Retrofuturist Flashback: Shelter From the Atomic Storm


1955: A scientifically designed atom bomb shelter consists of an iron tube 10 feet in diameter, six feet below the surface. It has three rooms and can accommodate 14 people. The entrance is shaped so that it will not be torn off in an explosion. Bettmann / Contributor
1955: A scientifically designed atom bomb shelter consists of an iron tube 10 feet in diameter, six feet below the surface. It has three rooms and can accommodate 14 people. The entrance is shaped so that it will not be torn off in an explosion. Bettmann / Contributor

It's time to take another journey into the future via the past, this time in the form of several fallout shelter images from the 1950s and 1960s. The Cold War casts a long shadow across the cultural landscape, so you've surely encountered the fallout shelter in various fictional and nonfictional forms. I find that these illustrations really speak to the fear people felt in those days -- perhaps even a sliver of what more and more of us are feeling today.

To be clear, the threat posed by nuclear weapons has never gone away. For many of us, the threat has remained a ubiquitous aspect of life. See here the images of stereotypical American life encapsulated in the darkness of the Fallout shelter like a thing consumed by the behemoth -- our hopes and dreams entombed in the belly of the atomic age.

Illustration of a pre-fabricated steel and concrete family fallout shelter from the Cold War era, early 1960s.
Illustration of a pre-fabricated steel and concrete family fallout shelter from the Cold War era, early 1960s.
Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
Cross-section illustration depicting a family in their underground lead fallout shelter, equipped with a geiger counter, periscope, air filter, etc., early 1960s.
Cross-section illustration depicting a family in their underground lead fallout shelter, equipped with a geiger counter, periscope, air filter, etc., early 1960s.
Pictorial Parade/Getty Images
Illustrations depicting two models of family bomb shelters during the Cold War: the three person sand-filled lean-to and the backyard plywood shelter, from a U.S. Department of Defense publication, December 30, 1961.
Illustrations depicting two models of family bomb shelters during the Cold War: the three person sand-filled lean-to and the backyard plywood shelter, from a U.S. Department of Defense publication, December 30, 1961.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Illustrations of recommended supplies (food, first aid, tools etc.) for stocking a family bomb shelter during the Cold War, 1960s.
Illustrations of recommended supplies (food, first aid, tools etc.) for stocking a family bomb shelter during the Cold War, 1960s.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1955: The safest place for persons caught in H-bomb blast is below the earth's surface, advises atomic scientist Ralph E. Lapp. Lapp says foxholes covered with newspaper or fabric offer protection from lethal rdioactive fallout.
1955: The safest place for persons caught in H-bomb blast is below the earth's surface, advises atomic scientist Ralph E. Lapp. Lapp says foxholes covered with newspaper or fabric offer protection from lethal rdioactive fallout.
Bettmann / Contributor

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.