Sixty-five years ago, the new medium of television entered the atomic age as 35 million Americans from coast to coast tuned in to witness the first live nationwide broadcast of a nuclear test. The atomic bomb detonated in the desert outside of Las Vegas packed quite a wallop, but the TV broadcast itself turned out to be a dud.
Millions of Americans who turned on their televisions on April 22, 1952, expecting to watch their favorite soap operas and game shows instead saw quite a change in programming. Rather than “Search for Tomorrow” or “Strike It Rich,” mushroom clouds flickered across black-and-white television screens throughout the country in the first live nationwide broadcast of a nuclear test.
Since the launch of the Manhattan Project, the United States government had maintained strict secrecy over its nuclear program—with video footage of atomic and hydrogen bomb tests supplied by the Pentagon—but when experiments began in the Nevada desert in 1951, the public grew more curious about the blasts that shook Las Vegas and lit up the skies of the West. On February 1, 1951, Los Angeles television station KTLA transmitted the first live images of an atomic bomb detonation to its local audience from atop a mountain outside of the city, 250 miles from the blast zone.
With its top-secret program no longer so hidden from view, the Atomic Energy Commission decided in March 1952 to permit press coverage and a live coast-to-coast television broadcast of its next atomic bomb test, the 25th in American history, scheduled for the following month. The military decided to throw what Life magazine called an “atomic open house” in part to build public support and showcase the A-bomb’s “humane side” by demonstrating, at a time when the Korean War was still raging, that it could be used as a tactical battlefield weapon to shorten wars and ultimately save the lives of American soldiers and civilians.
As United Press International’s Hugh Baille reported, the military hoped the test would “demonstrate that the atom bomb, horrendous as it is in the smashing of cities and their inhabitants, can also be used to expedite the winning of battles in the field and save casualties, and thus could be called an humane weapon.”
For the first time, ground and airborne troops would conduct military maneuvers on a simulated nuclear battlefield after the blast. Fifteen hundred soldiers would be crouched in 4-foot-deep trenches just four miles from “ground zero,” closer than American troops had ever been to a blast zone. Plans called for the detonation to occur 3,500 feet above the desert, a record altitude for a nuclear test, in order to prevent the ground to be crossed by the soldiers from becoming highly radioactive.
In spite of the military’s invitation, the three television networks initially declined to broadcast the test, citing the cost and logistical challenges in establishing a relay link between the test site and Los Angeles. (Nevada lacked a television station at the time.) KTLA general manager Klaus Landsberg took up the challenge, however, and station personnel worked feverishly to establish a 300-mile microwave system over a chain of mountain peaks between the testing ground and Los Angeles, the longest ever attempted by a television station at the time. Landsberg planned for six cameras to cover the event that would be simulcast on the major networks.
Long before sunrise on April 22, 1952, the lights of a motor caravan snaked through the desert darkness on a 65-mile trip from Las Vegas to the nuclear testing ground at Yucca Flat. Ten miles from “ground zero,” hundreds of journalists, photographers and broadcasters staked out positions on a craggy knoll of volcanic rock dubbed “News Nob” where they planted a forest of tripods to mount their still, motion picture and television cameras to capture what they dubbed “Operation Big Shot.” Journalists sitting at picnic benches peered through their binoculars and clattered away on their typewriters as the moment approached.
It turned out to be a beautiful day for a bombing with blue, cloudless skies and a slight breeze. Around 9:30 a.m. local time the journalists heard the call of “bombs away” blare over loudspeakers as a B-50 bomber released its payload from 30,000 feet high. The 33-kiloton bomb, more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, plummeted toward the ground as the voice on the loudspeakers counted down the 30 seconds to detonation.
Then came a flash 50 times brighter than the sun. After counting to three, reporters whipped off their protective goggles to see “hell burst from the skies,” as Baillie wrote. “The swirling ball hung for a few seconds like an ungodly ornament against the mountains,” reported Gene Sherman of the Los Angeles Times, before the shock wave arrived 30 seconds later “like the lash of an invisible giant whip.” The modern weapon torched ancient Joshua trees that burned until the ensuing blast blew out the flames. Sherman reported that a “weirdly, devastatingly beautiful white cloud rose then from a detached white stalk. It churned with purple, yellow and red.” The mushroom cloud eventually rose so high over the desert that ice caps formed on its parachute-shaped top 35,000 feet high.
While the reporters on scene witnessed a technicolor demonstration of the A-bomb’s power, the
millions of Americans huddled around their black-and-white televisions saw a less awe-inspiring sight. When the countdown to the blast hit zero, viewers saw a flash of darkness, not light. The blast temporarily blinded the camera, resulting in an optical malfunction in which the audience saw a tiny pinpoint of white light in a screen full of darkness.
As the announcer described the “beautiful, tremendous and angry spectacle,” viewers struggled to see it at home. Further complicating the broadcast, the power supply at News Nob failed less than 15 minutes before the blast, knocking the closet cameras out of service. As a result, a more remote camera on Mount Charleston, 40 miles away from the Yucca Flat, captured the blast until power was finally restored and the News Nob cameras turned on to give viewers a closer look as the mushroom cloud blossomed. Normal programming was resumed before the all-clear was given and paratroopers jumped from planes and soldiers emerged from the trenches to simulate a battle in “ground zero.”
“According to the networks, many viewers telephoned to say that everything happened so fast—and so far away from the cameras—that as a visual spectacle on TV the blast was a little anti-climatic,” reported the New York Times. In spite of the technical difficulties that led Billboard to declare “First Atom-Bomb Telecast a Dud,” the broadcast generated 35 million viewers, and television networks were not about to abandon the A-Bomb as a news story and eyeball-grabber. Over the next several years, legendary television news anchors such as Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley broadcast from News Nob to report on subsequent atomic tests much as they would descend upon Cape Canaveral the following decade to cover rocket launches and moonshots.