How some kids helped with the design of the Cold War fallout shelter sign

Oct 30, 2017

One of the most chilling symbols of the Cold War has to be the black-and-yellow aluminum sign, indicating a nuclear fallout shelter.

The man responsible for the sign, Robert Blakeley, died on Oct. 25, at the age of 95.

The signs — long out of use — can still be found across the country at schools and other buildings designated as public shelters by the government, in the event of a Soviet nuclear strike.

Back in 1961, Blakeley was asked by the US Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a design for the new fallout shelter program.

Blakeley was “a midlevel bureaucrat in the Army Corps of Engineers,” says Harrison Smith, an obituary writer for The Washington Post.

But he was a Marine veteran and had taken part in some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II and the Korean War. “I think he had a sense,” says Smith, “of the chaos and the confusion that might result from a nuclear blast.”

“So, he wanted something simple,” says Smith, ”sturdy [and] something reflective — like a green street sign that you might see driving down the interstate.”

He picked the three yellow triangles in the black circle as it represented the international symbol for radiation. That design was one of several offered by a graphic design company in Virginia.

Blakeley never thought of his role in the sign's design as a big deal, even though his name was on all the patents. Smith says his kids were much more excited about remembering it, as they were involved. “He asked them to help him,” says Smith, in “developing the reflective paint that was used on all these signs.” 


From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI