It is a self-deception often perpetuated by the people responsible for developing them, that technologies are essentially politically neutral things, and that ultimate responsibility for the good or bad things that they do rests in the hands of their users. The problem with this is that the very idea of tech as neutral is an ideological stance. Technologies are always carriers of particular beliefs about how the world works (or ought to). Even centuries after the moment of its invention, traces of the political circumstances of a technology’s development remain, intrinsic to the form of the machine.
It is a self-deception often perpetuated by the people responsible for developing them, that technologies are essentially politically neutral things, and that ultimate responsibility for the good or bad things that they do rests in the hands of their users.
Klara and the Bomb is what you might call an alternative or lost history of several important high technologies of the twentieth century, primarily focusing on the atomic and hydrogen bomb projects in which the titular Klara von Neumann, and her husband John von Neumann were important figures. But the weaponization of the atom is also only a starting point to consider a set of interlinked technologies and the political import of these things, particularly for histories of gender and colonialism, but like the splitting of the atom, also rippling far beyond them.
The headline message of the book might be that while women played a major part in these projects, they quickly found that legacy downplayed or ignored completely. In an unpublished auto-biography Klara called herself ‘an insignificant insect…swept up by the hurricane force’ but this modesty about her own contributions also conceals the fact that this was a hurricane generated by the wings of the hundreds of thousands of insects that it swept up, both men and women, of which only a tiny number of ‘great men’ have generally received significant recognition.
If this history sounds familiar, it’s one echoed again in fields like computing and photography, and the book very much overlaps the development of atomic weapons with these fields. As Bennes explains, advances in computing paved the way for advances in bombs, while the need to run simulations of ever more destructive weapons demanded increasingly complex computation. As the historian of science Marr Hicks has shown, with the growing importance of these other fields, women were also increasingly shifted out of the roles they occupied and replaced with often less able men, with consequences not only for the historical record, but also for the ongoing development of these fields.
Another important strand of the book is the colonial legacy of atomic testing, represented here by the tests that took place on the Marshall Islands in the equatorial Pacific. The Marshallese were forced from their homes in 1946 so that it could become one of the principal US nuclear weapons test sites, including the site of the first hydrogen bomb detonation. The islands remain heavily contaminated to this day, and a growing source of concern as climate changes causes sea levels to rise and entombed radioactive debris is increasingly uncovered.
… we like to flatter ourselves that visual saturation is an entirely contemporary problem, but documentation of the Trinity Test, the first atomic detonation in 1945, produced 100,000 photographs of an event which lasted a matter of seconds.
Visually, Klara and the Bomb relies heavily on archival images and documents, with occasional contemporary photographs by Bennes, many of them depicting key locations from the story of the Neumann as those places are today. The variety of imagery is huge – incorporating press cuttings, movie stills, and scientific documentation – and at times overwhelming. Given the nature of the subject matter this is unsurprising and perhaps appropriate. After all, we like to flatter ourselves that visual saturation is an entirely contemporary problem, but documentation of the Trinity Test, the first atomic detonation in 1945, produced 100,000 photographs of an event which lasted a matter of seconds.
What marks Klara and the Bomb apart from most photo books however is the extent and depths of the texts which also run through it and alongside the visual elements. In these texts, Bennes (who is a double PhD, and it shows) weaves together a rich network of sources, from historians of science and technology to her own research with primary sources from the project. It almost feels like a disservice to call this a photobook, because there is so much more to it.
Beyond some interesting insights into recent history, Klara and the Bomb is also timely in that it comes at the same time as renewed interest in nuclear power as a means of carbon neutral energy generation. Setting aside continued atomic geopolitics, even if we agree that nuclear power has a part to play in a more environmentally friendly future (some would say an impossible arrangement) it’s still important we understand that this is not a simple case of nuclear swords into ploughshares. As Bennes’s book reminds us, in many countries the entire impetus behind the development of civilian nuclear power was the production of isotopes for nuclear weapons, and traces of this authoritarian history remain in it today, always still in at risk of resurfacing.