The Manhattan Project and Trinitite

The Manhattan Project was a top secret research and development project during World War II. It began in 1942 and produced the world’s first nuclear weapon. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. The Project employed more than 130,000 people and cost nearly 2 billion dollars in 1945 money.

History was made on July 16th, 1945. At the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico, the world’s first Atomic Bomb was detonated. The bomb, a result of the Manhattan Project, was named the “Trinity Gadget.” When it was detonated, it sucked up all the desert sand, earth, vegetation, animals, insects and anything else in its path into the cloud. The heat generated inside the cloud reached millions of degrees Fahrenheit. Hotter than the surface of the sun. It formed a mushroom cloud 7 ½ miles high and was the equivalent of 18,000 tons or 36 million pounds of TNT. Everything pulled into the cloud was turned to liquid and rained down onto the desert floor. As it cooled, it formed a green glass, later named, “Trinitite”.

Trinitite is all that is left of the first atomic bomb. This historic material is now preserved at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and various museums throughout the world. In 1951 the US Government made it illegal to collect trinitite. The only material still available is in the hands of a few collectors. There are some well documented collections where the material was collected before 1950. The Wallace T. Smith collection, the Harry Baldwin collection and the Ralph E. Pray collection. These collections were written about in the book, “Trinitite, The Atomic Age Mineral” by W. M. Kolb.

Trinitite is mostly light to dark green in color. Red trinitite is rare and contains copper from the wiring from the bomb. Black trinitite is also rare and contains iron from the 100 ft. steel tower used to suspend the bomb over the test site. Blue trinitite is the rarest and no explanation has been found yet for the blue color. Other special features of trinitite include: Spheres, fallout surface dust, black crust from the specimens collected at ground zero, magnetic specimens and feldspar inclusions.

Between 1947 and 1950, Wallace T. Smith collected approximately 200 pounds of trinitite from the Trinity site. Wallace passed away in 1965. The trinitite sat in a bunk house in New Mexico until his wife passed away in 2008. The niece who inherited the property, then gave the trinitite to a lady in New Mexico that had worked for the family on the ranch. In August, 2019, I drove to New Mexico to purchase a quantity of trinitite from her for a museum display I am working on. The display is done and I am offering the other specimens I have to fellow collectors rather than see it boxed away and eventually lost.

Photos: Top Left, the first 0.16 seconds of the atomic age. Top Right, 12 seconds after detonation. Middle Left, this monument stands at the Trinity site to designate this historic location. Middle Right, this 100 ft. steel tower was erected at the Trinity site to suspend the Gadget bomb over the test site. The tower vanished in the explosion. Bottom Left, the Trinity Gadget Atomic Bomb before detonation. Bottom Right, the Trinity Gadget Atomic Bomb before detonation.

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Colors of trinitite:
Green trinitite: Classic trinitite is usually a light to dark green color, with varying shades of green in between. The green color is caused by a fused combination of the majority minerals that were present at the test site at the time of the detonation.

Red trinitite: Red is rare and has copper in it from the bomb itself or the wiring cables that were attached to the bomb. Copper is not a native mineral at the Trinity test site, so all the red is a direct result of the fusing from the bomb components.

Black trinitite: Black is rare and has iron in it from the 100 ft. tall steel tower that was erected to suspend the bomb over the test site. I also have specimens that have light to dark brown in them, likely from trace amounts of iron. Iron is not a native mineral at the Trinity test site, so all the black is a direct result of the fusing from the tower.

Blue trinitite: I have two specimens with blue in them. One piece has a deep glassy blue color core in the center of a green trinitite specimen. The other has a spot on it of robin’s egg blue. No explanation has been made to explain the blue colors and as far as I know, blue is the rarest color in trinitite.

Other trinitite inclusions and features:
Spheres: you will see in trinitite many cavities or rounded holes, mostly in the sides of a specimen. These are exploded gas pockets that formed when the trinitite was cooling. Rarely, you will find a piece with a rounded, spherical formation attached to the specimen. These are bubbles that did not explode or burst during the event. They are very fragile and rare.

Feldspar inclusions: Feldspar is a mineral that was common in the surrounding environment at the test site. Feldspar is a igneous/metamorphic mineral. Some of it survived the blast and imbedded itself into the fused glass trinitite specimens. It presents itself as white, sometimes blocky inclusions.

Metallic trinitite: I have numerous specimens from the Wallace Smith collection that are very magnetic. I believe they have iron in them from the steel tower as they easily attach to a magnet. I believe they are somewhat rare.

Black crust: Some specimens of trinitite have a thick black crust on the bottom side of the specimen. This black crust is not the same as the black colored trinitite formed from the tower steel. This crust is believed to be found on pieces that were formed closer to ground zero. Directly under the area where the bomb was detonated.

Fallout dust: Some specimens have a fine layer of fallout dust sprinkled on them. You can feel this coating by rubbing your finger over the top of the specimen. It reminds me of a sugar coating on a cookie!