Does anybody know which is the earliest SF story about the civil uses of nuclear power (possibly, power generation)?
The best I can find is a 1940 short story by Robert A. Heinlein, “Blowups Happen” (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1940), modified and updated for a 1946 anthology, and later restored (“I now see, as a result of the enormous increase in the art in 33 years, more errors in the ’46 version than I spotted in the ’40 version when I checked it in ’46”). Now it appears in the collection Expanded Universe.

  • That could possibly be the actual answer, since Rutherford discovered the nucleus in 1917. I don't know when nuclear fission/fusion was first proposed, but it probably took another 10-15 years.
    – apoorv020
    Apr 3, 2011 at 14:35
  • @apoorv020: I suspect as much, as nuclear fission was first surmised and then proved in the 1930s, and the first actual reactor (Fermi's Chicago Pile) was built in late 1942, more than two years after RAH's story.
    – DaG
    Apr 3, 2011 at 14:58
  • 2
    I think Asimov's Foundation from 1944 does show civilians on Terminus using tiny fusion reactors. That's a bit late, right? Plus, even if Jules Verne didn't know this, those electric submarines appearing in four different Verne novels must be atomic powered, because there's just no other way they could work.
    – b_jonas
    Nov 6, 2013 at 10:10
  • 1
    @b_jonas: Verne's Nautilus was powered by what, today, we'd call fuel cells. Sodium based, IIRC.
    – Joe L.
    Aug 12, 2015 at 23:23
  • 1
    @b_jonas, actually Verne describes the workings, source of consumables, refueling, maintenance and crew operations of the Nautillus power plant in exquisite detail (Prof. Aronnax asks, and Nemo "exposes"). Although you'll probably have to find an unabridged version of "20,000 Leagues" to read the description. The Engines are purely electric (DC) and powered by chemical batteries. Dec 27, 2017 at 4:47

8 Answers 8


Wikipedia's article on the Atomic Age contains a timeline of popular culture references to nuclear power.

The earliest item on the timeline is:

1913 — C.W. Leadbeater published Man: How, Whence, and Whither? . This book describes the future society of the world in the 28th century (which, as a clairvoyant, Leadbeater claimed to have gotten information about from consulting the akashic records) as being powered by what he called atomic energy.

Now, I know very little about C.W. Leadbeater, but as a clairvoyant, he probably doesn't count as a sci-fi writer.

The next item on the timeline is much more promising:

1914 — H. G. Wells publishes science fiction novel The World Set Free, describing how scientists discover potentially limitless energy locked inside of atoms, and describes the deployment of atomic bombs.

I have not read the story in question, so I don't know how much detail it goes into about nuclear power, but from wikipedia, it is evident that he theorised about power generation based on atomic energy.

After this in the timeline, there is a huge gap, and no further entries until 1939. I'm not sure if that means that the timeline on wikipedia is incomplete, or if there actually were no further references to nuclear power in that time in popular culture.

However, the following entry is as follows:

October 1939 — Amazing Stories published a painting of an atomic power plant by science fiction artist Howard M. Duffin on its back cover.

Again not an actual science fiction story, but perhaps the beginnings of nuclear technology entering the science fiction world.

After that, the next entry is the Heinlein story the OP mentioned.

So, if H.G. Wells' novel The World Set Free does in fact describe nuclear power to a satisfactory level, then it can probably be considered the first story to mention it. Otherwise, Heinlein's Blowups Happen as mentioned by the OP probably can, unless someone can dig out a more obscure reference.

  • 2
    Atomic energy was a staple of science fiction from Wells in 1914 until atomic energy per se was no longer science fiction. To mention only a couple of famous classics: Last and First Men (1930) by Olaf Stapledon, The Absolute at Large (1927) by Karel Čapek.
    – user14111
    Nov 6, 2013 at 6:05
  • 1
    The World Set Free has extensive use of nuclear power, including civilian vehicles. I think it counts
    – Jetpack
    Nov 30, 2017 at 22:10
  • An example quote of The World Set Free "Small wonder was this when the cost, even of these earliest and clumsiest of atomic engines, is compared with that of the power they superseded. Allowing for lubrication the Dass-Tata engine, once it was started cost a penny to run thirty-seven miles, and added only nine and quarter pounds to the weight of the carriage it drove."
    – Jetpack
    Jan 11, 2021 at 2:29

There is a good example from 1909 and a dubious one from 1895.

