During the devastating events of the Second World War, a team of U.S. scientists pushed the boundaries of human understanding of the atom to create the most potent weapons of war ever conceived. While this research opened the possibility of human-induced potential extinction, it also held out the theoretical possibility of unlimited, fossil-fuel-free energy and perhaps a deterrent to the mass slaughter that ended the lives of millions of people in WWII.
Whatever way you view, the Trinity test goes down as one of the most important footnotes in history.
What was the Trinity project?
Trinity was the code name for the world's first-ever successful test detonation of a nuclear device. Forming part of the famous "Manhattan Project", the nuclear device, code named "Gadget" was successfully detonated on the 16th of July 1945.
The Manhattan Project was authorized in the early stages of the 1940s as a top-secret program to counter what were thought to be German advances in developing nuclear devices. Its primary goal was to furnish the U.S. with a practical atomic bomb.
The climax of three years of intense research and experimentation, the Trinity test would usher in the nuclear age. The world, as they say, would never be the same again.
The test was conducted in the Jornada del Muerto desert in New Mexico close to Alamogordo. At that time the site was a United States of America Air Force (USAAF) gunnery and bombing range. On that fateful day, the test bomb was detonated in the north-central portion of the range, north of the White Sands National Monument that stands in memorial of the event today.
Today, this area of New Mexico forms part of the White Sands Missile Range.
"Gadget" was developed by specialist teams of scientists, mathematicians, and physicists, and led by American-born scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was Oppenheimer who named the test site "Trinity."
Gadget was a steel, globe-shaped plutonium implosive nuclear device. Interestingly, it was a much more efficient and powerful weapon than the uranium-powered gun-type nuclear weapon detonated over Hiroshima.
Plutonium implosion devices like "Trinity", use conventional explosives around a central plutonium mass to quickly squeeze and consolidate the plutonium, increasing the pressure and density of the substance.
An increased density allows the plutonium to reach its critical mass, firing neutrons and allowing the fission chain reaction to proceed. To detonate the device, the explosives were ignited, releasing a shock wave that compressed the inner plutonium and led to its explosion." - The Atomic Heritage Foundation.
The test also included a device called "Jumbo". This was an enormous, cylindrical, steel container that cost around $12 million to develop as a literal "fail-safe" for the test. Designed as a containment vessel in case the test-bomb was a dud, it was intended to be used to recover the valuable plutonium for future experiments.
As it turned out, "Jumbo" was deemed unnecessary, as the team was confident the experiment would be successful. "Jumbo" was not wasted, however, and was suspended from a steel tower about 800 meters from the test site.
The tower was completely flattened, but "Jumbo" survived intact. After the war, the U.S. Army attempted in vain to destroy it, and today its remains can still be seen at the Trinity Site.
The "Trinity" weapon was developed at the Los Alamos Laboratory where the first Manhatten Project bombs were built and tested. The explosion was impressive. The bomb unleashed as much energy as 20 kilotonnes of TNT.
In 1965, the test site was designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What was the "Manhattan Project"?
The "Manhattan Project", as previously touched upon, was a top-secret program of nuclear testing and development initiated in the early-1940s. Its routes can be traced back to 1939, when many American scientists, including refugees from the fascist regimes in Europe, such as Albert Einstein, advocated for the development of nuclear fission in order to counter German advances in the field.
In 1939, the U.S. Government set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium. This was a team of scientists tasked with researching the potential for weaponizing uranium. Based on the committee's findings, the government then began funding research into radioactive isotope separation (also known as uranium enrichment) and nuclear chain reactions.
By 1941, the committee's name had been changed to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). The Army Corps of Engineers joined the OSRD in 1942, and the project became a military initiative, with scientists serving in a supporting role.
The OSRD created the Manhattan Engineer District in 1942 and this then became the Manhattan Project, which combined the various research efforts. Facilities were set up in remote locations in New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington, as well as in Canada, to develop and test the weapons and their components.
Much of the early phase of the project was conducted at Columbia University in New York City and at the University of Chicago, but this expanded to include many other laboratories and institutions around the country. Just prior to the first atomic bomb test, somewhere in the region of 30 labs and more than 130,000 workers were involved in the project.
