The Sound of a Nuclear Bomb?

On March 17, 1953, the U.S. military detonated an experimental nuclear weapons test. This test, part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, was designed to calm public fears about such weapons. The raw footage of this test was recently discovered. What does a nuclear weapons test sound like?

What was the Operation Upshot-Knothole Nuclear Weapons Test?

Operation Upshot Knothole was a series of 11 nuclear weapons tests conducted in Nevada during 1953. The March 17, 1953 test was called Annie. It was an “open shot” test, meaning reporters were allowed to view it. The purpose was to “calm public fears about weapon testing.”A secondary purpose was to study the effect of a nuclear blast on houses, cars, and bomb shelters. Researchers concluded people inside a car with open windows could survive if they were at least ten blocks from ground zero. They also decided a basement could protect people at 3,500 feet while the home itself could remain standing at 7,500 feet (assuming no flames).

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

You’ve probably seen videos of nuclear weapons tests in the past. Most of those are dubbed, probably with stock footage, so the detonation and its resulting noise occur at the same time.However, the speed of light travels at 671 million miles per hour. The speed of sound is much slower, just 768 miles per hour. Thus, we would expect to see the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion well before we actually hear it.

The video below comes from the National Archives. It’s the raw footage of the 1953 Annie test and was filmed about 7 miles away from the detonation. The explosion takes place at 2:37. You can see the mushroom cloud starting at 2:42. The sound doesn’t appear until 3:09, a full 32 seconds after the initial white light.

“The audio is what makes this great. Put on some headphones and listen to it all the way through — it’s much more intimate than any other test film I’ve seen. You get a much better sense of what these things must have been like, on the ground, as an observer, than from your standard montage of blasts. Murmurs in anticipation; the slow countdown over a megaphone; the reaction at the flash of the bomb; and finally — a sharp bang, followed by a long, thundering growl. That’s the sound of the bomb.” ~ Alex Wellerstein, The Sound of the Bomb (1953)

Charlie Chapin’s Secret Identity?

Charlie Chaplin is one of the most well-known comedic actors of all time. But was his name really Charlie Chaplin? And where did he come from?

The Mysterious Charlie Chaplin?

Back in 1952, during the height of McCarthyism, the U.S. government was convinced Charlie Chaplin was a communist. They asked the British Secret Service, MI5, to investigate his background. After sixty years, that MI5 file has finally been released to the public. By the way, that’s an impressive length of time to keep such a secret although in pales in comparison to the CIA’s epic protection of invisible ink secrets.

Anyway, it turns out there is no official record of Charlie Chaplin for the first 31 years of his life. As a result, the CIA believed he was really a Frenchman named Israel Thornstein. More recent evidence suggests another reason for the lack of records: Charlie Chaplin might’ve been born into a British gypsy family. Here’s more on Charlie Chaplin’s secret identity from The Telegraph:

MI5 investigated whether Charlie Chaplin was actually a Frenchman called Israel Thornstein, previously secret files on the Hollywood film star have revealed. Intelligence officers could find no trace of the actor’s birth in Britain despite Chaplin always claiming he was born in London in 1889.

The mystery surrounding his origins emerged when the US authorities asked MI5 to look into the comic actor’s background after he left America in 1952 under a cloud of suspicion over his communist links…

…British intelligence rejected American claims that Chaplin was a high-risk communist, concluding that while he may have been a “sympathiser” he was no more than a “progressive or radical”.

(See MI5 files: Was Chaplin really a Frenchman and called Thornstein? for the rest on Charlie Chaplin’s secret identity)

Cyborg Spy Cats?

In the 1960s, the CIA embarked on all sorts of strange espionage projects to spy on the Soviet Union. Perhaps there was none stranger than America’s first cyborg spy cat…the Acoustic Kitty.

The Acoustic Kitty Project?

