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In the early "Atomic Age", nuclear technology was generally termed "atomic" in English. There was "A-bomb", "atomic reactor" and "Atomic Energy Commission".

But over time the word "nuclear" gained ascendance. Nowadays it is used almost exclusively, even the nickname for nuclear weapons is "nuke".

Obviously, nuclear is technically more correct, since this technology manipulates the nucleus, and uses its binding energy, but how did the more correct usage catch on? Who were the first to consistently say "nuclear"? When and how did the government begin to use it to name things? Did it go differently in the US and in the UK?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – sempaiscuba Jul 1 at 21:46
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    I'll note that, following Hiroshima, "atomic" came to be associated with fission bombs. When "hydrogen" bombs were first tested there was confusion as to what would be an appropriate term to cover both types. "Nuclear" was chosen for use in "everyday" lingo in large part because it didn't imply one vs the other. – Hot Licks Jul 1 at 22:31
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Let's take Harry Truman as an example. He was born in 1884. The electron was discovered in 1897, which would have been Truman's freshman year at Independence High School. If he did take a physics or chemistry class at that school or at Spalding's Commercial College, models of the structure of atoms would not yet have been part of the standard curriculum. Maybe if he'd had a teacher who was exceptionally up to date on the latest advances in physics, that person might have mentioned the latest speculations on such things, including the brand-new plum pudding model of the atom. In that model, the atom consisted of some electrons along with a spherical part possessing a positive charge. Because chemical reactions don't change one element into another, the best understanding at the time was that the this spherical part was immutable. The spherical part didn't have a standardized name. Physicists might refer to it as the "nebula" or the "pudding," but for lack of a specialized term, generally they would just call it the "atom" and depend on context so that it would be clear they meant just the positively charged part.

If you wanted, for example, to change lead into gold, then you would have to split the lead "atom" (its positive sphere) into two smaller parts. This impossible feat would then be referred to as "splitting the atom."

The atomic nucleus was discovered around 1911-1913 by Rutherford et al. So Truman would have grown up knowing the word "nucleus" only as a word that could refer to things like the nucleus of a cell, or figurative usages such as "the nucleus of a new communist movement in Russia." Nuclear fission was discovered in 1938-9, so it was cutting-edge science during WW II. Laypeople like Truman didn't know about this kind of thing in any detail, and therefore didn't have the new and specialized vocabulary for talking about it.

From a modern point of view, we would say that both fission and fusion are nuclear processes, and we would talk about "nuclear energy," "nuclear fission," and "harnessing the power of the nucleus." But when political and military leaders talked about these things in the WW II era, they would use the vocabulary that they already knew: "atomic energy," "splitting the atom," and "harnessing the power of the atom." As shown by Brian Z's google ngrams graphs, it took until ca. 1950-1970 for the more precise and appropriate technical terminology to filter into the popular consciousness. Even Jimmy Carter, who did nuclear engineering work in the US Navy, would pronounce the word as "nucular."

Mark C. Wallace wrote in a comment:

Atomic splits the atom (fission); nuclear fuses nuclei (fusion) - they are two different processes. Neither is more accurate in general.

This is wrong. Fission splits the nucleus. Fusion fuses nuclei. Both are nuclear processes. Examples of atomic processes are things like chemical reactions, fluorescence, or the emission of light by a neon sign.

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    Excellent recap of both the physics itself, and its historical development. This broadening of the discourse in the general population strikes me as at least sound reasoning on the shift. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 29 at 20:49
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    Actually, Truman, who took Latin in high school, would have grown up knowing the existing broadly-applicable meaning of "nucleus". It always means the kernel of something, its central part. What happened was that Physics and Chemistry gained something with a kernel/shell metaphor, like computing was to do roughly half a century later, not that "nucleus" gained a meaning per se. – JdeBP Jun 30 at 5:35
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    I'm not sure about the pronunciation detail. Even in the 80s I grew up with lots of people who pronounced it like that; more likely to me just seemed to be regional. – UuDdLrLrSs Jun 30 at 16:49
  • I thought that pronunciation thing was just a Simpson’s joke ~ – Jan Jul 1 at 12:45
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    @Jan I'm guessing you're young enough to not have much experience listening to George W. Bush then. You might find this interesting reading... – Joe Jul 1 at 14:42
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At least regarding when, we can see with Google Books Ngrams.

