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If some writer mentions atom-powered rocket and leaves it at that, this is far less interesting than explaining how it works. If someone suggested a nuke-powered Earth-based submarine, was anyone prescient enough to understand that they were basically steam ships?

http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=1933

It is surprising that in 1895 someone was talking about the equivalence of mass and energy. I don't know enough about what was happening in physics around that time to account for this. But this is certainly the earliest sci-fi mention of using atomic energy to move something although of course he goes into no detail about harnessing it.

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  • I used to have a book about space exploration with articles written by members of von Braun's team and wonderful illustrations by Chesley Bonestell. As an energy source for their proposed space station they suggested a mirror that collectes sunlight to evaporate mercury for use in a turbine, because, as they dismissively wrote, a nuclear power source would just be a very complicated way to heat water. Not quite science fiction, but very much in the spirit of your question. Jan 10, 2021 at 12:40
  • Interesting but I was wondering since HG Wells mentions in 1910 atomic bombs in 1910 and i think radium was known to generate heat before that if anyone saw atomic energy as a source of controlled power before the 1950s.
    – releseabe
    Jan 10, 2021 at 12:51
  • You should check everything listed here: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/2742/…. Based on that, it's 1895, 1909, or 1914.
    – Jetpack
    Jan 10, 2021 at 21:47
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    "basically steam ships" - Well, it's all about transforming a heat differential (the only way to get at usable energy) into mechanical energy, i.e. a rotating shaft. Water is excellent for this. Plentiful, relatively inert, non-toxic, carries a lot of heat, can be condensed, expands rapidly. Jan 10, 2021 at 23:18
  • @DavidTonhofer, but most SF vehicles do not use steam - usually nuclear engines are depicted as some sort of NERVA-style propulsion, atomic rockets if you will. And at least since the 50s SF uses mysterious "converters" (analogue to thermocouples in RTGs) to get electricity directly from the nuclear source. Finding a steam power example is actually not that easy. Jan 11, 2021 at 9:45

5 Answers 5

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The 1914 novel The World Set Free by H.G. Wells is written in the style of a futuristic history book, and it features atomic vehicles, and goes into some detail on the theory of atomic power. The novel is in the public domain and can be read here.

In Chapter 1, Section 8, which takes place before the harnessing of atomic power, one professor describes the theory that all matter emits radiation the same way radium does, and if that can be sped up, it would be a great power source.

Chapter 1 Section 1 summarizes the first experiment in which this was accomplished when a scientist named Holsten forced bismuth to rapidly radiate. It release a dangerous amount of power in an explosion that lasts 7 days. Along the way, it transmuted to different elements in phases, and ended as gold.

Chapter 1 Section 3 describes early atomic vehicles, with some technobabble describing different engines. Some engines run on bismuth and others run on lead. As a whole, atomic engines are very light for the amount of power they emit.

Chapter 2 Sections 3-4 describe atomic bombs in a way that shines a little bit of light on how atomic power works in this setting. There are some synthetic elements, the most powerful of which is Carolinum, which begins radiating when it makes contact with air. There's a quote that says that all radio-active substances decay following a half-life, and they never completely run out of energy.

In summary, this gives a detailed description of the theory of atomic power. Rereading your question, I think you might be asking about how that power is turned into motion. I can't find anything that explicitly describes that, but there is a lot of discussion of heat and explosion, and a lot of comparison to steam and coal. I think it's safe to say that H.G. Wells imagined using this to turn a turbine. I don't think he imagined the atomic energy boiling water and using that to turn an a turbine, because he says that electricity replaced the steam engine for traction in the 1930s, and atomic automobiles became practical in the 1950s.

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    i should read that book -- in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, it is described how Leo Szilard read that book as a teenager and it had a big effect upon him.
    – releseabe
    Jan 11, 2021 at 3:53
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I don't know about transportation, but if you are talking about nuclear energy as an energy source in general, then yes, sort of.

