Martyl Suzanne Schweig Langsdorf might have ended her life as an obscure landscape painter, but by virtue of being in the right place at the right time, her image of the Doomsday clock elevated her to an iconic status, as an artist, even if you never heard her name. Martyl, as she was known,in the art world was born in Saint Louis Missouri in 1918. She studied painting and colour in Provincetown, Massachusetts with Charles Hawthorne. Her constant association with visiting artists at the summer school of painting run by her mother, Aimee Schweig, helped nurture and develop her passion for art. She later graduated from Washington University and studied with Arnold Blanch at the Colorado Springs Arts Center. Under the W.P.A. she designed and painted a mural in the Clayton, Missouri high school.
She was best known for designing the ‘Doomsday Clock’ a symbolic clock face, maintained since 1947 by the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago. The closer the clock is to midnight, the closer the world is estimated to be to global disaster. The most recent officially announced setting five minutes to midnight (11:55pm) was made on 10 January 2012. Reflecting international events dangerous to humankind, the clock’s hands have been adjusted twenty times since its inception in 1947, when the clock was initially set to seven minutes to midnight (11:53pm).
Originally, the clock analogy represented the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate-changing technologies and “new developments in the life sciences that could inflict irrevocable harm.”
Martyl was not a scientist. She was a trained artist known for her landscapes. She once said, “I was the only artist these scientists ever knew.” So it was inevitable that when the Bulletin’s founder, Hyman Goldsmith, needed a cover design for the magazine, he turned to Martyl. It was a brief that required, two colors, a lot of type face, there was no extra room for extra frivolous design elements. Martyl wanted to include an image that would somehow suggest the urgency of their cause. She did a number of sketches and finally hit on something she thought would work. And it did work. In fact, it might be considered the most powerful piece of information design of the 20th century. It became known as the Doomsday Clock.
Since its inception, the clock has been depicted on every cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Its first representation was in 1947, when magazine co-founder Hyman Goldsmith asked artist Martyl Langsdorf (wife of Manhattan Project research associate and Szilárd petition signatory Alexander Langsdorf, Jr.) to design a cover for the magazine’s June 1947 issue. The clock’s setting is decided by the directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and is an adjunct to the essays in the bulletin on global affairs. The clock has not always been set and reset as quickly as events occur; the closest nuclear war threat, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, reached crisis, climax, and resolution before it could be set to reflect that possible doomsday.
Martyl exhibited infrequently but five one-man shows in Saint Louis since 1936 kept her in the public. She was also represented in many of the National exhibitions. In 1940 she was awarded the first prize in the Midwestern Show at the Kansas City Art Institute and won the hundred dollar purchase prize at the Y.M.H.A., Saint Louis. The following year she was awarded first prize in the annual exhibition of Missouri artists at the Saint Louis City Art Museum. She has won numerous other awards in the graphic arts. The Art Institute of Chicago awarded her three major honors, the Frank Armstrong prize, the Mr. and Mrs. Frank Logan medal and prize, and the William H. Bartels Award. Martyl Suzanne Schweig died peacefully at home age 96