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Los Alamos Rolodex: Doing Business with the National Lab, a new book by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), is a tight little publication with a singular fascination. It contains reproductions of 150 business cards (culled from thousands) that were received, punched, and filed alphabetically into seven “rotating desktop business card storage devices” by an unknown worker at the Los Alamos National Laboratory between the years of 1967 and ’78 — the era when the lab was at the center of the arms race and a bastion of hi-tech progress in nuclear weapons. The seven Rolodexes were purchased by CLUI from a place called the Black Hole, not far from Los Alamos. Part thrift store, part museum, and filled with outdated leftovers and cast-offs obtained from the lab, the Black Hole was founded by a former machinist and technician named Edward Grothus who worked there in the 1950s and ‘60s. Over the years, CLUI has collected many items from the Black Hole, bits and pieces from the history of the nuclear age, which it stores in its “Atomic Archive” in Wendover.
The book is about the size of a 20th-century Rolodex and each page displays one business card. Company names like “Ferrofluidics,” “Hale Sanitary Supply,” “US Borax,” and “Plasmadyne” are emblazoned next to stylized logos of eclipses, rocket ships, electrons circling nuclei, and other space-age insignias. In the manner of the day, phone numbers often start with letters, like YO 8-2211 (Yonkers, of course), FL 1-3221 (Florida, naturally), and Mercury 9-7100 (Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania — no idea…). Area codes are an afterthought. Names nestle within quotation marks or parentheses for these regional managers, territory technical representatives, or cryogenic sales engineers, like R.L. “Dick” Petcher, or S.L. (Sal) Tropiano. These men work in Explosives, the Hydra-set Division, Mapping and Photogrammetry, Thermoluminescence Dosimetry Crystal-solid State, or in Fluid Systems. Their taglines are “Atmosphere Specialists,” “Space Age Electronics,” “Environments for Industry and Medicine,” “Apparatus for Metallurgy / Geology,” and “High Voltage Components & Equipment.” It all seems so exciting.
What you don’t see on these cards, of course, are e-mail addresses, websites, or Twitter handles. These business cards are from the time just an atom’s width before our own. Their technological optimism was our mother’s milk, and a space-age diet for the future.
These long-ago formal introductions, handed to an employee of the Los Alamos lab, promised services to move things positively onward and upward. Even now, one might get a hankering to call some of these numbers. In the introductory essay of the book, founder of CLUI Matthew Coolidge points out that the devil is in the details in this tour of a lost era through business cards: “It takes a lot of technology to make technology, but ultimately the bomb was made by people calling each other on the phone.” CLUI did in fact call many of these numbers — “Most rendered a variation of the ‘the number you dialed has been changed, disconnected or is no longer in service’ message,” wrote Coolidge in an e-mail. “We were never able to get through to any of the original people or companies listed on the card though. They were all dead-ends.”
CLUI, a nonprofit since 1994, incorporates education, art, and research across many areas of interest to inspire the “increase and diffusion of information about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.” The organization maintains a web-based database on land use as well as an archive of hundreds of thousands of photographs of overlooked places taken by CLUI staff. They host artists-in-residence at their complex in Wendover, Utah, and have outposts to study the California desert climate in the Mojave. CLUI has also mounted exhibitions in its headquarters in Culver City that have focused on golf courses, on-site office trailers, large-scale refrigeration, and experimental aircraft crash sites, among hundreds of other who’d-a’-thunk-it topics. Each of these exhibits points to some part of the landscape out there that, no matter how mundane, has the utmost significance for someone — and, now, because of CLUI’s research, you may realize that these neglected spaces have significance for you as well.
Los Alamos Rolodex is a prime example of how CLUI indexes its findings. Perhaps its greatest skill is in how it focuses on areas that are perceived as unconscionable and ominous — perhaps even PTSD-grade blacked out — by breaking these areas down into manageable, unthreatening units of information. Los Alamos Rolodex is just this. Each card represents an individual who may have done business with this most secretive of organizations, Los Alamos, whether it be to supply astro-metals, cryogenics services, work boots, or sanitation supplies. They were all, in some way, connected to the Los Alamos lab, a place that manufactured devices that could extinguish all of the bodies who handed out these cards — thousands of times over.
Through a project like this, CLUI displays a deep respect — or at least an honest curiosity — for some core part of what went on at the lab, no matter how malevolent, dreadful, or simply boring. These cards raise questions rather than accuse. You might ask What were these people thinking? or, What is Thermoluminescence Dosimetry? Ultimately, Los Alamos Rolodex maintains a certain tongue-in-cheek wink that allows us to come to our own conclusions about the confounding implications of nuclear weapons. The information in these business cards is just that: business. But business as usual does not mean we shouldn’t pay attention.
Los Alamos Rolodex: Doing Business with the National Lab 1967–78 is out now from Blast Books. A slideshow presentation of the Los Alamos Rolodex cards will take place tonight, Friday, January 22, at CLUI Los Angeles (9331 Venice Blvd, Culver City) at 7pm.