which is the way in which atomic energy programs are self-represented. I have a long post in the works about the origins of the emblem/seal/logo of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has an interesting story behind it. But for today, I want to share some things I found in the National Archives relating to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) seal.

A cast-aluminum, painted version of the AEC seal. The Department of Energy’s History Office had one of these on its walls the last time I visited.

The AEC seal is one of those great totems of the atomic age. A largely symmetrical and stylized representation of an atom (the highly toxic beryllium, but who’s counting?), it is strikingly more straightforward than the seals of its successor organizations, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy:

ERDA’s seal is entirely misleading (unless one interprets that “sun” to be an exploding nuclear fireball, I suppose), while the DOE’s is a design-by-committee monstrosity. (You can imagine the committee meeting. “Let’s have sun, and an atom, and an oil well, and a windmill, and, uh, a turbine, I guess, and maybe, um, lightning? And all of it on a shield. With a bald eagle’s head on top of it. That would look so killer.”)

By contrast, the AEC seal is simple, efficient, and reasonably accurate. A real triumph of late-1940s government graphic design. It also reproduces well when reduced in size, which is more than you can say about the DOE logo:

So where’d it come from? One thing that I was surprised to come across in the AEC’s records is the fact that the famous AEC seal was created no sooner than January1949 — two years after the AEC was created (the AEC officially came into existence and took over from the Manhattan Project in January 1947, but was being organized and meeting as early as 1946). For the first few years, they didn’t use a seal at all, they just wrote “ATOMIC ENERGY COMMISSION” on everything.

Not exactly the historical revelation of the year, but it’s interesting how easily we take for granted something like this. I guess I had always assumed that the seal was born with the organization.

The AEC Commissioners met on January 18, 1949, to select a seal. They chose “a design based on a model of a nucleus,” according to a Status Report Extract from the period. This isn’t quite right, as it isn’t really a nucleus at all, it’s an atom. (It happens to have a nucleus, but a “model of a nucleus” would presumably be more than a simple dot.)

The version the AEC Commissioners approved at the January meeting is almost the final version, but some changes were made. It has the appearance of a draft:

Click to zoom.

The final seal wasn’t finished until March 1949. As one AEC employee wrote to another, in the final version, “the center design is smaller and the band a little wider. Also after checking around a little, I have found that most seals have the name on top and the full ‘United States of America’ at the bottom. Therefore, the wording and the position have been changed.”1 This also necessitated changes in the number of stars, for example. Here is the final, official seal that was deposited into the AEC files:

Click to zoom.

You can see that, over the years, they moved away from a Gotham-like typeface to something a bit more condensed (it is fairly similar to Franklin Gothic Condensed). They also tended to make the margin between the atom and the ring slightly smaller — about half of what it is in “final” version above.

In any event, the AEC logo became something of a template for a lot of other nation’s equivalent organizations, something I’ll post about another time.

There is a wonderously huge carving of the AEC logo in the marble that adorns the Department of Energy’s Germantown, Maryland, headquarters. I think of it as rather tangible sign of the persistent legacy of the (nuclear) Cold War in our modern (nuclear) world. Unfortunately, I can’t find a picture of the Germantown building lobby, and the DOE doesn’t let outsiders bring in cameras, so I don’t have a photo to share of this.

This is sort of a silly thing, but I’m such a fan of the AEC’s seal that I’ve actually had it printed up on a few things. I have a rather silly little Cafe Press store, should you yourself design that AEC-adorned gear is something you’d find amusing, and not, say, a reminder of really awful things perpetuated in the name of national security. I can understand either interpretation!

That’s not coffee, that’s nuclear waste! Oh, wait, actually it’s just coffee. It just *tastes* like nuclear waste.

In case you are wondering, the logo I’ve used on the mug and other sundry objects is derived from the “stamp” image posted above, so it has a gritty realism to it. Any meager profits will go towards my server expenses.

  1. Tony Favale to Philip J. Farley (28 March 1949), AEC General Correspondence 1946-1951, Record Group 326, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, Box 18, Folder “AEC Official Seal.” All other correspondence or archival scans here are from the same source. []

10 Responses to “The Atomic Energy Commission Seal (1949)”

  1. kevin says:

    not as cool as the Manhattan Project lapel pin, but still pretty cool. I may need to put a mug (and a pin, $200+ on e-bay) on my Christmas list.

    • Ain’t nothing like the real thing, as the song says. You can actually get one of those cast-aluminum AEC logos on ebay at the moment, but it’ll run you a cool grand. A little rich for my blood.

      My mother actually found the lapel pin on Craigslist for pretty cheap, from some estate sale or something like that. Whomever was selling it wasn’t entirely aware of what it was. (She paid the guy a little more than he was asking for, for it, but it was not as expensive as the eBay ones.) It has an honored position in my household, in any case, next to a Chernobyl “liquidator,” a “Young Leninist” pin, and a ubiquitous 1947 “Lone Ranger” atomic bomb ring. (My wife fortunately shares the same tastes as I do in this respect.)

  2. Tony says:

    Hi, love your blog, and sorry to leave this here, but I didn’t see an email address to use.

    It seems that “The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge office recently started to digitize its collection of archival photos and share them.”

    more info here:

  3. Charles says:

    I love that you’ve printed the AEC logo on an Apron and Bib, along with recreating it in a necklace and Earrings! If I were a girl, I’d wear them… Unfortunately, my girlfriend doesn’t share my taste or interest in these things.

  4. ShockwaveLover says:

    I love that the Unha-3 got its name from the fact it basically had “Unha-3″ written on the side of it.

  5. […] us to the eyes of the long dead as they gaze upon horrible maps or bizarre security videos or the emblems of the atomic institutions or even just one another’s hairstyles. A hauntingly grim painting that I’d love to know […]

  6. […] The staid seal of the US Atomic Energy Commission cannot really compete for hipness, though it gets major nostalgia points and I love it dearly. […]

  7. […] of this is a stark contrast from the US Atomic Energy Commission’s emblem, whose symbolism seems to have been, “it’s an atom, stupid.” I hereby promote the […]

  8. Mike Walker says:

    This is great stuff. I found it while searching for information on the visual culture of the AEC and wound up writing about your blog here on my own blog over at Nuclear Street. I am so glad we have a professional historian of your caliber doing a blog like this!

    As an aside, the “Base Camp” remote runway that was once associated with the Nevada Test Site has a VOR navigational aid that broadcasts (or at least has in recent history) in Morse code “AEC”, a leftover from its heyday as part of the AEC activity out there.