Nuclear weapons have been an integral part of American offensive and defensive capabilities since their very inception. Ever since J. Robert Oppenheimer uttered the famous words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” in awe and terror while witnessing the destructive power of splitting the atom, the United States has done everything it could to better harness the process’s weaponized potential – and that means lots and lots of testing.
Prior to 1963, when above ground nuclear tests were banned by the U.S. government, hundreds of mushroom clouds littered the American southwest and certain Pacific islands as we re-tooled and re-tested every possible combination in an effort to make a more efficient and destructive bomb. The government usually filmed these tests, not just for posterity, but in order to study the footage for further understanding of the weapon’s process. While some of these videos have been released to the public and since become famous, or infamous, depending on your perspective, the vast majority of this footage has been kept classified. That is, until now.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) weapon physicist Greg Spriggs made it his own personal mission to preserve nearly 7,000 known films, all of which depict preparation and detonations from the American nuclear weapons testing program. Although the footage remained classified as he began his efforts, proper care had never been taken to preserve the film, resulting in some films literally decomposing in their canisters, leaving behind bits of American history forever. Intent on preserving the footage for history, and for further analysis, Spriggs began the arduous task of transferring the footage into the digital medium – and the even more arduous process of getting them declassified.
“We know that these films are on the brink of decomposing to the point where they’ll become useless,” said Spriggs. “The data that we’re collecting now must be preserved in a digital form because no matter how well you treat the films, no matter how well you preserve or store them, they will decompose. They’re made out of organic material, and organic material decomposes. So this is it. We got to this project just in time to save the data.”