Seeing numerous atomic bomb blasts on the Los Angeles horizon

Here is a series of images from the early 1950s when atomic bomb tests in Nevada lit up the sky in Los Angeles.

Photo by Perry Fowler, February 2, 1951. “Today’s atomic explosion, largest yet set off on the Nevada test range, was clearly visible in Los Angeles, as remarkable photo shows. Staff photographer Perry Folwer was ready with his camera on a tripod on the roof of the Herald-Express building when the blast occurred at 5:48 a.m. Reporter Jack Smith, who also saw yesterday’s explosion, points towards the great white flash that clearly silhouetted mountains to the east.”…

Between October 1951 through September 1992, 928 atomic tests were conducted at the NTS, 100 of which were completed above ground more than 300 miles away from L.A. in the sprawling Desert National Wildlife Range. If that seems like a long distance for the glow from an atomic bomb to be visible, consider that the mushroom cloud could be seen as far as 100 miles from the blast site. While Los Angeles, ever famous for its unique light, got to see the nuclear glimmer, the radioactive fallout had a tendency to drift northeast into Utah.

The light from the tests seems to light up the entire sky, a dull incandescence sharply outlining anything between it and the camera. At first, the images seem rather mundane for looking so much like a sunrise — the difference of course is that this fission-born light comes straight from man’s handiwork, and heralds the beginning of an arms race that in the 1960s tilted perilously close to Armageddon. An interesting theme in the handwritten captions accompanying these photos is the regular reminder that the blast is much more powerful than any previous, which makes sense given that during this period the yields of nuclear tests were definitely on the rise.

The pictures with people in them demonstrate the utter (and now seemingly morbid) fascination with nuclear weapons that many Americans had at the time (e.g the Hulk). The Nevada detonations became such a source of interest for the City of Angels that on April 22, 1952, local TV station KTLA joined several other networks in broadcasting the massive Tumbler-Snapper test detonation. The event got surprisingly high ratings for 5:30 in the morning — before that, they had to broadcast tests secretly. Unless a TV station told you tune in for one, the only way anyone within eye- or ear-shot of a test would know a bomb had gone off was when they saw or heard it announcing itself over the horizon.

Many portrayals of the atomic age from today suggest Americans were anxious and nervous about the atomic age and the danger at hand. Yet, these pictures suggest these bomb test were just a regular part of 1950s American life. In fact, the blasts might have provided a different kind of early morning glamor for Los Angeles.

It is hard to imagine this happening today…

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