In 1934, German writer Hans Dominik wrote "Atomgewicht 500", in which a scientist creates a (fictional) synthetic element with an atomic weight of, yes, five hundred, that is used to provide energy by running turbines. This is not quite how things works in real life (in the story, the element is dropped as a pellet into a water filled boiler where it heats the water, but stops releasing energy when the working pressure of the boiler is exceeded. Wish it were that simple.), but it is a steam engine run with nuclear power.

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Atomic energy of various more or less plausible types, often very less plausible types, goes way back in science fiction.

For example, The Skylark of Space by E.E. Smith is considered one of the earliest stories of interstellar travel and often called the first space opera. It was published as a serial in 1928 in Amazing Stories but first written by Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby in 1915 to 1921. In it a human scientist discovers a strange form of atomic energy and uses it to power a space ship, as does a rival scientist. Transportation across vast interstellar distances, thousands of flight years, follows.

So a search for the first use of atomic energy, and/or the use of atomic energy for transportation, in science fiction must go back to before the publication of The Skylark of Space in August, September, and October 1928 issues of Amazing Stories, or even to before Smith started writing it in 1915.

The various answers to this question, including mine, show that atomic energy used for transportation was common in science fiction in the 1930s, and mention examples earlier than 1928.

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  • but i am guessing that they observed that radium gave off invisible rays and kind of hand-waved from there -- it would be impressive indeed if someone saw nuclear power being used to create steam -- hard to believe before 1930 or so even a physicist would have understood this. i am reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb which leads me to believe that even 1940 would have been very early for a science fiction author.
    – releseabe
    Jan 10, 2021 at 18:42
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    @Relesabe "Atomic energy or energy of atoms is energy carried by atoms. The term originated in 1903 when Ernest Rutherford began to speak of the possibility of atomic energy.[1] H. G. Wells popularized the phrase "splitting the atom",[citation needed] before discovery of the atomic nucleus." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atomic_energy Jan 11, 2021 at 19:40
  • wells coming up with the term is amazing. he really was something. i believe he is credited with the idea that time is the 4th dimension, if he did this independently you wonder what kind of physicist or mathematician he might have become.
    – releseabe
    Jan 11, 2021 at 20:28
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In 1927 Karel Čapek wrote THE ABSOLUTE AT LARGE. The inventor has created a device called the "Karburator" which allows the "complete utilization of atomic energy." Using a special filament it breaks atoms into their component parts and harnesses the electrons to create electrical current. In the prototype, the current is used to move a piston that rotates a fly-wheel.

Unfortunately it has a rather serious side-effect.

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You don't seem quite satisfied with the existing answers, maybe because the stories don't provide details of how atomic energy is used to propel the ship.

Robert A. Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo from 1947 describes it in some detail, as a group of young men and a nuclear physicist spend some time building the drive system of the Galileo.

The drive uses thorium to "boil" zinc to steam. The zinc steam is ejected through jets into a rocket engine bell. It provides thrust much like a chemical rocket engine, but with a higher velocity. The higher exhaust velocity combined with the higher mass of the exhaust gives the Galileo a better thrust to mass ratio than any chemically propelled rocket.

It certainly isn't the first, but it is more detailed than what I've seen in other stories.

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  • 1947 is way too late to be interesting and if it is the first to go into detail, i would be surprised. by 1947 everyone knew about atomic energy and its uses.
    – releseabe
    Jan 10, 2021 at 21:18
  • @releseabe: I think you're overestimating how much the public knew about nuclear power on a given date. Chicago Pile-1 was built in 1942 but was secret, and information about it was not declassified by the AEC until 1952. In 1947, the notion of a controlled nuclear reaction or the peaceful use of nuclear power was, as far as I know, completely speculative if you didn't have access to military secrets. This helps to explain why some of the technical details of the Heinlein story are actually wrong, such as the use of thorium.
    – user2490
    Jan 11, 2021 at 17:32

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