The Acoustic Kitty project, which cost a whopping $25 million, wasn’t for the squeamish. Agents literally sliced open a cat, stuck batteries into him, and wired him up using the tail as an antenna. Then they dropped off the Acoustic Kitty in front of a facility believed to be used by Soviets. Unfortunately, the cat never got close enough for a proper test – it was wiped out by  a taxi driver almost as soon as it hit the ground. Here’s more on the bizarre Acoustic Kitty project from TBD:

As if the D.C. Taxicab Commission wasn’t already receiving enough heat from the Uber mess, let’s turn to a sadder piece of local taxi history — the tale of how our country’s multimillion-dollar CIA-trained cat spy died at the wheels of a D.C. taxicab. Today I’ve already talked about dogs (and about cabs and technology), so it’s only fair I bring up felines as well.

…Accounts of the CIA’s $25-million Acoustic Kitty project are available throughout the Internet, but one of the more detailed and fun couple pages come from Alan Bellows’ book Alien Hand Syndrome in a section called “Cyborg Spy Kitties.” He recounts a former CIA agent’s description: “They slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. The tail was used as an antenna. They made a monstrosity.”

(Thanks to The Birdman & see Metro history: A D.C. taxicab killed America’s premier CIA-trained cat spy for more on the Acoustic Kitty project)

Did Game Theory Save Mankind?

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union wielded enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons. Citizens of the world lived in fear that the conflict would someday heat up, resulting in a devastating nuclear war that would destroy the world. Into this confusion and terror stepped the RAND Corporation and a team of Game Theory experts. Did Game Theory stop Mutually Assured Destruction and save mankind?

Game Theory: The Prisoner’s Dilemma?

The chart above represents the “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In this game, two men are arrested for various crimes. However, the police lack enough information to make the main crime stick. So, the police separate the men and offer them both the same deal. If one prisoner confesses while the other one doesn’t, the confessor will go free while the other prisoner will serve a full 20 year sentence. If both prisoners confess, they will each receive a ten year term. However, if both prisoners keep quiet, they will each be charged with a lesser crime and receive a one year term. This is a one-time situation and the prisoners are not told of each other’s decision. What should they do?

Game Theory: Solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma?

If Prisoner B confesses, Prisoner A’s best strategy is to confess as well since 10 years is a shorter term than 20 years. If Prisoner B doesn’t confess, Prisoner A’s best strategy is still to confess since being free is better than a year in prison. Thus, Prisoner A’s best choice is to confess. Knowing this, Prisoner B will do the same thing and they will both go to jail for 10 years. What makes this game interesting is that the prisoners would be better off if they both kept quiet. And yet, logic dictates that they both confess instead.

Game Theory & Mutually Assured Destruction?

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a nuclear stand-off. So, the RAND Corporation hired some of the world’s top game theorists to study the situation. At the time, both nations had the same policy: “If one side launched a first strike, the other threatened to answer with a devastating counter-strike.”

This became known as Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD for short. And indeed, the idea of this happening was “mad” since it could’ve brought about a nuclear winter. However, game theorists were worried about Mutually Assured Destruction. They thought the two countries had boxed themselves into a prisoner’s dilemma that could threaten mankind’s very existence. Here’s how it worked:

“Suppose the USSR launches a first strike against the USA. At that point, the American President finds his country already destroyed. He doesn’t bring it back to life by now blowing up the world, so he has no incentive to carry out his original threat to retaliate, which has now manifestly failed to achieve its point. Since the Russians can anticipate this, they should ignore the threat to retaliate and strike first. Of course, the Americans are in an exactly symmetric position, so they too should strike first. Each power will recognize this incentive on the part of the other, and so will anticipate an attack if they don’t rush to preempt it. What we should therefore expect…is a race between the two powers to be the first to attack.” ~ Don Ross

Strategies to Deter Mutually Assured Destruction

This analysis led the RAND Corporation to recommend the United States taking actions designed to show their commitment to Mutually Assured Destruction. One strategy was to ensure that “second-strike capability” existed. A second strategy was to make leaders appear irrational. The CIA portrayed President Nixon as insane and/or a drunk. The KGB, which appears to have come to the same conclusion as RAND, responded by fabricating medical records to show that General Secretary Brezhnev was senile.

