Monday, September 12, 2016

How The Atomic Tests Looked Like From Los Angeles

Between 1951 and 1992, the United States conducted 928 atomic tests at the Nevada Test Site about 65 miles (105 km) northwest of the city of Las Vegas. Exactly one hundred of these tests were atmospheric, whose mushroom clouds could be seen for almost 100 miles (160 km), drawing fascinated tourists like a magnet to the desert city of Las Vegas. Even as far away as Los Angeles, located some 240 miles (386 km) away, as the crow files, the unearthly glow of the atomic bomb illuminated the dark sky turning night into day. These extraordinary but fairly regular events were covered in leading newspapers with photographs accompanied by nonchalant captions.

“Los Angeles had two dawns yesterday,” wrote the Times after one pre-dawn test in the 1950s. “Los Angeles Civic Center buildings by Nevada A Bomb blast, 1955,” wrote another, which writer Geoff Manaugh calls “an incredible statement in any context, stranger than science fiction.”
“An interesting theme in the handwritten captions accompanying these photos,” observes the Wired, “is the regular reminder that the blast is much more powerful than any previous, which makes sense given that during this period the yields of nuclear tests were definitely on the rise.”

There are also pictures of people enjoying the spectacle that demonstrate the morbid fascination that many Americans had with nuclear weapons at the time. One such event was broadcast live by local TV channels of Los Angles on April 22, 1952. The event got surprisingly high ratings for 5:30 in the morning.

Geoff Manaugh puts this in eloquence.

In retrospect, however, the event has an unsettling na├»vete, like a photo of school kids playing with mercury or a home movie of a parent renovating a baby’s bedroom with lead-based paint. That the terrifying and sublime effects of atomic explosions have always lent themselves well to photography takes on an especially strange irony here, in this metropolis of film and sunlight: that a city would so casually use this unnatural luminosity to take a photo of itself for the morning paper, careless of the danger as the seductive allure of these midcentury detonations drew near.

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