United States Air Force

Photo Album: Operation Greenhouse

  • A rare official photo album documenting Operation Greenhouse, the 1951 nuclear weapons testing series in which man-made thermonuclear fusion was generated for the first time, demonstrating the feasibility of hydrogen bombs.

    Following the Soviet Union’s successful test of an atomic bomb in August, 1949, the US made the controversial decision to proceed with the development of thermonuclear weapons. But unlike fission reactions, which can be produced at sub-critical levels in the laboratory, fusion can only be triggered by immense heat and pressure, like that found at the centre of a fission detonation. Operation Greenhouse was therefore planned to study the conditions under which thermonuclear fusion could be initiated and whether it could be weaponised.

    Operation Greenhouse consisted of four detonations at Enewetak Atoll during April and May of 1951, two of which were proof tests of new fission bombs, and two of which tested aspects of thermonuclear fusion by using fission bombs to ignite small thermonuclear cores. The Operation was carried out by Joint Task Force Three, involving around 8,500 personnel from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Air Force, Army, Navy, and various contractors. Of the four tests, the most important was the George shot, which was the largest fission detonation to date. Its deuterium core generated “the first small thermonuclear flame ever to burn on Earth. According to Edward Teller, the success of the ‘George’ shot was pivotal in the development of the Super [the hydrogen bomb] and provided scientists with the confidence to proceed along further speculations of thermonuclear design principles” (Atomic Heritage Foundation website, ‘Hydrogen Bomb - 1950’).

    The 89 original photographs in this album were taken by a crew of thirty professional photographers from the Air Force’s Lookout Mountain Laboratory in Hollywood, California, who also filmed two documentaries, one for public consumption and the other for the government. (Operation Greenhouse official report, 1951). The album contains nine photos of the blasts themselves, six of them in sepia tone. There are shots of the initial fireballs, mushroom clouds, and smoke trails used to gauge shockwaves. Among these photos is a particularly well-composed photograph of the George shot fireball from the air, with the atoll seen in the glare, snaking across the frame toward the viewer.

    In addition to the blasts, the photographers documented all aspects of life for the personnel at the Atoll, including portraits of project leaders and VIP visitors; the construction of bases, housing, and testing structures (including the detonation towers); unloading supplies and equipment from ships; preparation of devices for ignition and monitoring the effects of the blasts, among them a small blimp, tracer rockets, and video cameras; numerous planes, including what are probably some of the unmanned “drone” bombers and jets used to test conditions at higher altitudes (including several evocative night shots of takeoffs); and equipment such as tanks that were placed within the blast radius. Animals, too, were used to test the effects of the radiation, and two photographs depict crew unloading a large group of beagles from a landing craft and moving them into wire kennels, no doubt for these experiments, and an adjacent photo also shows crew members building the dog-sized “exposure tubes” with grills on the fronts. There is a (probably staged) photograph of surgeons at work in an operating theatre, and a shot of the production of a film about the Operation designed for public release. Other images show the lighter side of life on the Atoll, such as social occasions, meals, musical events, swimming, a small church, playing with model trains, and even a wall covered in pinups. Two photographs are portraits of indigenous Marshall Islanders in traditional clothing.

    This is an excellent example of this fragile album. We can locate no copies in institutions or at auction, and given the sensitive nature of the contents; the number of portraits of the Operation leaders; the cost of producing albums with original photos pasted in rather than printed; and the lack of captions, it is reasonable to assume that these albums were produced in a very limited run for high level Operation staff and are correspondingly rare.

  • ...Photographed and Prepared by United States Air Force, Lookout Mt. Laboratory. Hollywood, CA: United States Air Force, [1951].

    Ring bound. Original dark green, morocco-grained cloth binder, title to upper board gilt, text and image borders printed in green. 89 mounted photographs (6 sepia and 83 silver gelatine) on 35 grey leaves, mainly in three sizes: 147 x 82mm; 220 x 110mm; and 230 x 175mm. Binding lightly rubbed at the extremities, a little spotting to the pastedowns and occasionally to the edges of the leaves, which are also slightly faded, some short closed tears to the title around the ring holes, minor cockling of the leaves from the adhesive. Excellent condition.

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