A collection of photographs of actual nuclear and thermonuclear detonations from Trinity through a Chinese test of 1967.
A frightening thing I noticed is the scale, or rather, the lack of scale, as the detonations became more powerful. The Operation Crossroads tests of 1946 rated 21 kilotons. In the images, easily identifiable markets give the scale of the explosions. Palm trees, ships, clouds in the sky, all serve to give a sense of dimension.
By 1951, 47 kiloton tests are still comprehensible against the clear background of a desert day. But a few weeks later, the “George” tests were yielding more than five times that, and the scale became not palm trees but large rivers. The measurement was no longer miles, but tens of miles.
“Mike,” the first hydrogen bomb, was forty times again as powerful, and there is no reference point to give a sense of scale whatever. No longer measured in kilotons, Mike weighted in at 10.4 megatons. The entire world seems to be in the frame, as though reality itself were being warped. And half again as powerful were the “Bravo” tests of 1954. The mushroom cloud seems to reach, and pierce, the upper layers of the atmosphere.
The Russian test of Tzar Bomba yielded 50 to 57 megatons, and it’s no wonder talk of doomsday machines was in the air. Photos of this test look more like some kind of astronomical phenomena than anything on this world. It’s yield was the equivalent of all the explosives used in World War Two — times ten. The plume rose 30 miles, wooden houses hundreds of kilometers away were destroyed, and the shockwave was measured passing three times around the world. If you had a barometer in your home, you would have seen it move. At its full design strength of 100 megatons, exploded over Manhattan it could have levelled everything between Morristown and Syosset, from Red Bank to Tarrytown.
I remember the Chinese test of 1967. There was a lot of worry as the news tracked the progress of the radioactive cloud as it circled the world.
I don’t miss the Cold War at all, come to think of it.