Nuclear Waste

The Rolodex of Death

By John Strausbaugh

For more than a quarter of a century, Blast Books in downtown Manhattan has been publishing unique titles on unusual topics. (They also published a few of mine, but that was long enough ago that I feel the statue of limitations on my writing about them has run out.) It makes sense that they've published a few emanating from Matthew Coolidge's LA-based Center for Land Use Interpretation, a group of brainiacs who since the mid-90s have been exploring and offering fascinating insights into the ways humans interact with the landscape.

Their new collaboration is Los Alamos Rolodex, a book made up almost entirely of business cards. But what business cards. From its top-secret start in 1943 for the next fifty-odd years, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was America's chief research and development center for nuclear weapons, from the first atomic detonation at the nearby Trinity site in 1945 through the pulverizing of whole Pacific atolls to the massive underground H-bomb tests that continued into the 1990s. You can't interact with the landscape much more drastically.

"Making atomic bombs from scratch requires a lot of technology, and in the process the Lab generated a lot of surplus, excess, and waste," Coolidge writes in the book's introduction. Racing to keep ahead of the Russkies, the Lab was constantly throwing out almost new and perfectly functional equipment to make room for yet newer things. An entire industry of contractors grew up around the Lab to provide it with those ever-changing gizmos and gadgets.

Ed Grothus was a machinist and technician at the Lab from 1949 to 1969. In 1951 he started a side business, Los Alamos Sales Company, a converted Piggly Wiggly where he warehoused an infinite variety of the stuff the lab discarded. Grothus referred to it as "nuclear waste." His original idea was to resell it to university science departments and other labs, but he salvaged a lot more than he sold. As more and more went into his warehouse and less and less went out, it came to be known as the Black Hole. Meanwhile, Grothus was the town character, an advocate of nuclear disarmament in a community dedicated to making nuclear arms. He bought a small church "and dubbed it the First Church of High Technology," Coolidge writes. "Dressed as a cardinal, he presided over 'critical mass.'" Grothus died in 2009 and the Black Hole closed a few years later. He appears in a few documentaries, like the short Laboratory Conditions.

The objects collecting dust in the Black Hole ranged from esoterically high-tech equipment to things you'd find in any late 20th century office -- including seven rolodexes, stuffed with thousands of business cards left by salesmen representing the lab's contractors or would-be contractors. The book reproduces 150 of them.

The very idea of salesmen dropping in on the weaponizers of mass destruction to push their latest lines of gizmos and services is worth a ponder all by itself. Then there are the cards, many from mysteriously ominous sounding outfits like Electronic Memories, Bio-Rad, Plasmadine, Field Emission Corporation, Geoscience Nuclear, MagnaTek System Inc., and the inescapable Haliburton. There are more prosaic ones like Joy Manufacturing and Hale Sanitary Supply as well. The graphics on many of them are miniature marvels of atomic age design, with lots of zipping rockets and smiling robots. 

They're like tiles forming a mosaic of the military-industrial-scientific complex. Or as Coolidge writes, "hard evidence of the business relationships that built the transformative and secret technology that our nation still uses to dominate globally."


Published January 13th, 2016

John Strausbaugh's most recent book The Village, a history of Greenwich Village, was one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2013. His next one, City of Sedition, a history of New York City during the Civil War, comes out this summer. He is a former editor of New York Press and has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere.