I notice the song somewhere north of Diamond City. I’m working my way back to Sanctuary Hills and had just killed a feral ghoul. The radio blares to block out the sound of gunfire and crumbling buildings. It’s 2287 and the Boston Commonwealth is an irradiated hellscape.
I’d heard the song a dozen times, but this is the first time I listen.
“Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told/ Uranium ore’s worth more than gold,” the song starts. “Uranium fever has done and got me down/ Uranium fever is spreadin’ all around/ With a Geiger counter in my hand/ I’m a-goin’ out to stake me some government land/ Uranium fever has done and got me down.”
The song has an upbeat country feel to it. What the Hell? Is this a pop song about mining for uranium? Yes it is. And it’s not the only one.
The atom-blasted landscape of greater Boston in the 23rd century is the setting for the new hit video game Fallout 4. Weird 1950s-era pop references litter the game, perhaps none more strange than a few songs on the radio that hearken back to a time when America embraced all things atomic.
In the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, Americans obsessed over nuclear power. The U.S. government fueled this obsession by taking control of the uranium market and offering a bounty to any who discovered and mined the crucial substance.
It was the time of the Great American Uranium Rush.
That first song is Elton Britt’s Uranium Fever. He recorded the tune in 1955 when a uranium craze moved through American pop culture. The United States had just won World War II using nuclear bombs and emerged from the war relatively unscathed. Thanks in part to the friendly atom, America was suddenly the most powerful country on the planet.
For a few years, it seemed that atomic technology would solve all the world’s problems.
Washington established the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 and the agency set to work pursuing nuclear power. “Our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,” AEC chairman Lewis Strauss told a crowd of scientists in 1954.
But there was one problem with that cheap and abundant energy source — it required uranium.
Mining operations in Africa had discovered an abundant source of the mineral in the Congo … but the U.S. government wanted a domestic source. In 1948, the AEC pushed through legislation that made it the only legal buyer of uranium, doubled the going rate for the element and promised a $10,000 bonus to the first person to mine more than 20 tons of the ore.
Americans rushed west in a desperate attempt at easy money.
Just like the California Gold Rush a century before, charlatans and entrepreneurs followed in the wake of the dreamers. Stores stocked Geiger counters, picks, mining hats and other equipment.
Pop culture followed too. Musicians wrote songs exalting the fad — some of which ended up in Fallout 4. Magazines and books appeared offering tips to the amateur prospector, toy companies released board games and popular T.V. shows ran uranium-themed episodes.
A 1958 episode of the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour followed America’s favorite redhead as she and Desi discover uranium. The pair find the ore with the help of the Mertzes and actor Fred MacMurray. The rest of the episode depicts their madcap antics as they race to the AEC claims office to report the score.
Newspapers followed the craze with bated breath and reported stories of hard-luck losers turned overnight millionaires. “Just who is Vernon J. Pick, the latest amateur to turn uranium prospecting in Utah into a multimillion dollar proposition?” asked a 1954 edition of Utah’s The Deseret News.
Some people, including Pick and and another prospector named Charles Steen did make millions. Most made nothing. Then, almost overnight, public attitudes toward the dangerous element shifted, AEC policy changed and the rush ended.
In the early 1960s, the AEC stopped purchasing American uranium from private companies. Washington had a large stockpile of the stuff and it began looking for higher-yield sources in foreign countries. The market crumbled and the first American Uranium Rush died off.
Fallout 4 resurrects that time and place. The game’s world is masterfully constructed and captures a peculiar period in U.S. history — that naive and overconfident era when Americans thought atomic energy and can-do spirit would conquer the world. This was the wake of a great military victory and before the doubts, political assassinations and social troubles of the 1960s.
It was the era of picket fences, nice clean lawns, Dwight Eisenhower and American exceptionalism. But there is a darkness to that period too, one the Fallout series is good at invoking.
Fallout’s world is one in which America never grew up and nuclear fire consumed the world. The raider and mutant filled wastes of the Commonwealth display a moment captured in time and perverted by nuclear power. The game’s upbeat soundtrack reflects this darkness and the excitement of the atom-fueled ‘50s.
“Crawl out baby/ when they drop that bomb,” Sheldon Allman croons on Crawl Out Through the Fallout. “Crawl out through the fallout, baby, to my loving arms/ while those ICBMs keep us free.”
Allman recorded and released the song in 1960, just a few years after the uranium rush. By now, Americans better understood the dangers of nuclear power — and nuclear weapons.
“Crawl out through the fallout/ ’cause they said this bomb was clean,” Allman sings. “If you cannot find the way, just listen for my song/ I’ll love you all your life although that may not be too long.”