While the histories of chemical and nuclear weapons are often categorically demarcated, this paper presents the transitional history between the development of early chemical weapons and the first atomic bomb in order to reveal both the institutional and imaginary connections between the two. In the wake of World War I, nationalized chemical weapons research provided one blueprint for the kind of large-scale military-industrial-academic complex required to build the atomic bomb. The German chemical weapons laboratories at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry (KWI), directed by Fritz Haber, were particularly successful in creating a hierarchical mobilization of people, funds, and materials that the Americans were able to replicate both in their own chemical weapons production and when building the atomic bomb in the early 1940s. Institutional and cultural similarities between these weapons programs were further fertilized by a strikingly similar interwar imagining of both chemical and radiological weapons. These prophecies prefigured certain eye-witness reports from the dropping of the first atomic bombs, where radioactive clouds supposedly spread over the bomb site. In reality, there were important distinctions in both power and method of destruction between chemical weapons and the atomic bomb, but the post–World War II positing of a newly demarcated “Atomic Age” created a conceptual distance between poison gas and nuclear weapons. By pointing to chemistry’s significant contributions (both real and imaginary) to the creation of the atomic bomb, this article reminds readers of the rhetorical similarities and institutional connections between the two weapons with an eye toward broadening our categorical understanding of the atmospheric weapons that still threaten the world today.

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