What is the first person to gain their superpowers through exposure to radiation? I am thinking of comic book heroes and ionizing radiation (such as gamma rays) rather than, for example, folklore where someone gains powers from ordinary sunlight (although I am not aware of any such stories). The person gaining superpowers could be a superhero, a supervillain, or a super-couch-potato.

Toxic sludge doesn't count, unless the sludge is radioactive. Spider bites have to be from radioactive spiders, etc.

This question is highly related, but it didn't ask for the earliest example, and neither answer lists specific examples. The article linked to by Darius's answer on that page hints that the idea of radiation causing superpowers originated in the 1950s, when society was concerned about the effects of radiation. But the public was already aware of the dangers of radiation in the 1940s, if not earlier.

When was the first story about someone gaining superpowers from exposure to ionizing radiation? The story doesn't necessarily have to be from comic books.


Addendum: I wrote this question with comic-book heroes in mind, and Jonah's answer seems to be the earliest example of a superhero gaining his powers from radiation, in 1945. But since I didn't limit the question to comics, other people posted several very good answers from earlier science fiction.

  • Probably not the first, but Godzilla also was from the 1950s - 1954. – Andrew Grimm Apr 17 '16 at 7:34
  • someone gains powers from ordinary sunlight -- that would be Superman. Though most modern viewers may not be fully aware on the origin of Superman's powers (most seem to simply assume that he's powerful simply because he's Superman) it is the light of our yellow sun that gives him his powers – slebetman Apr 18 '16 at 10:08
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    @slebetman - If anything, modern viewers would be more aware. Was the source of Superman's power even established right from the start? I thought the yellow sun/power connection wasn't part of the original story, but retconned in later. Back in the early days, people didn't need an explanation for things. He was powerful just because he was Superman, and that was enough. – Darrel Hoffman Apr 18 '16 at 14:11
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    @DarrelHoffman Originally, much like John Carter from Mars, Krypton just had a higher gravity than Earth, giving him increased strength and leaping abilities. The Sun connection came much later, much like a lot of his powers. – J A Terroba Apr 18 '16 at 17:17
  • It didn't occur to me until today that TVTropes would have an article on this: I Love Nuclear Power. None of the answers on this page are covered in the TVTropes article though. – Molag Bal May 3 '16 at 5:26
up vote 50 down vote accepted

The Invisible Man - H. G. Wells, 1897

In discussing the process used to turn the protagonist invisible, Wells writes:

...the essential phase was to place the transparent object whose refractive index was to be lowered between two radiating centres of a sort of ethereal vibration, of which I will tell you more fully later. No, not those Röntgen vibrations—I don't know that these others of mine have been described. Yet they are obvious enough.

"Ethereal vibrations" is a 19th century term meaning radiation. (This is from a time before Einstein had pinned down the interpretation of the Michelson-Morley experiment, and radiation was thought to be due to vibrations in an ever-present "ether".) "Röntgen vibrations" refers specifically to X-rays, which had been discovered only two years previously.

So Wells' protagonist got his invisibility "super power" by exposure to some form of radiation similar to X-rays, but different. It's a striking early example of unusual abilities being associated with exposure to radiation.

There is one little technical detail that might make this debatable: we don't actually know if the radiation in Wells' story was ionising or not. This question isn't addressed in the story, and couldn't be, because such a concept didn't quite exist in science at the time. (The electron was discovered in the same year; gamma rays wouldn't be discovered until 1900.) But given that you only specified "ionising radiation" in order to avoid mundane things like sunlight, I suspect this counts as the earliest example of what you're looking for.

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    From a bit of searching, it looks like every type of EM radiation except for gamma rays had been discovered by 1897. The passage you quote makes it clear that the radiation he used was an undiscovered form of EM radiation, so it seems that H. G. Wells was referring to gamma rays, which had been predicted already by Maxwell's equations but not yet detected. Reading a bit farther in the book, it sounds like becoming invisible was a two-step process: a drug to bleach the blood and exposure to radiation to become entirely invisible. I'd say this counts as an to my question. – Molag Bal Apr 17 '16 at 20:57

1915: The Mystery of Lucien Delorme, a novel by Guy de Téramond (pseudonym of François-Edmond Gautier de Téramond), translated into English by Mary J. Safford from the 1914 French L'Homme qui voit à travers les murailles ("The man who sees through walls"); available at the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

From Bleiler's review:

The common factor is Lucien, who wanders in and out of the circumstances, sometimes fitted with inexplicable knowledge of identities and goings-on, sometimes as a victim of the conte's gang. The police, aided by Lucien's revelations, put everything together, while Lucien explains. The treatment for his nervous disorder involved using radium salts around his nose. A particle entered his blood stream, settling in his brain. This has resulted in X-ray vision. When he removes his glasses, he sees only what an X-ray film might show: skeletons, metal objects, etc.

