75 Years Ago Today: A Bomb in the Desert

Seventy-five years ago, America set off the world’s first nuclear explosion.

Trinity was part of the Manhattan Project. Very few color images of the Trinity explosion exist. This is one of several spectacular black and white photos. This photo was taken 0.016 seconds after the explosion, July 16, 1945. Los Alamos National Laboratory

Within the Chihuahuan Desert in south-central New Mexico, an ancient tectonic drift formed the Tularosa Basin. At its south edge, during the last ice age, gypsum runoff created a lake, which thaw later evaporated into White Sands, an albino desert. To the north, a barren waste of lava field stretches across 150 square miles of the basin—malpaís in Spanish, because the land itself is bad. Nearby, another, smaller flow of sharp, igneous darkness called the Carrizozo Malpais streaks across the earth like a scar.  

Exposed wiring of “The Gadget,” the nuclear device that exploded as part of Trinity, the first test of an atomic bomb. At the time of this photo, the device was being prepared for its detonation, which took place on July 16, 1945

There, 75 years ago this morning, humankind exploded the first nuclear weapon, a cable-encrusted steel sphere nicknamed “the Gadget.” The site took on the code name of the detonation, Trinity, which its architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had chosen, inspired by a John Donne holy sonnet: Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free.

The photo sequence shows the first 4 seconds in the evolution of the explosion fireball during the Trinity test.

The first atom bombs worked by nuclear fission—splitting the nucleus of a uranium or plutonium atom by striking its core with a neutron. The force looses more neutrons from the targeted atom, along with energy, and the chain reaction continues: more neutrons, more energy, more neutrons, more energy. . . .

Raising Gadget. Folks wear nothing more protective than sunglasses to watch the detonation from a handful of miles away. Scientists and reporters visit the site almost immediately to examine the remains of the tower. People pick up handfuls of the glassy residue left behind, called Trinitite or Alamogordo glass.
Trinitite is the green, glassy substance that was left behind after the first atomic bomb was tested at on July 16, 1945 on the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES

Edward Teller, one of the Manhattan Project physicists, feared that the explosion could extinguish all earthly life. Once set off, he imagined, the chain reaction might extend into the nitrogen in the air, igniting the atmosphere. That didn’t happen, so three weeks after the Trinity test, the fission energy of 140 pounds of uranium and 14 pounds of plutonium were released over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 140,000 civilians.

Enrico Fermi’s account: Source: Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 227, OSRD-S1 Committee, Box 82 folder 6, “Trinity.” Transcription and document scan by Gene Dannen. (http://www.dannen.com/decision/fermi.html
Established on July 9, 1945, White Sands Missile Range (formerly White Sands Proving Ground) is the largest military installation in the United States, covering 3,200 square miles. (Nina Berman/Noor)

Along the way, the site of the Trinity test became a tourist attraction, albeit one tightly controlled by the U.S. military. . . . . .[In the 80’s] Sting released a single that year about “Oppenheimer’s deadly toy”; in its refrain he sang, “I hope the Russians love their children too.” Nuclear war was a thought as common as the weather. This trip was a visit not to the past, but to the anxious present.

The Atlantic: A Bomb in the Desert ; access this link for the complete story.

Additional Sources: Nupex The Atlantic (70th Anniversary) Thoughtco. KUNM Atomic Heritage Foundation


In order to counter the German developments. L. Szilard asked Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt outlining the dangers and opportunities of fission. He (Szilard) presented this letter to Roosevelt in 1939.