The Columbus of Space by Garrett P. Serviss (the author of Edison's Conquest of Mars), first published as a serial in The All-Story Magazine in 1909, published in book form in 1911, available as a Project Gutenberg etext. Here is part of the review in E. F. Bleiler's Science-Fiction: The Early Years:

Edmund Stonewall, a scientist of independent means, has discovered how to release atomic energy as a controlled emission that amounts to antigravity and has secretly built a small spaceship. When his friends scoff at him, however, he as good as kidnaps them and takes off for Venus. The narrator and Jack Henry are annoyed at first, but are soon caught up in the thrill of the adventure.

Here are a couple of extracts from the novel:

"Well, I've 'got at it.'"

"Got at what?" drawled Jack.

"The inter-atomic energy. I've got it under control."

"The deuce you have!" said Jack.

"Yes, I've arrived where a certain professor dreamed of being when he averred that 'when man knows that every breath of air he draws has contained within itself force enough to drive the workshops of the world he will find out some day, somehow, some way of tapping that energy.' The thing is done, for I've tapped it!"
[. . .]
"Nothing that ought to appear very extraordinary," answered Edmund, with uncommon warmth. "If men had not been fools for so many ages they might have done this, and more than this long ago. It's enough to make one ashamed of his race! For countless centuries, instead of grasping the power that nature had placed at the disposal of their intelligence, they have idled away their time gabbling about nothing. And even since, at last, they have begun to do something, look at the time that they have wasted upon such petty forces as steam and 'electricity,' burning whole mines of coal and whole lakes of oil, and childishly calling upon winds and tides and waterfalls to help them, when they had under their thumbs the limitless energy of the atoms, and no more understood it than a baby understands what makes its whistle scream! It's inter-atomic force that has brought us out here, and that is going to carry us a great deal farther."

I'm no scientist, but that "inter-atomic force" doesn't sound right to me. Well, you've got to make allowance for it being science fiction, and from 1909.

Robert Cromie's 1895 novel The Crack of Doom, also available as a Project Gutenberg etext, is an earlier story about atomic energy, but it's not exactly about "civil uses of nuclear power" as requested by the OP: the inventor has no intention of providing electricity to homes and farms and factories, he aims instead to destroy the earth. Here is an extract from E. F. Bleiler's review:

Adventure, romance, world peril, conservative social thought, and early atomics. * 2000 A.D. Great Britain and an unidentified island in Oceania. * Arthur Marcel, a young medical man returning to England after several years of travel, becomes acquainted on board ship with Herbert Brande and his beautiful sister Natalie. Brande is a contentious, arrogant man who talks wildly about the worthlessness of material existence and about a secret society of which he is a member. Natalie is far more pleasant. To keep in contact with Natalie, Marcel joins the society, even though he knows that great danger is involved. * Brande, who is able to release the energy that is frozen as matter, intends to restore the solar system (or at least the earth) to its pristine happy condition before matter formed. According to Brande such destruction was accomplished once before, on the planet that used to be between Mars and Jupiter and is now the asteroid belt. * While it seems doubtful at first that Brande can maintain his claims, a demonstration in which a drop of water is exploded creates havoc at sea.

  • Whatever inter-atomic force is, it's clearly related to the energy in a mass. Here's a quote: "Listen to this! Here's Professor Thomson declaring that a single grain of radium contains in its padlocked atoms energy enough to lift a million tons three hundred yards high. Professor Thomson is too modest in his estimates, and he hasn't the ghost of an idea how to get at that energy. Neither has Professor Rutherford, nor Lord Kelvin; but somebody will get at it, just the same."
    – Jetpack
    Jan 11, 2021 at 2:40
  • 2
    Rutherford published his landmark paper in 1911, so it's certainly not possible for an SF story from 1895 or 1909 to describe nuclear power in any meaningful, realistic sense.
    – user2490
    Jan 11, 2021 at 17:41
  • @BenCrowell A bit before 1895, Lord Kelvin's Vortex Theory of the Atom was big. Some have seen parallels to this interesting but ultimately failed idea to the more modern String Theory. Starting 1905, Joseph John Thomson proposed the Plum Pudding Model. Mar 10, 2021 at 18:45

The earliest novel I know of using nuclear power is the very interesting 'Ravage' by René Barjavel (a French author), which was published in 1943.

