Amid the mountains of northern New Mexico, the United States government devoted its resources to the research and development needed to create a nuclear bomb capable of ending World War II.In November 1942, Manhattan Project head Gen. Leslie Groves and University of California, Berkeley physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who would lead the Los Alamos Laboratory, decided that a remote boys school on a mesa in the Jemez Mountains would be a great location for this crucial work.
Originally designated as “Site Y,” Los Alamos hosted a community of world-renowned scientists, including multiple Nobel Prize winners. These scientists applied and tested cutting-edge theory to build the first atomic bomb, nicknamed “Gadget” during the war. At the height of the project, the new town of Los Alamos had 6,000 residents.
Los Alamos scientists focused their efforts on two types of weapon solutions. The first applied traditional “gun-type” physics, using enriched uranium isotope U-235 isolated in Oak Ridge. The second involved a more theoretical process called implosion, which relied on plutonium-239, produced from U-235 at the enormous reactor in Hanford, Wa.
Atomic devices produced at Los Alamos included:
- The Trinity implosion-type plutonium test device detonated July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
- “Little Boy,” a U-235 gun-type uranium-based bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on Aug. 6, 1945.
- “Fat Man,” an implosion-type plutonium device, which exploded over Nagasaki, Japan on Aug. 9, 1945.
After World War II, Los Alamos continued to play a primary role in the development of nuclear weapons, including the hydrogen bomb. But since the Cold War ended, Los Alamos has increased efforts on non-military research, including superconductivity, nanotechnology, chemistry, and high-performance computing. In recent years, Los Alamos has also devoted resources to health priorities, including the development of AIDS vaccines.
Today Los Alamos has 12,000 residents, many of whom work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the largest employer in northern New Mexico.