Visiting the Atomic History Museum in Las Vegas

By Published January 25, 2017 at 10:46 am

About three blocks from our hotel during CES was a relatively new museum called "The National Atomic Testing Museum," associated with the Smithsonian. I popped down there with Patrick Stone for a quick visit as a break from CES and the carrion mobile device salesmen on the show floor.

Upon entering the museum, the first thing you see is a movie prop from the 1956 movie "Forbidden Planet." The robot ("Robbie," naturally) may be a reproduction, as there was no clear explanation except that it belonged to the original prop master Robert Kinoshita, who died at the age of 92 quite recently. It sets the mood for the atomic age when atomic testing around Las Vegas, home to CES, was extensive. Maybe that explains some of the mutants we saw shambling around the convention center. I still think that Forbidden Planet (based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest") is a great movie and worth a watch.

There was a special exhibit about area 51 at the museum, but no photography was allowed (cue conspiracy theories). It was a large and strange hand-made exhibit of conspiracy theory which looked right out of Roswell, New Mexico.


At some point, surface testing stopped because some people with not-yet-irradiated brains must have realized it was a bad idea. The testing in the Las Vegas area was moved underground in order to contain the radiation. It turns out that they were always successful in keeping the nuclear toxin underground. On the order of 800 nuclear devices were detonated in the Las Vegas area, eventually ending in the 90s. This left an area of collapsed swiss cheese cavities as a reminder of the activity.


There are some interesting displays of memorabilia, including an "Atomic Superboy Comic" and an Atomic Energy Merit badge from the American Boy scouts, which impressed one Mr. Stone.

In 1955, a 29-Kiloton Nuclear device was detonated called - no kidding - The "Apple II." I guess this proves that Apple is the most powerful and deadly of computers.


There is a large collection of old Geiger counters and radiation badges. The actual casing for a 9-megaton hydrogen bomb is also on display and impressive(ly terrifying) in size.  There is some old test equipment as well as explanations for the testing methodology of underground explosions. They would place a small nuclear device hundreds of feet underground, then a small, vertical tunnel was drilled leading to the surface where data collected from the explosions was gathered for analysis. When a device was detonated, the sensors were almost instantly destroyed. The data was sent to the surface through the tunnel and special 67-ton doors would close in 17 milliseconds preventing the radiative debris from escaping. These doors sound amazing.


Modern nuclear weapons are now designed by computer simulation using large supercomputers, so for “civilized” countries, testing of actual bombs is no longer necessary.

Worth the trip as a break from CES.

Learn more about the museum here:

- Jim Vincent

Last modified on January 25, 2017 at 10:46 am

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