Nuclear Test… Noticed

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While researching the Cold War for the latest episode of Rarities, a question came to mind… With nuclear weapons being so cataclysmic, were early tests noticed by civilians? The answer is not only yes, but also that the radiation was measured and recorded by some. Such was the case with the very first nuclear test: the Trinity Test.

A photo taken 6 milliseconds after detonation. The hemisphere seen is 660 feet high.
A photo taken 6 milliseconds after detonation. The hemisphere seen is 660 feet high.

The New Mexico explosion was visible from 60 miles and heard even further away. Associated Press even reported that 150 miles away, a blind woman asked “What’s that bright light?” at the moment of detonation! Frightened citizens were placated with a press release:

Alamogordo, N.M., July 16

The commanding officer of the Alamogordo Army Air Base made the following statement today: “Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Air base reservation this morning. A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine was negligible. Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes.”

The radioactive fallout slowly seeped into the ecosystem. By 1945, it had reached as far as the Wabash river in Indiana. Water from that river was used in growing corn. Husks from that corn were processed into cardboard, eventually used by Kodak for film containers. Enough radioactivity remained in the boxes that the film gained a foggy appearance.

ASA400 film, shown affected by X-Ray radiation on the right. Photo via Maisson Bisson
ASA400 film, shown affected by X-Ray radiation on the right.
Photo via Maisson Bisson

It was very soon after the bombing of Hiroshima, in August, that Dr. J. H. Webb, of Kodak, began searching for the cause of the fogging. He determined that the Hiroshima bomb was too far and too recent to have affected the film. The cause must be from fallout within the US. He kept this sensitive wartime information a secret until 1949, when he published his findings in Physical Review Vol 76.

Danse Baccanale by Camille Saint-Saëns in his opera Samson and Dalilah performed by the US Air Force Band

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