A Fallout Shelter Where You Might Have Lived During a Nuclear War

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Designed to house about 100 people in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack during the Cold War, this shelter provided few comforts

In the late 1950s, as the Cold War and its attendant threat of nuclear apocalypse continued to escalate, the American military came up with a new computerized plan to defend the country from Soviet bombers. The Semi-Automatic Ground Environment was a major networking effort by NORAD to pull in and organize radar information from many different locations in the case of a Soviet nuclear attack.

MIT and IBM were both heavily involved in the construction of SAGE and, in some sense, it was an important precursor to the networks that became the Internet.

Despite the electronics, SAGE required people to actually operate the system and respond to any threats it might detect. That meant creating fallout shelters for those people. Above, you see one of these shelters, which could have housed 100 people in the event of an attack. The Library of Congress calls the buildings, "exceptionally important examples of the architecture of the Cold War."

This fallout shelter -- or the many constructed by private citizens -- might not have worked to protect people. And even if it did, the life would have been spartan, as you can see. But shelters like this, plans like this, provided psychological cover for the government's planning. We could survive nuclear war intact, the government swore. Lee Clarke has called these kinds of plans, "fantasy documents," and described how they were used to "tame disasters." This fallout shelter is the architectural embodiment of those nuclear dreams.

See more from our Built in America series including The Climatron, a massive wind tunnel, and the Edison workshop.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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