Geek Trivia: Built to (b)last

In what unlikely location did Manhattan Project scientists assemble the core of the world's first nuclear weapon?

Three days from now, the world (and most certainly the media) will note the 60th anniversary of perhaps the single-most momentous event of the 20th century. On July 16, 1945, scientists working for the United States' Manhattan Project conducted the so-called "Trinity Test," successfully detonating the world's first atomic bomb.

On that day, the Atomic Age began, sowing the seeds of the end of the second World War, the beginning of the Cold War, and setting forth the legacy of nuclear power and power politics that still defines much of the world today.

Lost in this largely genuine historical genuflection will be an anniversary that could and perhaps should be part of the celebration: the true birth of the first atomic bomb. While scientists detonated the device they innocuously code-named Gadget on July 16, they first fully assembled the device on July 13, 1945—60 years ago today.

For three full days, the most dangerous weapon the world had yet to see sat waiting for testing, holding within its metal shell the potential path of human destiny. During those three days, the very scientists who constructed the "gadget" were left wondering if they had built a device that would extinguish all life on Earth.

No, they weren't necessarily presaging the coming nuclear arms race (though several of them did just that), but actively wondering exactly how powerful the Trinity bomb actually was—and what side effects would accompany its successful detonation. No less a figure than Edward Teller—whom history would later dub the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb—actively theorized that the Trinity device might engender a chain reaction that would ignite the whole of the Earth's atmosphere, killing every living thing on the planet.

While most viewed that outcome as all but impossible, there was sufficient "wiggle room" in the calculations used to predict the bomb's output that the Manhattan Project scientists actually started a small betting pool on the suspected force of the atomic blast. Physicist I. I. Rabi won the pool, having predicted an 18-kiloton blast, which most closely met the observed Trinity output of 18.6 kilotons.

That's not bad for a device assembled outside the confines of a conventional laboratory. Indeed, despite all of the fear and anticipation of the Trinity bomb's destructive potential, the construction of the heart of the weapon actually took place in a somewhat unlikely location.


In what unlikely location did scientists actually assemble the core of the world's first nuclear weapon—the so-called Trinity Test—on July 13, 1945?

Known today as the Schmidt-McDonald Ranch House, the "birthplace" of the atomic bomb was a formerly abandoned home two miles south of the Trinity Test site. While various components of the complex device were manufactured and assembled all over the United States, scientists of the Manhattan Project assembled the "heart" of the bomb—its plutonium core—in this mud-brick home, which had sat vacant for three years before the Manhattan Project made use of it in 1945.

Like much of the land and buildings surrounding the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Trinity Test site, the government claimed the Schmidt-McDonald dwelling as imminent domain for the U.S. war effort in 1942. From 1942 to 1945, the house was simply another irrelevant structure withering away on the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range.

When it came time to prepare to assemble the world's first plutonium bomb core, Manhattan Project officials selected the relatively primitive Schmidt-McDonald Ranch House not only for its spacious interiors, but also for its distance from Los Alamos proper (no sense irradiating the Manhattan Project staff if something went wrong) and its location near the Trinity Test site. While the government retrofitted the house with workbenches, assembly equipment, and plastic seals to maintain clean conditions inside, Army personnel nonetheless kept Jeeps running outside the building during the core assembly—just in case scientists needed to beat a hasty retreat.

Despite its proximity to the test site, the house survived the Trinity explosion on July 16, 1945, suffering only broken windows and a toppled chimney as battle scars from the event. Unfortunately, the Army allowed the structure to deteriorate for nearly 40 years after the Trinity Test, with a rusting metal roof and disintegrating mud walls showing the effect of years of cumulative water damage.

In 1982, the Army began to maintain the house, and the National Park Service received funding a year later to completely restore the Schmidt-McDonald Ranch House to its July 1945 conditions. In 1984, the house opened to the public, debuting as a component of the Trinity National Historic Landmark.

Check out the Trivia Geek's blog!

Keep in touch with Trivial Pursuits, the Trivia Geek's online journal of rants, opinions, crazy ideas, half-baked notions, bizarre concepts, wild schemes, and trivial observations unfit even for Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the June 29 edition of Geek Trivia, "More reel than real." Long-time TechRepublic member Bill Ward offered this additional information.

"This isn't so much a quibble or correction as a clarification. Only the first half (actually, even a bit less than that) of The War of The Worlds broadcast was done in a realistic style. By about 20 minutes into the hour-long broadcast, Welles had figured out that there were serious issues and responded by changing the style drastically during the live performance.

"By the break, Welles had changed the style from a live-active newscast style to a narrative first-person style—a marked disconnect in 'realism' if you ever listen to the broadcast. At the end of the broadcast, Welles even issued a bit of an on-air apology, equating the whole episode to an adult ghost story. (The broadcast was on [the day before] Halloween [in] 1938.)

"Of course, for those who only heard minutes 2 to 23 of the broadcast (there were extensive disclaimers prior to the broadcast and at the very beginning…), the damage was done.

"Someone thoughtful and knowledgeable about the geographic area in question, by the way, should never have been confused about whether it was a put-on or not, regardless. Welles was forced to drastically cut travel time for some of the on-air events in the story (an interview with an astronomer, eye witness accounts of the 'meteor,' assembly of U.S. Army forces, etc.). In some cases, hour-plus travel times were compressed into 15 seconds of music from the 'Meridian Ballroom.'"

Thanks for the bonus data, buddy Bill. Keep those quibbles coming!

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the new Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of the Geek Trivia newsletter.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia e-newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.