On July 16, 1945, the Atomic Age began, as the old cliché goes. Hundreds of modern alchemists journeyed to an occult gathering in the New Mexico desert to conjure up a fantastical, mysterious force in the early hours of the morning. The famously unclear origins of the code name for the project, “Trinity,” only adds to the lore. This was the time when the bomb was not yet a foregone conclusion, and its abilities still largely guesses. Even the most basic question was still up for betting: How explosive was the blast going to be? The low guesses predicted a failure--a “fizzle”-- while the higher guess (Edward Teller’s, of course) was for the equivalent of 45,000 tons of TNT. The conservative guess was 4,000 tons. The final result was five times that lower number.
Only one person at the Trinity test saw its brilliance without any mediation. The physicist Robert Serber — through accident, not bravery — viewed the blast without any eye protection from his vantage point 20 miles away. Like others that close to ground zero, he had been issued welding glass meant to be held up at the moment of detonation. Unlike the others, he inadvertently lowered it just as the “Gadget” exploded. The result was shocking blindness, but fortunately it was only temporary. In his post-test report, he summed up the experience simply: “The grandeur and magnitude of the phenomenon were completely breathtaking.”
The next nuclear test series took place almost exactly a year later. Operation Crossroads, held in the Bikini Atoll in the summer of 1946, was a less transformational affair. No obscure literary or philosophical references here; the test code names were “Able” and “Baker,” the first letters of the radio alphabet used by the American military during World War II. Observers from the press were underwhelmed — given the hype, they had expected more. It took only a year for the bomb’s initial mystique to wear away, and for the weapon to cease to inspire poetic allusions and, instead, to be named via the cold bureaucracy of military jargon.