This is the first ever photograph of a nuclear mushroom cloud.
It was snapped by chance at the Trinity Test in the last year of the Second World War, where the nuclear bomb was being tested prior to detonation over Hiroshima. It’s ironic that the most famous (and only) colour photograph of the Trinity test was shot by an amateur photographer who was more at home in a lab. Los Alamos scientist Jack Aeby said later, “I was there so I shot it.”
On Monday morning July 16, 1945, Trinity testing began in an isolated area of the New Mexico desert. Aeby’s photograph, taken during the crucial moments of the test as the bomb exploded, turned out to be even more important than anyone knew; all the motion pictures of the Trinity test were either badly exposed or damaged, because nuclear bombs tend to blister and solarise film. Official Trinity test photographer Berlyn Brixner was misinformed about the brightness of the bomb and his camera filter was lit up and flooded with light, blinding him momentarily.
Aeby has insisted ever since 1945 that he’s not a photographer, even though he liked to carry a camera on his person, which was against Los Alamos security protocol. But once Trinity was under way, Aeby begged security services for special permission to be the only scientist allowed to carry a camera during testing. And due to Brixner’s error, Aeby’s photo stands as the only colour record of the test.
As he photographed, he rested his camera on the back of a chair because he didn’t have time to set up a tripod. He didn’t take cover from the blast and the only protection he had were welder’s goggles.
Colour film was exceptionally hard to come by during the World War II, but a friend gave him a three-foot chunk from a long roll as a gift.
When the theoretical division got wind that he had a ‘perfect’ photograph, they confiscated it and used it to confirm their assumptions by measuring the width of the fireball in the picture and then multiplying it by Aeby’s distance from the flames; the photograph turned out to be instrumental in the testing process. Once General Groves — the ‘big eye in the sky’of Los Alamos base and Aeby’s supervisor — saw the photo, he took it and sent it to every media channel, where it was published immediately. The photograph itself was the only evidence that such a weapon existed. Public knowledge of the bomb came entirely from Aeby’s picture, and when the American attack on Japan was reported, Aeby’s photograph was used.
Aeby’s photo is now best know for embodying Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
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