While the most famous research location was Los Alamos, other important parts of the research were conducted at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Richland, Washington. Oak Ridge, in particular, was of paramount importance in the production of uranium-235 and plutonium, using its medium-sized fission reactor.
This facility produced the bulk of the fissile nuclear material used in the "Little Boy" bomb -- the weapon used against the Japanese city of Hiroshima in August of 1945. The same year, the world's very first large-scale plutonium reactor and processing plant were developed at Hanford Site located in Richland, Washington.
By early-1945, shipments of enriched uranium and plutonium were being delivered to Los Alamos every 5 days, or so. This material would be used for the Trinity Test, as well as in developing the plutonium-based "Fat Man" which was detonated over the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Los Alamos also served as the main "think tank" for the entire Manhattan Project. Its engineers, led by Oppenheimer, were responsible for the final construction, testing, and delivery of the bombs.
What was the result of the Trinity test?
On the 16th of July, 1945, at precisely 5:30 am, scientists from the Los Alamos research facility unleashed the destructive force of the atom for the first time in human history. The test run was actually penciled in for an hour and a half earlier, but bad weather delayed the experiment until more favorable conditions arose.
The atmosphere among the gathered scientists was tense. Witnesses included the scientist Enrico Fermi (who had directed the first nuclear chain reaction in December 1942), U.S. Army Brigadier General Leslie Groves, J. R. Oppenheimer, and many others.
The test bomb was placed atop a purpose-built steel tower and, once detonated, an intense flash of light and wave of intense heat, followed by a deafening sonic boom, filled the valley. The fireball, which resulted in the characteristic mushroom cloud, stretched some 40,000 feet (12.2 km) in diameter.
With an estimated explosive power of 20 tonnes of TNT, the bomb turned large amounts of the surrounding desert and tower concrete foundations to green-colored glass. This strange material would later be called "trinitite".
Where the tower had been erected, a crater one and a half miles (2.4 km) across and eight feet (2.4 m) deep remained.
"As the orange and yellow fireball stretched up and spread, a second column, narrower than the first, rose and flattened into a mushroom shape, thus providing the atomic age with a visual image that has become imprinted on the human consciousness as a symbol of power and awesome destruction." - The U.S. Department of Energy.
Immediately after the successful test, the reaction among the gathered officials ranged from complete shock, to surprise, and elation. One man, Hans Bethe, was even momentarily blinded, for about 30 seconds, as he had been looking directly at the blast. Another, named George Kistiakowsky, who was about 5 miles (8 km) from ground zero, was knocked from his feet.
The initial euphoria quickly gave way to a more sober reflection on what they had just witnessed. Oppenheimer would later reflect on the legend of Prometheus, who was punished by Zeus for giving man fire, with a now-famous quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Like dynamite, whose power its creator, Alfred Nobel, had hoped would end all wars, the atomic bomb would also prove fruitless at stopping one of humanity's favorite "hobbies".
"The success of the Trinity test meant that both types of bombs -- the uranium design, untested but thought to be reliable, and the plutonium design, which had just been tested successfully -- were now available for use in the war against Japan.
"Little Boy", the uranium bomb, was dropped first, at Hiroshima, on August 6, while the plutonium weapon, "Fat Man", followed three days later at Nagasaki on August 9. Within days, Japan offered to surrender." - The U.S. Department of Energy.
Takeaway facts about the Trinity atomic bomb test
And so, without further ado, here is a selection of interesting facts about the Trinity test. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Locals around the detonation site were sworn to secrecy
One interesting fact about the Trinity test was that local residents were forced to keep schtum. Those living in and around Los Alamos and the test site had their lives heavily regulated and restricted.
Mail was censored, phone calls monitored, and their interactions with other family members were tightly, and strictly, controlled. All mail and official documents listed the site's location only as P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This was, understandably, to keep the utmost secrecy about this highly sensitive research endeavor.