In this novel, set in a distant future at the time of writing, we can see 'obsolete' nuclear power cars. Barjavel was already considering nuclear power as a transient technology :-)


Stanley G. Weinbaum's classic "A Martian Odyssey" (1934) abut the first expedition to Mars, has an atomic rocket ship.

The narrator says something like (not an exact quote):

"It was barely a decade since the mad American Doheny had perfected the atom blast at the cost of his own life and the equally mad Cardoza had ridden it to the Moon."

"And except for half a dozen moon expeditions and the ill-fated DeLancy fight aimed at the seductive orb of Venus they were the only Humans to leave the Earth."

R.f. Starzl's "The Radient Enemies" Argosy 10 february 1934, has an atomic spaceship powered by radium fuel rods.

And then there is The Skylark of Space, E.E. Smith, Amazing Stories 1928.

Chapter One

Finally he jumped up. Crashing his hand down upon the desk, he exclaimed:"I have liberated the intra-atomic energy of copper! Copper, 'X,' and electric current!

Chapter two:

A look of scornful unbelief passed over Brookings' face.

"Sneer if you like," DuQuesne continued evenly. "Your ignorance doesn't change the fact in any particular. Do you know what intra-atomic energy is?"

"I'm afraid that I don't, exactly."

"Well, it's the force that exists between the ultimate component parts of matter, if you can understand that. A child ought to. Call in your chief chemist and ask him what would happen if somebody would liberate the intra-atomic energy of one hundred pounds of copper."

"Pardon me, Doctor. I didn't presume to doubt you. I will call him in."

He telephoned a request and soon a man in white appeared. In response to the question he thought for a moment, then smiled slowly.

"If it were done instantaneously it would probably blow the entire world into a vapor, and might force it clear out of its orbit. If it could be controlled it would furnish millions of horsepower for a long time. But it can't be done. The energy is bound. Its liberation is an impossibility, in the same class with perpetual motion. Is that all, Mr. Brookings?"

This is from the original 1928 version, not the 1946 or later versions.


Fictional military and civilian use of atomic energy no doubt goes all the way back to the beginning of pulp science fiction in 1926, and probably in a more sporadic way back to Wells' The World Set Free and perhaps earlier.


In the story, The Red Death of Mars, by Robert Moore Williams,from 1940, "uranium fission engines" are mentioned.

  • This predates the Chicago chain reaction but I bet it may have aroused government interest even though the USA was still neutral. The story came out after the famous Einstein letter to FDR to alert him of nazi research into atomic energy/weapons.
    – releseabe
    Jul 5, 2023 at 13:28

Lester Del Rey's story "Nerves" (1942) not only is about civil use of nuclear reactions, but is about an accident at the plant and how to limit the damage. It was later expanded to a novel.


Sorry I don't have the title but...

There was a Sci Fi story published in the early/mid 1930s set in a future where atomic energy supplied about a quarter of the US electrical power.

The atomic machines used one drop of water at a time but every so often that drop had to be ejected because it just wouldn't disintegrate. It hardly ever happened and wasn't worth the effort to collect and examine them to determine why.

Then, all of a sudden, bridges and skyscrapers begin to collapse for no reason, as if the steel had lost the atomic force holding the atoms together.

The brilliant hero scientist of the story transmits a repelling ray into space (which somehow is also faster than light and covers the entire universe instantly) and the disasters stop.

The readers are led to believe that the drops of water that wouldn't disintegrate were inhabited and that our universe is like a drop of water in a super universe.

Mid 1930s...between the Wells and Heinlein stories.

  • The story you're thinking of is "Atomic Power" by "Don A. Stuart" (John W. Campbell), first published in Astounding Stories, December 1934.
    – user14111
    Jun 8, 2020 at 8:04
  • Thanks! I hope this story is added to your chart of pre-atomic age atomic age stories.
    – Jayessell
    Jun 8, 2020 at 16:27
  • If you agree that Campbell's "Atomic Story" is the story you had in mind, you should edit the title and author etc. into your answer. (If you aren't sure, you could post a story-identification question about it, and I could post an answer with extensive quotes from the story to help you decide.)
    – user14111
    Jun 8, 2020 at 21:35

Another question mentions early science fiction novels by Eric Temple Bell as John Taine.

1What devices and ideas of science fiction did mathematician Eric Temple Bell ("John Taine") invent?

His Green Fire (1928) is about inventing atomic energy.

enter link description herehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Fire_(novel)

So that is another early story about atomic energy.

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