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Artist Martyl Langsdorf, ‘Doomsday Clock’ designer, dies at 96

1-12-2007 PhoMartyl Langsdorf her studio Schaumburg.  The artist created look first Doomsday Clock 1947.  She followed up her

1-12-2007 Photo of Martyl Langsdorf, in her studio in Schaumburg. The artist created the look of the first Doomsday Clock in 1947. She followed up her first creation of the clock with what is now the symbol of the clock with its global background look. She is a contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine and was awarded a plaque Dec. 3, 2005 by the Organization for her artistic vision and longtime support of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Photo by Dom Najolia, Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: May 2, 2013 6:31AM

Martyl Langsdorf helped bring the threat of nuclear war into the world’s consciousness by designing the “Doomsday Clock” and its unnerving minute hand, which has become a gauge of the the world’s vulnerability to atomic destruction as it nears midnight — and annhilation.

Mrs. Langsdorf was drawn into the atomic dilemma by her husband, Alexander Langsdorf Jr., a nuclear physicist who helped develop atomic weapons while working on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago. He and several colleagues formed the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a magazine that served as a platform for scientists to warn the public of the danger of nuclear weapons. Mrs. Langsdorf, an artist, became its art editor.

“At first she thought about putting the symbol for uranium on the cover,” said Kennette Benedict, executive director of the magazine. “But she was really struck with the sense of urgency of these scientists who felt it wouldn’t be long before the U.S. and the Soviet Union came up with more powerful weapons. One night, she was at a concert and sketched the clock on the back of a musical score.”

The magazine, and its ominous minute hand, are still around today but have come to encompass other forms of apocalypse as well, such as climate change. The minute hand is currently set at five minutes to midnight. The original image showed the clock at eight minutes to midnight, Benedict said.

Mrs. Langsdorf died Tuesday from complications associated with a lung infection. She was 96.

“She was just asked to make a design for the magazine cover. We actually don’t quite know whose idea it was to move the hand . . . which first moved in 1949 when the Soviets tested their bomb,” Benedict said.

Her husband didn’t regret his role in developing atomic weapons, said the couple’s daughter, Suzanne Langsdorf.

“He felt it was critical to world peace . . . but he wanted them tested and used as a deterrent, not dropped on a city,” she said.

Mrs. Langsdorf, who created art for 80 years, was bemused that the clock, a side note in her career, took on a life of its own and defined her in the eyes of many.

“She was an artist with an incredible body of work, and yet everyone knew her as the ‘Clock Lady,’ as she called it,” Benedict said.

Mrs. Langsdorf embraced painting, printmaking, drawing, murals and stained-glass design. She was almost drawn into music as a child after studying the piano and violin.

Those thoughts were extinguished, however, when as a teenager, she sold one of her first paintings to composer George Gershwin as he was passing through St. Louis, where Mrs. Langsford grew up and later attended college at Washington University.

Mrs. Langsdorf moved to Chicago from St. Louis with her husband in 1943. In 1953, the couple moved to a historic house designed by architect Robert Paul Schweikher in Schaumburg. There, in her home studio, she created art until she recently became ill. She had an exhibit planned for May at a gallery in Chicago.

Although traditionally known as a landscape painter, Mrs. Langsdorf began to experiment with art and science concepts after designing the Doomsday Clock, and in the 1970s, she created a series of works inspired by electric circuitry and nervous system synapses.

In the 1980s, she revitalized the tradition of archaeological site drawings in her renderings of an Egyptian excavation of the Precinct of Mut at Luxor, a project undertaken with the sponsorship of the Brooklyn Museum.

Mrs. Langsdorf’s husband died in 1996. Other survivors include another daughter, Alexandra Shoemaker; four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.

A memorial was being planned.

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