For 40 years, beginning in 1951, scientists and engineers working on behalf of or contracted to the U.S. government exploded nearly 1,000 nuclear devices at the Nevada Test Site in the desert outside Las Vegas. They wanted to test the properties and effects of this exceedingly complex weapon, and prove its strength to the world in a sublime pyrotechnic display. They conducted all sorts of tests: to animals, to houses, bridges, clothing and shelters. The atmospheric tests -- that is, the above-ground explosions -- produced craters visible from space and a series of mushroom clouds that became a tourist attraction in Las Vegas. They were banned in 1963, giving way to underground testing, which involved lowering a massive nuclear device several hundred feet underground, rattling the bones of the earth and producing craters, "sink depressions," across the barren landscape as big as 1,500 feet in diameter.
Following is a selection of footage from the Nevada Test Site's historical film archive. All of the films featured here are described in full at the Department of Energy-maintained site.
The tests became a cultural phenomenon. The local newspaper marked the occasion with a banner headline: Vegas A-Bomb Pops. The skies lit up as far away as Los Angeles, and tourists in Las Vegas woke up early (or stayed out at late) to see the mushroom clouds erupt in the predawn hours. Bartenders in Vegas and beyond started selling Atomic Cocktails (equal parts champagne, vodka, and brandy -- and a splash of sherry) and hotel promoters exploited the blasts by creating new forms of entertainment: the Atom Bomb Dancers, and the Miss Atomic Bomb and Miss Atomic Blast competitions. One fellow invented a nuclear war card game with the slogan, "It's a blast!"
The whimsy surrounding what was going on in the desert obscured the deadly seriousness of it all. But from the distance of time, even the tests themselves seem unlikely. In one, they dressed pigs up in military uniforms to understand how the fabric and underlying skin would be affected. Films from the era show how they used mannequins to determine how a bomb would affect clothing. During Operation Cue, they built a series of homes in a variety of architectural styles and stocked them with food and dummies of "Mr. and Mrs. America" to see how they would all fare in a nuclear blast. Then, in the film produced by the U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA), the VIPs watching the blast enjoyed a roast beef buffet in the desert. "It was done to perfection and roasted in cans, which could have been salvaged from demolished buildings," said the female reporter who narrated.
A classic of the genre, a 1954 film entitled "The House in the Middle," sponsored by the FCDA and the erstwhile National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau, and produced by the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association, depicts a series of tests on several tiny little homes, standing side by side in the desert and largely identical but for one thing. Some of the houses are unpainted and untidy. One is called "an eyesore," with "old, unpainted wood." Others, however, are painted inside and out, "spic and span," with trash thrown away, tidy tabletops, and clean, litter-free lawns.
After the explosions, the houses standing are the clean ones, with "better, safer housekeeping," leaving the narrator to deliver the moral in a TV tone straight out of a 1950s sitcom, simultaneously alarming and comforting, instructing and scolding: "The dingy house on the left. The dirty and littered house on the right. Or the clean, white house in the middle. It is your choice. The reward may be survival." Left unsaid is that if the detonation were slightly closer to the structures, they all would have burned.
Long videos: Courtesy of the Prelinger Library.