It's The Bomb! Vintage Explosion Photos : The Picture Show In the early stages of atomic experiments, the U.S. government hired Harold Edgerton to figure out how to photograph big bangs. His photographs, shared by the Smithsonian, are both spectacular and spooky.
NPR logo It's The Bomb! Vintage Explosion Photos

It's The Bomb! Vintage Explosion Photos

You thought summer was hot! Try an A-bomb explosion. Recently, the Science section of The New York Times online featured images of various atomic bomb explosions. Among those images are photographs captured by Harold Edgerton's rapatronic camera in the early 1950s.

Edgerton is best known for his stop-motion photographs of bullets through apples, milk drops that create liquid white crowns, and other images revealing what the human eye cannot perceive. The U.S. government employed him and his company during World War II to track enemy movements by using nighttime photography.

High-speed rapatronic camera, manufactured by Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier Inc. Boston. Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History hide caption

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Donald E. Hurlbert/Smithsonian's National Musuem of American History

After the war, EG & G, Inc. (Edgerton, Germeshausen and Grier Inc.) developed the rapatronic camera for the Atomic Energy Commission to record — specifically, in one take only — the beginning of nuclear explosions. Capturing the earliest moments of atomic explosions was exceptionally challenging, in part because of the extraordinary light intensity (an atomic explosion is about a hundred times as bright as the sun) and the ultra-short duration of the phenomena.

The dangers of shockwaves and radiation required the camera to be placed 7 miles from the detonation site on a tower some 75 feet in the air. Exposure time was one-hundred-millionth of a second. The exposure time was so small that no conventional mechanical shutter could be used. A magnetic field was created around two polarized lenses that were rotated, permitting light to pass through an optical system.

In the photographs of the explosions, look for tiny Joshua trees at the bottom of a few photographs to garner a sense of the enormity of the explosion that melted the sand and vaporized steel towers. Energy from the explosion can be seen traveling down the detonation tower's guy-wires. Though the photographs were intended as scientific documentation, these images of extreme power and raw energy have the capacity to evoke horror and dread.

Shannon Thomas Perich is an associate curator of the Photographic History Collection at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her regular contributions to The Picture Show are pulled from the Smithsonian's archives.