There are two days – August 6, 1945 and August 9, 1945 – that will likely forever remain in the collective human conscious as some of the darkest days in our history. For, these two dates correspond to the days when the atomic bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. It was only three weeks earlier that these devastating weapons had been tested for the first time.

The seeds for these were laid as early as 1939, when the plans for the creation of a uranium bomb were established by the Allies. In that same year, Albert Einstein wrote to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt supporting the theory that a weapon of mass destruction could indeed be made possible through an uncontrolled chain reaction.

Do it before Germany

In 1940, $6000 was granted by the U.S. government for research on this subject. By 1942, the U.S. was at war with the Axis powers. With growing fear that the Germans might be working on their own atomic bomb, the War Department poured in more resources in the research, also taking more interest with every passing day. By December 1942, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi had achieved the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in a squash court in the University of Chicago campus.

While much of the initial research took place at Columbia University in New York City (it is for this reason that the top-secret research was code named Manhattan Project), nuclear research and development passed through multiple sites and cities and involved over 1,30,000 people before it resulted in the bomb.

The think-tank

Led by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico became the primary think-tank for the project, as the problems confronting the construction of a bomb were worked out. Assisted by Hans Bethe, a German-American nuclear physicist; Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist; and Fermi, Oppenheimer arrived at a stage where they were ready for testing, in 1945.

Oppenheimer called it the “Trinity” test, a name that was inspired by the works of poet John Donne. “Jornada del Muerto” or “Journey of Death”, 210 miles south of Los Alamos – a remote corner on the Alamogordo Bombing Range – was the chosen site for the test.

‘Gadget’ is assembled

While the plutonium core arrived at the test area on July 12, 1945, the non-nuclear components started making their way to the test-site at 12:01 a.m., Friday the 13th. The final assembly of the “Gadget”, as it was nicknamed, was completed by 5 p.m. on July 15 and hoisted atop a 100-foot firing tower.

The test had been scheduled for 4 a.m. on July 16, but was pushed to 5.30 by U.S. Army Brigadier General Leslie Groves and Oppenheimer, owing to inclement weather. Rain stopped at around 4 and a team armed the device shortly after 5. All those who had gathered removed themselves over 10,000 yards away in a number of directions, as was planned, to observe from a safe distance.

And the bomb goes off…

At exactly 5.30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, the bomb went off. A brilliant flash of light, a sudden wave of heat searing across the desert and a huge blast that echoed across the valleys marked its success.

The ball of fire tore into the sky and was surrounded by a giant mushroom cloud – the defining image that now reminds us of its power and destruction. The test had released an energy equivalent of 21,000 tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT), over and above anyone’s estimate. The tower on which the bomb stood had no chance of surviving it.

Two types

The success of the Trinity test meant that two types of bombs were available for use in the war. The uranium design was untested, but that was because it was thought to be reliable. The plutonium design was the other one, and even though there had been initial doubts, it had now been tested successfully. The Manhattan Project, which had set out with a budget of $6,000, had made these possible, but the total cost had rocketed to $2 billion.

With Germany – the original intended target – having already surrendered, Japan remained the only belligerent. The uranium bomb, Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by Fat Man, the plutonium weapon, at Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. While Japan surrendered within days, the world has never been the same ever since.

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