First let's look at "atomic energy" vs. "nuclear energy":

"atomic energy" vs. "nuclear energy" ngram

In the 1940s, both terms were in use, but "atomic energy" was the far more common one, by about factor of 10 in the late 1940s and by a factor of 4 in the late 1950s. But the popularity of "atomic energy" then began to decline sharply. Particularly after 1970, discussion of "nuclear energy" increased, peaking in 1980.

If we look instead at "atomic weapon" vs "nuclear weapon", the picture is very different:

"atomic weapon" vs "nuclear weapon ngram

There was little if any mention of a "nuclear weapon" before 1950, but that term began to pick up rapidly, surpassing "atomic weapon" before 1960, and peaking after 1980.

Regarding how, it's still not clear to me, but the above suggests that focus did shift through the Cold War from the promises of "atomic energy" toward the threat of "nuclear weapons".


EDIT: As Xerxes points out in a comment, over 40% of the mentions of "Atomic Energy" after 1970 are specifically referring to older agencies, "Atomic Energy Agency" and "Atomic Energy Commission".

enter image description here

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  • I like this reasoning. Perhaps the "how" relates to the hydrogen bomb, and the development past purely "atomic" energy release once the processes were better understood? Just guessing here... Try "nuclear bomb" vs "atomic bomb" vs "hydrogen bomb"; the link is too long to include here but interesting. – gktscrk Jun 29 at 16:08
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    I might note that the talks for SALT I begin in 1969 and the Cold War ends in 1989-90, respectively corresponding roughly to the start and end of both humps in the use of "nuclear" above. – Pieter Geerkens Jun 29 at 20:53
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    Dune was published in 1965, little more than a decade after "atomics" was all the rage in science fiction, as exemplified by (for starters) the writings of the influential John W. Campbell, who had "atomics" in Cloak of Aesir (1939) and who even wrote The Atomic Story (1947), a science popularization that went alongside George Gamow's Atomic Energy in Cosmic and Human Life (1945) and O.R.Frisch's Meet the Atoms (1947). Contrast "nuclear wessels" (1986) and the late 20th century dropping of "nuclear" from NMRI. – JdeBP Jun 30 at 6:13
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    @FrankHopkins Dune happens in our universe; Earth is one of the two major inhabited planets that was either rendered uninhabitable or outright destroyed (it's not clear which). But their atomics are quite different from our atomics, ranging all the way up to weapons that shatter planets. It should also be noted that Herbert was 45 when he published Dune - he grew up on nuclear technology being called atomic ("to deal with changing the atoms", i.e. the part of matter that doesn't change in chemical reactions). – Luaan Jun 30 at 8:26
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    You have to be a little careful with these N-Grams. "Atomic Energy" fossilized into the language from a couple obsolete uses: "Atomic Energy Agency" and "Atomic Energy Commission". By 1970, they accounted for about half of all remaining uses of "atomic energy": books.google.com/ngrams/… – Xerxes Jun 30 at 17:25
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There are still quite a lot of uses of "atomic" in this kind of context floating around, particular in organisation names. For eaxmple, in the UK, the Atomic Weapons Establishment is responsible for the maintenance of the UK's nuclear weapons arsenal; the International Atomic Energy Agency is a body involved in use of nuclear power - I'm sure there are more examples. These were both formed in the 1950s and haven't had the "atomic" in their names replaced with "nuclear", unlike the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which replaced the Atomic Energy Commission in the US in the 1970s.

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