Disney Goes Atomic

In 1956 Disney published Our Friend the Atom as a compliment to a film and exhibition by the same name. The book uses a fable of a fishermen and a genie to explain the relation between people and atomic science, and the book strangely simultaneously offers much scarier visuals of the destructive power of atomic science than one would expect children of the fifties would have been exposed to but still manages to present a Utopian view of the future potential of the technology.

The analogy of the genie and fisherman forms the central framework for the book. The fisherman discovers a lamp which he then pries open.

With that a very menacing genie emerges from the lamp.  Not the humorous and benevolent genie Disney gave my generation but a big old nasty genie. Instead of being grateful for his release this genie is quite disgruntled. Once freed he proclaims that “because thou has freed me, thou must die. For I am one of those condemned spirits who long ago disobeyed the word of king Solomon.” The genie then asks the fishermen to “chose how he will die”.

Through some deft trickery the fishermen convinces the genie to get back into his lamp, at which point the fishermen decides to throw the lamp back into the sea. The genie pleads with him to free him once again offering him three wishes.

On the next page the story is mapped on to the history of the atom. This page promises to explain “how the atomic vessel was discovered, how man learned of its many marvelous secrets, how the atomic Genie was liberated, and what we must do to make him our friend and servant.” I highly recommend right clicking on the image below to see the whole thing. The way Disney maps the story of the genie directly onto the history of atomic science is both bizarre and fascinating.

In strange form the dark imagery of the first encounter with the genie is ever present throughout the story. While the book is ultimately about human progress via technology these dark images keep reoccurring.

Ultimately children learn that humanity has somehow tricked the atom in just the same way that the fisherman tricked the genie. For this they are granted three wishes by the atom. The atomic genie will give us power, food and health, and ultimately that power, food and health will give the world peace.


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