2. Many different sites were considered before settling on Los Alamos
Another interesting fact about the test is that the U.S. was spoiled for choice for sites for their first test run. In May of 1944, U.S. military officials were scouring the country for suitable sites to unleash the power of the atom for the first time in history.
Locations like the barrier sand reeds in South Texas, an island off California's southern coast, and Rice in California were all considered. In New Mexico alone, there were a few options too, like the Tularosa basin, the deserts south of Grants, and a parched, 90-mile (145 km) stretch called “Jornada del Muerto,” or “route of the dead men.”
The latter, fittingly named, site was eventually chosen, as it had an abundance of wide-open space and happened to be close to the Manhattan Project's research and development site in Los Alamos.
3. We are not entirely sure why it was called the "Trinity Test"
While many claim that the codename "Trinity" was inspired by the work of John Donne (a 17th Century poet), even Oppenheimer was not entirely clear on the issue. Often cited as the progenitor of the name, he is later quoted in an interview of not really knowing where, exactly, it came from.
The poem Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person'd God by John Donne:
"Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."
In a 1962 interview with General Leslie Groves, Oppenheimer stated that, “Why I chose this name is not clear." He was well-read, and later offered some guesses about why the name occurred to him. As the historic-day approached he apparently spent some time considering the works of Donne, who he greatly admired.
Donne's work often invoked Christianity's Holy Trinity, and in one of his most famous sonnets, Donne wrote the words, “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” However, Oppenheimer later confessed that “beyond this, I have no clues whatsoever.”
4. One house was built so well that it actually resisted the power of the blast
Amazingly, one house close to the test site managed to defy the immense power of the bomb with relatively minor damage. Called the "George McDonald" ranch house, it was relatively unharmed, despite its window being shattered and damage to its roof.
The building was "abandoned" by its original owners in 1942, and the Manhattan Project's personnel repurposed the building as a bomb assembly zone. It has since been renovated as a tourist spot for nuclear-enthusiast tourists.
5. It was believed by some that the test might ignite the Earth's atmosphere
Some scientists apparently believed that the test could have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Since fission explosions, like the one proposed, produce a lot of heat (in the order of tens of thousands of degrees), it was suggested that this could spark a chain reaction that would fuse nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere.
Edward Teller, the "Father of the Hydrogen Bomb", was one of the main proponents of this theory, and it almost scuppered the entire project. If the theory had been accurate, the explosion could have caused global devastation.
Teller's concern was taken seriously, and after an investigation, it was deemed that the risk was small when compared to the alternative - possible German victory in the war. “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing a final curtain on mankind,” Nobel laureate Arthur Compton would later explain.
Thankfully, this doomsday scenario proved inaccurate.
6. Initially, civilians were told that the Trinity test was actually a military mishap
Shortly after the successful test, army officials released an official statement in an attempt to maintain secrecy with the local populace. The statement, which ran in New Mexican papers, said:
"Several inquiries have been received concerning a heavy explosion which occurred on the Alamogordo Army Air Base reservation this morning. A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.
There was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and the property damage outside of the explosives magazine itself was negligible. Weather conditions affecting the content of gas shells exploded by the blast may make it desirable for the Army to evacuate temporarily a few civilians from their homes."
This would buy the U.S. armed forces enough time to keep the existence of their new superweapon a secret.
7. The fireball from the explosion was seen for miles around
And finally, the fireball from the test bomb was so huge that it could be seen from more than 180 miles (290 km) away. It is said that the flash was so powerful that it temporarily blinded observers as far away as Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Silver City, and El Paso.
One navy pilot, John R. Lugo, who happened to be flying that morning, even mistook the nuclear blast as a real-life sunrise, only from the South!
And that's all folks.
The Trinity test was one of those engineering and scientific achievements that can rightfully claim the title of a "world-changing event". Initially built to end one of the worst wars in human history, it would, arguably, help usher in one of the most peaceful periods in human history thanks to the concept of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D).
On the other hand, these weapons still hold the potential for sending us all, literally, back the stone edge. Talk about a double-edged sword.
The legend of "Pandora's Box" has never been more applicable to the machinations of man.