Below you can see the mascot character for the fictional Vault-Tec corporation in the universe of Fallout. His smile and "thumbs-up" gesture stand in stark contrast to the dark, futuristic world that Fallout portrays. But did you know there's a historical reason for why he's doing this?
Why So Happy, Vault Boy?
Stretch out your arm and hold up your thumb, just like Vault Boy here, and you'll be using a gesture, an actual "safety method", that people living during the Cold War knew all too well.
The idea was that if a nuclear blast was seen off in the distance and its cloud was bigger than your thumb when your arm was extended, you were in serious trouble. Like, SERIOUS trouble.
Turns out you would be standing too close to a nuclear detonation and that your area was going to be hit with an intense blast in any moment - nuclear explosions could actually affect areas surrounding them within a five mile radius - but if it was smaller than your thumb, you were in luck! Sort of...
This image represents what we love about the Fallout universe; the historical time it captures, and the tongue and cheek nature of its dark world. But it also hints at the very real threat that previous generations lived through. I mean, just look at this!
What Was It Like to Live in a Time Where 'Fallout' Was a Legitimate Threat?
The term "fall-out" comes from the second stage of a nuclear detonation. First we have the blast of heat and intense pressure, this is followed by the slow falling of deadly toxic dust which the blast sucks up from the ground. This stuff is what gives the Fallout series its name, and, boy were people terrified of it - it was highly toxic and could be carried on the wind for miles.
As the world stood on the brink of atomic annihilation, mankind had to prepare themselves for the worst - everyone had to be educated about the threat that lay ahead. Schools, offices, hospitals, even family homes had procedures taught to them by officials in the form of educational films, and some of these films are really hilarious...but also terrifying.
Gee, thanks, Burt the turtle!
"Duck and cover" is a famous slogan from 1950s America, one which far too many people had to become familiar with as the fear of nuclear annihilation became feverous.
Most of us are lucky enough to be have lived a life free from this constant sense of terror in the 21st Century, but it's amazing to look at this period of history and see how it inspired Bethesda (and the original creators, Interplay Entertainment) for their work on Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 - like this awesome video series they made.
But aside from ducking and covering, how was America planning on combating the threat of nuclear war? If their homeland came under attack by Russian nukes, how would their expansive population be able to deal with the ensuing onslaught? Here are some of the legitimate ways that Americans prepared themselves for mankind's most deadly weapon.
What Kind of Protection Could Average Americans Afford?
If you look back at photographs from around this time, you'll see that the selling of protective housing became as commonplace as buying a family car. Everyone was drilled with the consequences that could arise if they weren't prepared for what could happen.
The most common protective measures you could purchase were shelters like the ones that you see below. They were to be buried several meters under the ground in your yard, and stocked with supplies to last for a good few days, if not longer. Their purpose wasn't to help you survive a nuclear blast - that was basically impossible for the average Joe to afford - but the impending fallout.
Depending on your income, the likelihood of surviving a nuclear blast and its subsequent fallout ranged from...well...dead, to reasonably comfortable.
Seeing as basically no structure overground within the radius of a nuclear blast would survive, families were mostly warned about fallout. In whatever building they happened to be inside at the time they were to stay away from windows, doors, vents, and any other openings. If you had a basement, even better! But of course, you could always have a secret place to protect your family.
Were Vaults An Option for Those Alive in the 1950s?
For those that were slightly more fortunate if fallout was to occur, small bunkers could either be constructed for them, or they could actually build them themselves thanks to some helpful guides. This would have required a lot of work, but can you imagine living in one of these things?
The shelters would have been tiny, with an approximate seven-by-seven foot floor area. This was only suitable for families of four or less, anymore would give each person less than 10 feet of personal space. Naturally, things would start to get really boring in here, so some bunkers even had some unusually clever features:
To alleviate boredom, the designers experimented with variations in lighting [...] Switching different ones off and on at intervals helped convey a feeling of the passage of time. - Popular Science
Above, you can see a Steel Tank Shelter, one that was able to accommodate a few more people and was naturally that bit more expensive. These were constructed three feet underground, and consisted of an entrance and exit through a submarine-type airlock and a ladder in a vertical tunnel. But these structures aren't anything compared to what the wealthy and lucky could expect to survive in.
Here are some images from an actual vault built in 1951, in Scotland.
These images come from a Kotaku article that investigated this modern tourist attraction. This place was to house military officials from the surrounding area and some other elites if nuclear war was to break out. Astoundingly, it could actually house up to 300 people and was secured with two three-tonne blast doors. This fortress could have withstood some real chaos.
What About Nuclear Shelters in the 21st Century?
Although the threat of nuclear war isn't something that affects the masses like it once did, there are still those who are prepared for the worst. There are plenty of companies that sell either space in a modern vault, or aid you in the construction of your own. But this place is truly something else.
You're looking at the interior of one of the most exclusive vaults available on the planet. Vivos Survival Shelters allow the very rich (and paranoid) to purchase space in a shelter like this for themselves and their family. How much do you think something like this would cost?
For the price of one year, for one adult, you're looking at $35,000. For children (16 or under) the price is $25,000. However, you need to be a respected member of Vivos, and society in general, in order to even qualify for entry. You can have a space booked for your family for as far ahead as you like, then once judgement day arrives you can take refuge and prepare for a year or more of underground living.
This co-ownership model provides an affordable solution to families that would otherwise not be able to own a real, all-risk shelter, built to provide a minimum of one year of autonomous underground survival before needing to return to the surface after the worst is over. - Vivos' Website
Fallout shelters have come a long way since the 1950s, and our psyches aren't as tortured by the thought of nuclear bombs as they once were. Granted there are those that feel the same level of threat in today's world. Me, however? I'm just looking forward to Fallout 4!