Another strategy was to introduce uncertainty at stopping Stop Mutually Assured Destruction. For example, by building more nuclear missiles and storing them in numerous locations, it was less likely that the President could stop all of them from being launched in the event of a Russian attack. A third strategy was to ensure Mutually Assured Destruction. Russia went so far as to create Perimeter, or Dead Head, which was the closest thing this world’s ever seen to a doomsday machine.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So, did the game theorists save the world from Mutually Assured Destruction? Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll never know for certain. But advancements in game theory have shown that the Cold War models weren’t really accurate. Nuclear war was usually modeled as a one-time game. But as long as one preserved second strike capabilities, the “game” would’ve been played over and over again with both sides exchanging repeated waves of missiles.

The outcome of nuclear war is the same whether one initiates an attack or responds to it. And since this outcome is worse than “no nuclear war,” the optimal move is to not launch missiles. Of course, this depends on a number of assumptions. Second-strike capabilities must be available and known to the other side. Both sides must have perfection detection equipment since a false positive like the one recognized by the heroic Stanislav Petrov could lead to nuclear war. Perfectly rational leaders must be in place. And finally, both sides must be unable to defend an incoming attack.

Still, one could argue that the game theorists were on the right track. By making it clear that retaliation was more likely than not, both nations managed to discourage each other from ever launching a single missile. Then again, it was never clear that the maximum payoff for either side was to destroy its enemy while avoiding its own destruction. Indeed, maybe the games being played weren’t just between nations but rather, within them as well.

“A wise cynic might suggest that the operations researchers on both sides were playing a cunning strategy in a game over funding, one that involved them cooperating with one another in order to convince their politicians to allocate more resources to weapons.” ~ Don Ross

The Lost Nuclear Sub?

On July 4, 1974, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a deep-sea drillship vessel, dropped anchor in the Pacific Ocean. Its stated purpose was to mine the sea floor for manganese nodules. However, that was just a cover. Its real purpose was far more ambitious…nothing less than the salvage of a lost Soviet nuclear submarine known as K-129.

Disaster Strikes the K-129

Six years earlier, on March 8, 1968, the Soviet submarine K-129 sank in deep waters 1,560 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. 98 crewmen perished in the process. The loss wasn’t realized until the K-129 missed its second consecutive radio check-in during mid-March. About a week later, the Soviet Union launched a gigantic search and rescue effort to find the lost submarine.

The effort failed. However, it was noticed by U.S. intelligence who guessed the mission’s true nature. After checking archived acoustic records, the U.S. Navy discovered an unexplained event had occurred on March 8, 1968. After triangulating the signals, the Navy generated a search grid and initiated Operation Sand Dollar to find and photograph the Soviet sub. The U.S. submarine USS Halibut was sent to the vicinity and after just three weeks of searching, managed to locate the wreck at 16,500 feet below sea level.

The K-129 represented an exciting opportunity. It was believed to contain Soviet nuclear missile technology as well as cryptographic machines and a code book. As such, the United States decided to secretly recover the wreckage. Tasked with this responsibility, the CIA formulated Project Azorian in 1970.

Project Azorian & the Hughes Glomar Explorer: Salvage of the Lost Nuclear Submarine?

The CIA hired Global Marine Development to build a deepwater drillship vessel. The famous industrialist Howard Hughes lent his name to the project and claimed that the ship’s purpose was to mine for manganese nodules. On June 20, 1974, the newly-christened Hughes Glomar Explorer set sail from Long Beach, California. It was equipped with a large mechanical claw dubbed Clementine by the crew. The plan was simple, at least on paper. The claw would deploy to the ocean floor, wrap around part of the submarine, and then lift that part into the Hughes Glomar Explorer’s hold.

The salvage effort began on July 4, 1974 and lasted for over a month. Since the whole process took place underwater, it proved impossible for the Soviets to detect. The details of Project Azorian remain classified to this day so it’s uncertain what exactly was recovered from the wreckage. Officially, the operation was a failure (you can see one of the heavily redacted files here). Supposedly, Clementine broke down during the salvage, forcing the Hughes Glomar Explorer to abandon two-thirds of the K-129. But since the CIA is known for being extra secretive, many researchers have questioned the official account. Thus, there is speculation that Project Azorian was a major intelligence coup, leading to the capture of Soviet submarine technology, nuclear torpedoes, code books, and other items.

