Today on Museum Bites we’re rolling back the clock to the Atomic Age, with a tour through the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. On July 16, 1945, Gadget, the first atomic bomb was detonated in the predawn light. The resulting blast wave ripped across the New Mexico desert and a massive mushroom cloud churned overhead. It was the dawn of the Atomic Age and the world was forever changed.
Some people began digging fallout shelters and stocking up on Civil Defense rations, while others went mad for all things atomic. Movies featured irradiated and city-smashing beasts like Godzilla and Mothra. Vegas casinos featured atomic slot machines and cocktails.
Kids were wowed by atomic bomb kitsch in their cereal boxes and comic book superheroes with radiation-induced super powers. Whether you were agitated or accepting, atomic fever had consumed the nation. Following are some of the more bizarre bits that came about as a result of the Atomic Age.
Duck and Cover (1951): This nine-minute Civil Defense film was shown to school children across the nation to educate and prepare them for a nuclear blast. The grainy black and white video features cartoon duck and cover expert, Bert the Turtle. A sugary soundtrack encourages us to “duck and cover” ad nauseum, while various scenarios show kids when and how to get the job done.
Here’s Tony going to his cub scout meeting. Tony knows the bomb can go off any time of the year day or night. He is ready for it. Duck and cover! That’ a boy Tony! That flash means act fast. ~Duck & Cover, U.S. Civil Defense Film (1951)
While I applaud the emphasis on preparedness, today this film comes across as dreadfully naïve. Click on this Duck and Cover video link and decide for yourself.
Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab (1951-1952): Famous for giving us the Erector Set, the A. C. Gilbert Company debuted its U-238 Atomic Energy Lab in 1951. Advertised as “Exciting!” and “Safe!” this do-it-yourself science kit included a Geiger counter, electroscope, spinthariscope and Wilson cloud chamber, for the low, low price of $50. This do-it-yourself atomic lab included not one but three radiation sources! Alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. But wait there’s more! The Atomic Energy Lab comes with three, count ‘em 1-2-3 illustrated books. The Gilbert Atomic Energy Instructions, Prospecting for Uranium, and my personal favorite, How Dagwood Splits the Atom. Citing low sales, the A. C. Gilbert Company pulled the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab from store shelves after only a year on the market. Not to worry, A. C. Gilbert quickly followed with the Fun with Chemistry as well as the Lab Technician Set for Girls, featuring the highly volatile and toxic solvent, xylene.
Atomic City: Between 1951 and 1962, 100 atomic bombs were detonated above ground at the Nevada Test Site. Just 65 miles down the road, Las Vegas capitalized on the spectacle. Showgirls were trotted out for photo ops sporting mushroom cloud tiaras and dubbed Miss Atomic Bomb, Miss Atomic Blast, and Miss A-Bomb. Atomic cocktails and mushroom cloud souvenirs were gobbled up. Casinos offered pricey penthouses and rooftop seating, while picnickers flocked to favorable vantage points. The paparazzi jockeyed for a closer view, eager to capture the firestorm on film.
Approximately 100 miles northeast of the Nevada Test Site, the residents of St. George, Utah were initially thrilled with their backyard view of the blasts. Residents woke early and gathered outside to enjoy the predawn show.
When a pinkish-red cloud drifted over St. George hours later, the parents were not frightened. After all, the Atomic Energy Commission had assured them that ‘there is no danger’ from radioactive fallout. Some parents even held Geiger counters on their children and exclaimed in wonder as the needles jumped. ~TIME magazine (1951, 2015)
Tragically, many of these children developed leukemia and died, and still others contracted thyroid cancer as adults.
A total of 928 nuclear bombs (100 above & 828 below ground) were detonated at the Nevada Test Site. All testing ceased on October 2, 1992, when the United States agreed to participate in a unilateral moratorium.
Fatal Fission Facts: On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Over four square miles of the city was obliterated and 70,000 people were immediately killed. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan on August 9, 1945, instantly killing 40,000 people and incinerating two square miles of the city.
We’re packing our bags and bidding a fond farewell to Las Vegas. Next week we’ll be tackling tornadoes, in the meantime, have a great week!
National Atomic Testing Museum
Oak Ridge Associated Universities