What's In A Name?

They had to invent a whole new vocabulary: shots, tech areas, sites, letter codes, and so on. The first weapons group at Los Alamos was "G-Group," G for Gadget. Why, you wonder, is a bomb called a device-is it an attempt to avoid facing the reality of the thing? Not at all, we're told. The difference between a device and a bomb isn't in yield or size, but rather in the amount of yellow electrician's tape on it. Bombs are an "off-the-shelf" package, complete and self-contained (except for fuses). Devices, however, always have things that have been forgotten that must be added at the last moment.

Another example of official vocabulary in action may be found in the case of an Army sergeant. He was processing a vat of radioactive liquid waste, when, in the language of the lab, he "achieved a subcritical geometry" and experienced an "excursion": that is, enough fissionable material had somehow swirled together in the tank to release a burst of high-energy particles, which half-cooked him on the spot. The sergeant died the next day of acute radiation poisoning.

Even in the early days, security tended to take on a slightly unreal atmosphere. There is a story told (which may not be true but is part of Los Alamos folk lore) about the first shot. The bomb's radioactive core had already been sent to Trinity, but the delicate and all important "lenses" of explosive (that slap the radioactive material together) had to be moved as well. After much discussion it was concluded that a con voy was too visible, and so it was de cided to send the stuff down in the trunk of a plain passenger car with several other cars as guards. They set off in good order; all went well until some where south of Albuquerque, when a sheriff spotted the car and, with siren and lights going full tilt, flagged it down and forced it over. As he got out of his car he found himself looking down the barrels of several weapons. Nervously he explained that he had just wanted to tell the driver that his car had no license plate. He was placed under armed guard and taken to the test range, where he was warned to remain silent about it and released. It was never clear to the project members if the lack of a license plate was an oversight, or if it was done to avoid having the car traced back to its owner.