What caused the K-129 to Sink?

But how did the K-129 sink in the first place? The Soviet Navy believed that the sub simply sank too low and failed to handle the situation due to mechanical or crew failure. Other theories include the lead-acid batteries exploding while being recharged or an accidental missile detonation. A more controversial theory (and one privately believed by many Soviet officers) is that the sub sank after an accidental collision with the USS Swordfish.

But the most controversial theory by far was put forth by Kenneth Sewell in Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S. Sewell postulated that the K-129 was captured by Soviet hard-liners. They planned to launch a nuclear missile on Pearl Harbor that would appear to have been fired by a Chinese submarine. The purpose was to bring about war between the U.S. and China. However, a fail safe device caused the missile to explode instead.

Sewell’s theory was bolstered by Dr. John Crane’s The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. According to Crane, the real purpose of Project Azorian was not to recover the submarine but to find out why it sank in a part of the sea where it shouldn’t have been in the first place.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Until the CIA releases more information, the true intent of K-129 as well as the strategic success of Project Azorian remain matters of speculation. However, from at least one vantage point, the Hughes Glomar Explorer had a tremendous impact. Prior to that time, the deepest successful salvage of a submarine was at 245 feet. At 16,500 feet, Project Azorian shattered that record and in the process set a new one that, as far as I know, continues to remain to this day.

Did Russia build a Doomsday Machine?

During the 1950s, Herman Kahn and Harold Brown proposed the concept of a weapon that could destroy all life on earth.  In the event of a nuclear attack from another nation, a computer would detonate multiple salted hydrogen bombs, covering the globe with lethal radioactive material.  They called it a Doomsday Machine.  Fortunately, such a device was never built…or was it? What was Dead Hand?

The Mysterious Dead Hand?

In 1985, the USSR completed the construction of a top-secret military installation known as Perimeter, or Dead Hand.  Its purpose remained closely guarded for years but in the early 1990s the truth came out.  Dead Hand was a semi-automated doomsday machine.

At the time, a doomsday machine was viewed as the perfect deterrent.  No sane leader would dare launch a nuclear attack if they knew it would bring mutually assured destruction.  A pure doomsday machine requires the complete removal of human decision-making.  So, Dead Hand didn’t quite fit into that category.  It required human activity…but not all that much of it.  Just four steps (two involving people) separated mankind from extinction.

  1. Activation: In the event of a crisis, a high official activated the system.
  2. Scan: Using seismic, radiation, and air pressure sensors, Dead Hand scanned Soviet-controlled territory for evidence of a nuclear attack.
  3. Communication: Upon finding evidence, Dead Hand checked whether it could still communicate with the Soviet General Staff’s war room.
  4. Switch of Launch Authority: If communications had ceased, launch authority transferred to three rotating duty officers who manned Dead Hand.  Ultimately, they would make the choice of whether or not to launch nuclear winter.

Why was Dead Hand Created?

Doomsday machines gained fame in fiction.  So, how did such a device ever become a reality?  In the 1980s, President Reagan and his staff initiated an aggressive campaign to convince Soviet leaders that they weren’t adverse to waging nuclear war.  The strategy worked well.  Maybe too well.

Over time, the Soviets began to believe that Reagan might actually initiate a nuclear war.  It seems clear that Dead Hand was originally intended as a deterrent in order to ensure that a nuclear attack would not go unpunished.  But a deterrent only works if others know about it.  And in shades of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, it appears that the Soviet Union never told anyone about Dead Hand.

Some claim that Dead Hand’s true purpose was to be a self-deterrent.  In other words, it allowed Soviet leaders to avoid making hasty decisions since, in the event of an actual attack, reprisal was a near certainty.  Regardless of Dead Hand’s true purpose, its easy to imagine plenty of scenarios that could’ve led to the accidental launch of a literal doomsday.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

These days, the idea of nuclear war seems almost far-fetched.  And indeed, Dead Hand’s current location and situation remain closely guarded.  However, according to at least one source it still exists, remains fully operational, and continues to receive upgrades.  If that’s the case, nuclear doomsday may not be that far-fetched after all.