On the 16th July 1945 a bomb exploded in the New Mexico Desert. This however was no ordinary bomb this was “The Gadget” and the result of the top secret Manhattan Project and subsequent Trinity Test. This is was the worlds first Atomic Bomb.
The Manhattan Project began in 1942 and was a US led joint project with the UK and Canada to create an atomic bomb. Led by Robert Opponheimer the project brought in the best scientists from around the western world to work one project with one goal. The project actually absorbed the British atomic project known as “Tube Alloys”.
The biggest problems faced by the scientists were how to start the fission process and the fact that the Uranium and Plutonium needed was simply not available in the quantities required. The US government solved the latter by creating massive reactors and enriching facilities such as Oak Ridge to provide the required atomic materials.
Los Alamos & Trinity
The Manhattan projects base was located at Los Alamos, New Mexico and this is where the majority of the work took place to learn how to split the atom and create the device capable of exploding it. Two types of bomb were proposed, an implosion type bomb and a gun type bomb. An implosion type bomb uses high explosive (HE) to compress a nuclear material such as uranium until it reaches critical mass causing a massive explosion of tremendous power. The gun type uses an uranium bullet being fired into a uranium mass starting a chain reaction with the same result. These are known as “pure fission” type weapons. Later Thermo-Nuclear hydrogen bombs were Fission-Fusion-Fission bombs.
After perfecting the design the next step was to test the principles of their work. This was to be carried out in the “Trinity Test”. Many speculated on what may happen and some of the top scientists within the project believed there was a very real chance that the bomb would just “fizzle out” however under the highest secrecy the countdown began at 05:10am on the 16th July 1945, after rain delayed the initial detonation time of 04:00.
As the clock ticked down and the rain cleared nerves reached their peak as the clock drew to its final seconds. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1……
A millisecond of silence was followed by the largest man made explosion to ever take place on earth at the time. The bomb exploded with a force equivalent to 20 kilotons of TNT. The tower that the bomb was suspended from was vaporized, a fireball climbed into the sky turning into a mushroom shaped cloud which stretched up over 7 miles into the sky. The shock wave of the explosion was felt up to 100 miles away. All that was left of ground zero was a crater and the sand that had been turned to glass by the heat of the explosion, this became known as Trinitite.
With a yield of 20 kilotons, The trinity test was double the yield predicted by Los Alamos and in every respect was a complete success. So much so that just a few weeks later 2 atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan ending the war in the Pacific. These are the only atomic or nuclear bombs that have ever been used in anger. Over 80,000 people died instantly.
The scientists at Los Alamos may have created a super weapon that ended World War II but the world knew that whoever possessed this weapon ultimately held the balance of power and the newly emerging superpowers of the USA, Soviet Union along with the UK realised this. Whilst the Americans had built the bomb, it wouldn’t be alone in the nuclear world for long. So began the Nuclear Arms Race and ultimately, the Cold War.