Las Vegas

How Nuclear Bombs Helped Light Up Las Vegas

Atomic-themed consumer products from the 1950s on display at National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas

A display at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas shows America’s commercial fascination in the 1950s with the power of the atom: Christmas-tree ornaments with atomic symbols, an Atomic Disintegrator cap pistol and salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like nuclear warheads.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

“COME FOR THE gambling, stay for the nuclear-bomb tests!”

That was never an official Las Vegas ad slogan, but in the 1950s it might as well have been. From 1951 to 1962 there were 100 aboveground tests of nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site, 100 kilometres northwest of Las Vegas. Their mushroom clouds lit up the desert sky and could easily be seen in the gambling capital. The dawn detonations especially were popular with those who’d been in the casinos all night.

The story of the nuclear-bomb testing program at the Nevada Test Site is told at the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1992, when a worldwide nuclear-testing ban went into effect, there were 928 radioactive explosions at the site. More than 800 were underground tests. These, even though they couldn’t be seen, were felt in Las Vegas.

“In spite of early attempts to keep detonating times hush-hush,” we learn, “the atmospheric tests quickly became must-see attractions for Las Vegas residents and visitors alike.”

The tests were part of the arms race during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The Nevada site was chosen because it had large valleys and dry lakebeds in which to conduct them, mountain barriers to stop close-range observation, and was reasonably remote from large population centres.

The science behind the bombs that destroyed two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, bringing the Second World War to an end, is explained in a short film from the 1950s illustrating nuclear fission. A white-smocked scientist primes a mousetrap and puts a small ball—representing a neutron—where the bait would go. “Watch,” he says, and tosses his trap into a room whose floor is carpeted by similarly cocked devices. His first trap snaps, ejecting the “neutron,” which bounces onto another trap, setting it off. In seconds the entire room is a white flurry of launched balls.

The museum also looks at how nuclear energy was regarded by the American public in the 1950s and 1960s. “Optimism flourished about harnessing atomic power for many wonderful uses,” we’re told. “Mushroom clouds appeared on souvenirs and atomic cocktails became popular drinks.” Las Vegas started a Miss Atom Bomb beauty pageant.

A display case shows how America’s fascination with the word “atomic” got translated into commercial uses. Besides an Atomic Disintegrator cap pistol and Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab chemistry set are less-obvious product pairings, such as salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like Fat Man (the bomb dropped on Nagasaki), Iguana Radioactive Atomic Pepper Sauce, the Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring, mushroom-cloud paperweights, an Atomic Sewing Kit and Christmas-tree ornaments adorned with atomic symbols.

One little-known detail in the story of the nuclear-arms race is that it nearly didn’t happen. The museum relates that in June 1946, “the United States unveiled a plan to the United Nations to establish controls, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and eliminate its own stockpile. The Soviet Union vetoed the proposal in early 1947.”

Russia got its first atomic bomb in 1949, and the race was on.



For more information on the National Atomic Testing Museum visit its website at www.nationalatomictestingmuseum.org.

For information on Las Vegas go to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority website at www.lasvegas.com.