Spark­ing chain re­ac­tion of awe

The busi­ness cards in ‘Los Alamos Rolodex’ high­light the hu­man con­nec­tion at the peak of the arms race.

Los Angeles Times - - MIXED MEDIA - By Carolina A. Mi­randa carolina.mi­randa @latimes.com Twit­ter: @cmon­stah

What sto­ries could a bunch of old Rolodexes pos­si­bly tell?

A lot, it turns out — es­pe­cially when those Rolodexes come from Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory in New Mex­ico, where the sci­en­tists of the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject built the first atomic bomb.

“Los Alamos Rolodex: Do­ing Busi­ness With the Na­tional Lab, 1967-1978,” an ex­hibit on dis­play at the Cen­ter for Land Use In­ter­pre­ta­tion and a new book of the same name, gath­ers var­i­ous busi­ness cards from those Rolodexes and presents them, largely with­out com­ment, in a way that tells an in­ter­est­ing story about Los Alamos and the top se­cret work of the Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory. Not to men­tion one about Atomic Age graphic de­sign, full of flam­boy­ant an­gles and boomerang shapes.

“What I like most about them is that they’re kind of a raw ma­te­rial,” says Matthew Coolidge, di­rec­tor at the CLUI, a 2-decades-old re­search and ed­u­ca­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion that looks at the ways in which hu­mans in­ter­act with the land­scape. “We feel that they’re rich enough that there might be many sto­ries that might be ex­tracted.”

Valu­able re­source

The sto­ries be­gin with how the CLUI came upon the Rolodexes to be­gin with. They came from the ar­chive of the sin­gu­lar Ed Grothus, a ma­chin­ist at Los Alamos who ul­ti­mately left the Na­tional Lab to be­come an anti-war ac­tivist. For decades, Grothus ran a tonguein-cheek thrift store/mu­seum in Los Alamos called “the Black Hole,” which sold old sci­en­tific equip­ment from the Na­tional Lab. The CLUI ended up with the Rolodexes af­ter Grothus’ death, when the or­ga­ni­za­tion helped the fam­ily dis­pense of some of the ma­te­rial he’d ac­cu­mu­lated over the years.

“In one of the boxes, which was in the yard, were a bunch of old Rolodexes,” says Coolidge. “They were stuffed with thou­sands of cards. And they were care­fully dated on the back by whomever they be­longed to.”

He says that one of the things that most im­pressed him about the col­lec­tion was the geo­graphic range of busi­nesses cov­ered — a spread that showed the ex­tent of re­sources and tal­ent from all over the U.S. that poured into Los Alamos.

“It shows this in­ter­ac­tion, mostly from Al­bu­querque, where the Lab would go get ev­ery­thing from work gloves to struc­tural build­ing ma­te­rial sup­plies,” he ex­plains. “But then you go far­ther afield, to Den­ver, for ex­am­ple, where a lot of the busi­nesses are lo­cated. Den­ver is the clos­est large city to Los Alamos and is an im­por­tant en­gi­neer­ing cen­ter. And you have Los An­ge­les and North­ern Cal­i­for­nia with cir­cuitry and semi-con­duc­tor firms. ... The San Fer­nando Val­ley and the South Bay are well rep­re­sented.”

Time cap­sule

The cards show a close con­nec­tion be­tween South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Na­tional Lab and tell an in­ter­est­ing story about a time when the re­gion was a vi­tal aero­space hub. (For much of its life, in fact, the Lab was run by the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia.) Some com­pa­nies fea­tured in the book are still in op­er­a­tion, such as Del­tronic in Costa Mesa. Though as is the case with so much man­u­fac­tur­ing and en­gi­neer­ing, oth­ers have moved to other states; Gard­ner Cryo­gen­ics of Glen­dale is now based in Penn­syl­va­nia. Yet oth­ers no longer ex­ist.

There are also cards from busi­nesses you don’t imag­ine would be work­ing with a nu­clear lab — such as Ko­dak.

“It re­minds us that, in a way, atomic test­ing was a pho­to­graphic event,” says Coolidge. “To un­der­stand how a bomb func­tions, you have to take high-speed pic­tures of a bomb as it ex­plodes. Ko­dak had a big chem­i­cal divi­sion and it had all kinds of aerial pho­tog­ra­phy equip­ment and map­ping equip­ment and was in­volved in all kinds of doc­u­men­ta­tion, so the photo process went deep into the atomic weapons pro­gram.”

And of course, there are the de­signs of the busi­ness cards — many of which of­ten fea­tured swoop­ing Modernist im­ages or head shots of the sales­man in ques­tion, adding a per­sonal touch to what can seem like an im­per­sonal piece of Cold War his­tory.

“The graphic de­sign was some­thing we ap­pre­ci­ated in all of th­ese cards,” says Coolidge. “It speaks to this pe­riod of great tech­no­log­i­cal op­ti­mism. You see th­ese im­ages that look like car tail­fins from the ’50s and ’60s. They have a lot of rock­ets spin­ning into the apogee. Though, some­times, you might see a cac­tus in the back­ground to show that it was a South­west­ern com­pany.”

The book con­tains 150 busi­ness cards, but the CLUI is dis­play­ing 500 of them at its of­fices in Cul­ver City. The staff there has been dili­gently re­search­ing the story be­hind each cards: which com­pa­nies might still be in ex­is­tence, which phone num­bers are still op­er­a­tional and the busi­nesses that cur­rently oc­cupy the ad­dresses listed.

“They are like the tips of ice­bergs,” says Coolidge of the busi­ness cards. “They were relics. They were dead­end in a way. They were so ana­log. Yet they are so real in terms of the per­sonal con­nec­tion that peo­ple had do­ing busi­ness with the Na­tional Lab. There was this hu­man in­ter­ac­tion and it was of­ten rather poignant.”

Pho­to­graphs from the Cen­ter for Land Use In­ter­pre­ta­tion / Blast Books

“IT SPEAKS to this pe­riod of great tech­no­log­i­cal op­ti­mism,” says CLUI di­rec­tor Matthew Coolidge of the busi­ness cards’ at­ten­tion to graphic de­sign.

SOME OF the busi­ness cards in the ex­hibit “Los Alamos Rolodex” fea­ture in­ter­est­ing de­signs, above in de­tail, while oth­ers take a more per­sonal turn with head shots, at left.

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