Unmetered air

Politician Stewart Udall (pictured) served as US Secretary of the Interior for eight years in the Sixties, and in the process became disillusioned with nuclear power. John von Neumann, an American (Hungarian-born) mathematician, physicist and computer science pioneer, had little to do with reactors but was a commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1955 until his death in 1957. Here Udall cites von Neumann:

The hold of the peaceful atom on American thought was enlarged by the publication in 1955 of a book, The Fabulous Future. Assembled by the editors of Fortune magazine, it featured forecasts by eleven U.S. leaders of the changes in American life they anticipated in the next twenty-five years. Dr. John von Neumann set the framework for this symposium with a prediction that by 1980 all energy would be virtually without cost “ . . . free like the unmetered air.”

I’m unsure whether Udall cites von Neumann in context but I suspect he does. I’m delighted that the phrase is a more lyrical version of the famous “too cheap to meter” quote by Lewis Strauss, but of course von Neumann might have just been parroting the Strauss expression. In any event this book disappeared from view and I don’t make any use of either von Neumann’s expression or Udall’s disdain of it.


Udall, Stewart L. 1994. The Myths of August: A Personal Exploration of Our Tragic Cold War Affair with the Atom. Pantheon Books, New York, pp. 251-252