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Atomic Disappointment

On April 22, 1952 Americans watched the first televised live broadcast of an atomic explosion. A relay of cables and microwave transmissions from the Yucca Flats Proving Grounds to the Los Angeles KTLA station brought the blast into millions of living rooms using the latest and most innovative telecast technology. Yet, as the countdown commenced, in place of the much-anticipated sublimity of scientific triumph, viewers were instead witness to a kind of televisual failure or electronic gag. Just before the blast, the crew lost microwave power and had to shift the signal to the even more remote back-up camera some forty miles away. The greater challenge, however, was the explosion itself. At the moment of detonation, the camera, overwhelmed by atomic light, transcribed nuclear fission into a tiny white dot in the middle of a black sphere, as if it were the television and not the desert warming up. The image momentarily flickered only to fade into indistinct grey scales when the signature mushroom cloud formed.1 New York Times television critic Jack Gould mused that during the broadcast it seemed as if “electronic gremlins had taken charge.” At its most dramatic, the explosion appeared like “a big doughnut” in the sky before morphing into a “more conventional white puff of cotton.” “When most of the excitement was over, of course, the picture came in much better.” To make matters less interesting, the broadcast ended before American troops marched to ground zero, what would surely have been a recordable and exciting display of wargame maneuvering. For most viewers, writes Gould, “everything happened so fast—and so far away from the camera—that as a visual spectacle on TV the blast was a little anti-climatic.”2 [End Page 611]

Networks were flooded with complaints after the fact. TV set owners, presuming the problem was a matter of fine tuning, attended more to the technology than the content of the broadcast itself, frantically changing channels and manipulating the horizontal and vertical hold knobs on their receivers. For such tinkerers, Gould speculates, “the atomic bomb meant geometric swirls, diagonal bars and their own large-screen trauma” (“Radio and Television,” 35). In Los Angeles, viewers could either look at the heavens or watch their TV sets. According to the Los Angeles Times, both options were disappointing. Gazing skyward at H-hour, one saw nothing but the “Southland morning haze”; on the tube, “a big black circle, and in the center a small white flash. Then slowly, like a giant rising from the earth, the fantastic mushroom cloud—a jagged lollipop on a narrow stick.”3 One hears in these descriptions the diminution of atomic expectation. Television, that centerpiece of the American living room, was a technology of counter-sublime abstraction, or worse, perhaps, domesticating the forces of nuclearism into cartoon figures of big donuts, jagged lollipops, and conventional white puffs of cotton. The Times assured readers that all stations would soon broadcast the extensive newsreel footage, for only emulsified film could translate television’s black blobs and squiggly lines into the event of nuclear detonation. But it could do so only belatedly.4

The problem of atomic disappointment predated this televisual blunder. According to Bob Mielke, the US Signal Corps deemed as only adequate the film coverage of the Trinity test, but “there was less satisfaction” with the bombing footage from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.5 In comparison to the eviscerating effects of the bomb on the ground, the image of the explosion itself was distant, brief, and shaky.6 To compensate for the paucity of this visual archive, the United States government amassed one and half million feet of film to document the 1946 tests, Operation Crossroads, at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, leading to a worldwide shortage of film stock and producing the most stunning images of mass destruction (Mielke, “Rhetoric and Ideology,” 29). Here, too the military was wracked by nuclear performance anxiety. The stated purpose of Operation Crossroads was to measure the impact of atomic explosions on naval vessels. Quoted in the New York Times, one scientist cautioned that, however spectacular the explosion, “damage to a large fleet spread...


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pp. 611-630
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