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    But was Lucien Delorme a "superhero" as commonly understood? I mean, sure, X-ray vision is, y'know, kinda cool - but could he leap tall buildings in a single bound, swing from a thread, drive a nuclear-powered car with excessively large fins, spontaneously combust, or etc etc etc..? – Bob Jarvis Apr 16 '16 at 23:36
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    @BobJarvis As I understand it, it only takes one superpower to make a superhero. As far as I know, Duo Damsel (nee Triplicate Girl) can't do any of those things you mentioned, and doesn't even have X-ray vision, yet she is a member of the Legion of Super Heroes. – user14111 Apr 16 '16 at 23:45
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    @BobJarvis The wording in my question isn't the best. Anyway, I think Lucien would fall somewhere between "superhero" and "super-couch-potato," depending on what he does with his x-ray vision. – Molag Bal Apr 16 '16 at 23:57
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    @user14111: and she's losing powers. Triplicate Girl...Duo Damsel...pretty soon she'll be "Single White Female". :-) – Bob Jarvis Apr 17 '16 at 2:08
  • Having a super 'power' isn't enough to be a super 'hero'. – GRW Apr 17 '16 at 17:26

I submit that it was Atomic-Man, at least in comic books

Atomic-Man was created in 1945. Yes, the same year as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and indeed the first year that any comic book writer who was not also a nuclear physicist would likely conceive of creating a radiation-influenced character. He made his debut in Headline Comics #16.

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Here is the cover of the issue in which Atomic Man first appears.

Here he is:

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He was powered by uranium 235, and apparently possessed many abilities, including mind control!

Here he is drinking heavy water...

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And here he is suffering a electric shock.

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Note that Atomic Man has three separate superhero genesis components: uranium, heavy water, and electricity. That's more than the usual two (e.g. spider + radiation, chemicals +lightning).

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    I love how the U-235 is stored in what appears to be a precariously balanced shoe box. At least the exposed electrical generator had a warning sign on it... – Jeroen Mostert Apr 16 '16 at 8:40
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    Nice find. One possibly ambiguous earlier case is Jay Garrick, the original Flash, who in 1940 was said to have gained his powers when he inhaled fumes from "hard water"--this actually just means water with extra mineral content, but it's possibly they were thinking of radioactive "heavy water", though a poster here claims 'At the time it was written, there had been reports that drinking "hard water" would speed up your reaction time, and it was one of the things "serious" athletes did to improve their performance.' – Hypnosifl Apr 16 '16 at 13:48
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    @Hypnosifl For one thing, heavy water is not radioactive. – user14111 Apr 16 '16 at 20:58
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    But do the writers of the comic know that? – Adamant Apr 16 '16 at 21:06
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    Where do you keep the heavy water? Oh I like to have about 12 fl. oz. handy in an ordinary drinking glass on the counter, for emergencies. – Todd Wilcox Apr 16 '16 at 22:39

If you consider sleeping for five hundred years without dying to be a superpower, then the earliest such character would be Anthony "Buck" Rogers. He was introduced in the 1928 novel Armageddon 2419 A.D.. Buck's long slumber was due to being trapped in a cave full of radioactive gas.

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    So that's why it sounded familiar, – PTwr Apr 16 '16 at 17:14
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    If he could take a 500 year nap whenever he wanted to, I guess that would be a superpower. Is it a "power" if you have no control, and you can only do it once? – user14111 Apr 16 '16 at 22:26
  • Aw, geez - I never realized that Buck Rogers was "Rip Van Winkle In Space!". :-) – Bob Jarvis Apr 17 '16 at 2:29
  • @BobJarvis What amazed me was just how old this novel was. It was in print when I was in grade school in the 1970's, and it's still in print today. I can at least understand it when I was in school; there was the semi-related TV show to drive some sales. But I don't know what keeps people buying the book today. It's old enough to be available for free via Project Gutenberg. – Kyle Jones Apr 17 '16 at 3:10
  • @KyleJones What I don't understand is why anyone buys the new books. – user14111 Apr 17 '16 at 5:54

I'm pretty sure Superman was the first of what we now call superheroes (ie inhumanly powered in some way, as opposed to a circus dude who just really strong, tough, fast, skilled etc. They gave him powers due to his alien heritage, which they later wrote in to his story (he didn't start with one, it was just a sort of excuse for wowing audiences, but then they decided 'let's make these into stories, hence they evolved him and other super-humans into something more like what we know today). Action Comics #1 was, I believe, the first to feature him, and thus the first superhero comic. Comics were, if I know my history, around before, but they were generally pulpy adventure stories with characters who were more like badass detectives, crime fighters, adventuring warriors, that sort of thing. Powers didn't come in until Superman's identity became more than "strong man". They wrote in that he was an alien and that Earth's sun was what caused him to gain the kinds of powers than humans can't possibly have. Hence super heroes were born.

I don't consider myself an expert on superheroes, though. But I have read his TvTropes page, and that works the same as Wikipedia, so take it all with a grain of salt, and that was a while ago, so I might be a little fuzzy on the specifics. But that's what I recall reading on that, at any rate.

There's much earlier myth, legend and folklore, of course, but those are always to do with gods and magic, not radiation as we know it now. Science in the early days was seen as superstition, of course, but now we as a society seem to know better. Superstition is the fear of the unknown, really. Knowing something tends to rob the fear of it. Except for really cool, scary, dangerous science. That kind of thing is EXTRA scary!

  • Superman didn't get his powers from radiation. – Meat Trademark Apr 17 '16 at 9:00
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    @MeatTrademark Well, sunlight is a form of radiation, and the light of a yellow sun is higher energy than that of a red sun, but my question excluded sunlight from consideration. – Molag Bal Apr 17 '16 at 9:11
  • That's why I posted. This is not an answer to your question. – Meat Trademark Apr 17 '16 at 9:13
  • Ah, I think I must have missed that. My bad. Sorry! – Dark Word Dan Apr 17 '16 at 13:17

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