Man Who Designed the Iconic Nuclear Fallout Symbol Dies at 95

Robert Blakeley never anticipated he'd become a designer. He joined the Army Corps of Engineers as a civilian. He's now left a legacy of one of America's most iconic designs.

During the Cold War in the United States, one design embodied the grim possibilities should the Cold War heat up. The yellow and black design signifying a nuclear fallout shelter remains one of the most iconic designs ever created, and it was all thanks to Robert Blakeley. 

Man Who Designed the Iconic Nuclear Fallout Symbol Dies at 95
Source: aleph78/Flickr

Blakeley died Oct. 25 at his senior living community in Jacksonville, Florida. He was 95 years old. According to his daughter Dot Carver, Blakeley died due to complications from a bacterial infection. 

His history and career were very much tied to the image, but he didn't plan on that being the case. Blakeley served as a logistics official with the Army Corp of Engineers. He was surprised when tapped to create a shelter sign that millions could potentially use in danger-filled situations. 

Nuclear shelters were created during the early years of President John F. Kennedy n 1961. Kennedy wanted to improve upon nuclear safety beyond telling people to "duck and cover" behind wooden desks. 

"Whatever we developed," Blakeley told writer Bill Geerhart for a 2011 post on the Cold War blog Conelrad Adjacent, "it would have to be usable in downtown New York City, Manhattan, when all the lights are out and people are on the street and don’t know where to go."

That hypothetical seemed incredibly plausible to Blakeley, as it did most Americans at the time. There had been a "standoff" between the United States and the Soviet Union. Life magazine even published a cover story explaining what to do should nuclear war break out. (The story suggested that over 90 percent of the population could be saved if they used the proper bomb shelters.)

It was under these circumstances that Blakeley would make his iconic sign. Blakeley served in the Marines during World War II and the Korean War. He was no stranger to high-stress and highly volatile global conflicts. However, there was one major problem -- he knew nothing of graphic design. 

He knew enough about railroads to think up designs he'd seen throughout his past. He also asked design company Blair Inc. for assistance. Blair's work helped Blakeley focus his efforts on an easily reproduced design that could easily point people to a shelter. 

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Ultimately, the first major design he submitted to the U.S. government was the one that stuck. It not only became popular to the general public; it's one of a handful of designs that cemented itself in American popular culture. Most notably, it was used on Bob Dylan's "Bringing it All Back Home" album cover.

When his children were young, he told Conelrad Adjacent, “we’d go down the street, and one of the kids would say, ‘Hey, Dad, there’s one of your signs.’ But you know, other than that it’s just like many of the other things that happen in life. It’s just one of those routine things. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an occasion to tell anybody that I was involved in it because I don’t think it’s ever been high on my priorities.”

And yes, Blakeley did have plans to one day put in his own fallout shelter in the backyard, according to his daughter. However, he ultimately decided to let his apple trees continue growing there instead. 

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