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The Lost History Of The U.S. Nuclear Program, As Told By Its Business Cards

What's in a Rolodex? In this case, just about everything you could need to build a bomb.

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Hy-Test Safety Shoes. Brainpower USA. General Astrometals (a subsidiary of the Anaconda Company). Halliburton. The companies that helped build America's nuclear program range from the banal to the obscure to the ominous. Their business cards, collected by the thousands in Rolodexes by engineers at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the 1960s and '70s, give us an unusual glimpse into what was arguably the most transformative technological project in modern history.

Those business cards would've been lost to history had Matthew Coolidge not come across them. Coolidge is the founder of the The Center for Land Use Interpretation and the force behind Los Alamos Rolodex: Doing Business With The National Lab, a project and book that examine the cards. He bought the collection a few years ago from the Los Alamos Black Hole, a kind of scrapyard where much of the lab's refuse ended up.

Coolidge describes these cards as "synapses" in the military-industrial empire that evolved in America after World War II, spurred by the incredible projects underway at the Los Alamos Lab—home to the Manhattan Project and the first nuclear tests.

You could find nearly everything you'd need to build a nuclear device within the pages of Los Alamos Rolodex. Or as filmmaker Errol Morris describes the book, "picture this: you’re building an atomic weapon; you know it’s going to be pretty complex; you’re probably going to need some help. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a Rolodex with the appropriate names and phone numbers of the people who know what you need? Well, guess what? There is."

There are cards for explosive cartridges and cards for safety clothing. One card advertises nuclear shielding services; another hocks Beryllium, a naturally occurring metal with nuclear properties. You could call up a manager from Explosive Technology, or a sales rep from Interactive Computers, "the Microcomputer Store." Meanwhile, MRI Mechanics Research chose to represent its business with a logo: An orange planet, ringed by a red rocket in orbit.

Coolidge points out one company with an intriguing legacy. EG&G was founded by Harold "Doc" Edgerton—the MIT engineer and the famed pioneer of high-speed strobe photography, which was exactly what EG&G originally offered to Los Alamos. But to understand the earliest nuclear experiments, the lab needed a lot more than images. It required accurate and instant data about the size of the explosion and the effects of the radiation pulse—difficult to obtain, since the blasts would destroy nearby sensors. EG&G developed a method of wiring the sensors to nearby trailers that could record the data instantly without being harmed.

"This would occur in a 'flash' of information because the data, traveling at the speed of light, was followed closely by the destructive wave, traveling at the speed of sound," Coolidge explains. What started out as a photography company ended up being the main contractor for the entire program through the 1990s.

The struggle to scientifically measure and truly understand these massive explosions, triggered largely in secret in the New Mexico desert, comes up again and again. One business card, from a company called Lord, offered expertise in vibration, shock, and noise control. "It’s an important component when you think about the phenomenology of high technology," Coolidge says. "You need to be able to mitigate the effects of the explosions and vibrations generated by equipment by having pretty involved isolation and absorption systems."

Every card is different: Some businesses are long-since dead. Others have been bought, sold, and merged until they’re impossible to trace. Still others, like Raytheon, Packard Bell, and Halliburton, became major players in technology and defense. There are still hundreds of cards to research, and Coolidge hopes to put them all online.

In the face of all this history, it’s easy to overlook the graphic beauty of the cards. But they’re perfect time capsules of branding and design from an era when the Space Race painted technology as a grand, sublime pursuit. Some feature rockets and jets, others lean toward radioactive symbols and shock waves. Less expected: The southwestern flavor of many of the designs, imparted by their locations clustered around Los Alamos. Coolidge points out a favorite, for BoMur Electric Company, that combines the symbols for electronic circuits with petroglyph-style iconography. "It’s a gorgeous graphic, embedding the high-tech on the ancient landscape of New Mexico," he says.

Pore over the collection for a while, and you start to wonder: What remnants will today’s technological revolutions leave behind? Will randomly rediscovered Gchats and Slack meetings offer some glimpse of how business was done in this age? "It takes a lot of technology to make technology," Coolidge writes in the book's foreword, "but ultimately, the bomb was made by people calling other people on the phone."

You can buy Los Alamos Rolodex: Doing Business With The National Lab from Blast Books, or check out the project in person at CLUI in Los Angeles.

All photos: courtesy Blast Books/The Center for Land Use Interpretation

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