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.
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The Trinity project was actually two “shots,” one nuclear, one non-nuclear. The first test, on May 7, 1945, was of conventional explosives, designed to help calibrate the instrumentation before the atomic test; this device was threaded with 1,000 curies of radioactive materials produced in the Hanford reactor, so that the dispersal of radioactivity could be studied. Here the test crew stands triumphantly with 108 tons of TNT in the background.
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Documenting the Trinity explosion was a full-time job. More than 50 cameras recorded the detonation. Many were regular motion-picture cameras. Others were Fastax cameras capable of recording pictures at 10,000 frames per second, necessary for capturing the famous photographs of the first milliseconds of the expanding fireball. Some cameras only looked in certain bands of light, and some looked only at radiation. Despite all of this work, one of the most famous photographs of Trinity, the one that graces the cover of Richard Rhodes’ ubiquitous The Making of the Atomic Bomb, was taken by Jack Aeby, a civilian mechanical engineer who just happened to snap the perfect shot.
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The “Gadget” being hoisted to the top of the 100-foot-tall Trinity tower. In mid-May 1945, outbuildings at the Trinity site were accidentally bombed twice by planes from the nearby Alamogordo Air Base that had left their test range and mistaken the buildings for practice targets. Test director Kenneth Bainbridge wrote a furious letter to the military captain in charge of intelligence work at Los Alamos, demanding that such incidents never happen again. “Besides the danger to the personnel in residence at TR [Trinity site], there is danger that when the 100-ft tower is erected and the gadget is mounted on it, it will provide an attractive target for similar action, and any damage to the gadget by bombing or strafing must be avoided at all costs.” Procedures were changed, and the incidents were not repeated.
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A composite picture (created by the author) of the expanding Trinity fireball. One can, from such an image, get a sense of how rapidly the fireball expanded and became a mushrooming cloud. The artificial addition of the Empire State Building, at right, gives a sense of overall scale, something difficult to visualize from the fireball pictures alone. The top of the largest cloud shown is a little over a mile in height.
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The unusual, spectral appearance of this photograph of the Trinity explosion stems from its long exposure setting: The photo shows two full seconds of the detonation at once. Although the intention of such a photograph was not to produce a work of “art,” per se, it would hardly be out of place in a museum.
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Most photographs of Trinity show only the very early moments of the fireball’s development. The mushroom cloud, something that later became indelibly associated with nuclear explosions, is largely absent. This rare photograph of the later development of the Trinity cloud gives some indication of its size and appearance. The dark column, looming above the nearby mountains and under a cloudy sky, is considerably more ominous than images from the first milliseconds of the bomb.
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Immediately after the test, a group of three scientists (and one driver) volunteered to drive a lead-lined tank into the crater area to obtain soil samples, dug up through a hole in the bottom of the vehicle. It was a dangerous gamble, one of them later recalled, because had the tank experienced mechanical difficulties while in the area of hazardous radiation, there would have been little that they could do. All went according to plan, but despite the tank, the lead shielding, and their protective outfits (shown above), the men still received significant doses of radiation.
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Exposed to the searing heat of the Trinity fireball, the sandy desert floor fused into a radioactive green glass dubbed “Trinitite.” Samples were made available to news media after World War II had ended, but the Los Alamos scientists came to regret that move, because some of the samples later were fashioned into jewelry, despite their radioactive properties. In later years, the Army bulldozed the site to prevent tourists from taking radioactive “souvenirs.”
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The Trinity test was a large operation that unfolded over many months and with a large staff. It also marked the completion of years of work on researching, producing, designing, and building the world’s first atomic weapons. It was, by all accounts, an astounding, even unexpected, success. And yet, all of that work, all of that effort, and all of that hazard produced an experiment that destroyed its own apparatus. Shown here is a remnant of one of the four bases of the 100-foot tower on which the “Gadget” had been mounted, the smashed and cracked evidence of a job well done.
Sixty-eight years ago, hundreds of modern alchemists journeyed to an occult gathering in the New Mexico desert to conjure up a mysterious force in the early hours of the morning. The code name was Trinity.