How Kodak Discovered the Atomic Bomb

How Kodak Discovered the Atomic Bomb

In July of 1945, the U.S. government detonated the world's first nuclear bomb, ushering in the Atomic Age. Initially, the nature and severity of the blasts were kept under wraps, but the photography industry would eventually be given closed door access to certain details, all because of some radioactive corn.

In 1946, Kodak customers began complaining that their film was foggy upon being developed. Photographic film is highly sensitive to radioactive energy (this is why you should request a hand examination when going through airport security with film). Kodak investigated the issue and eventually traced the source of the problem back to corn husks from Indiana that were being used as padding to ship materials. The husks had been contaminated by Iodine-131. I-131 is a radioactive isotope produced during plutonium fission; Kodak's team eventually connected the dots and realized that Indiana had been exposed to fallout from the Trinity Test, indicating that radioactive iodine had possibly entered the food chain and that fallout was clearly reaching far and wide. I-131 can cause thyroid cancer, particularly in children (indeed, 75,000 cases of cancer were linked to American atomic tests during the first two decades of the Atomic Age). Iodine supplements are an easy and effective remedy. Whether by choice or by order of the government, Kodak remained silent, however, and the public was not made aware of the risk. 

This wasn't the end, however. In 1951, the U.S. began more tests on continental soil, and after the Frenchman Flat test in Nevada, Kodak detected unusually high levels of radiation across the country in Rochester, N.Y. After complaining to both the National Association of Photographic Manufacturers and the Atomic Energy Commission and being dismissed, the company threatened to sue the government. The government eventually acquiesced and agreed to give Kodak and other manufacturers advance notice of tests, as well as predicted fallout patterns — information that could have potentially prevented thousands of cancers cases. It was part of several government programs that knowingly and secretly sacrificed human well-being for the sake of science during the middle of the 1900s. It would not be until a decade after photographic manufacturers were made privy to the details of these tests that the general public would be granted the same privilege.

[via Imaging Resource]

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13 Comments

Anonymous's picture

And people still actually think that regulations are bad. Thanks for this - I grew up in Kodak land and half my friend's families worked for them. More and more stories like this come out every year.

Interesting. Anything about the secret nuclear reactor that Kodak had themselves?

Jake Reeder's picture

Great article! So short, so depressing..

Alex, I like that you find the history of photography as interesting as the current technology of imaging. Thank you for sharing this.

Anonymous's picture

wrong place

Anonymous's picture

good to know, Im sure those Americans who did die did so with a smile on their faces and a song in their heart safe in the knowledge they had 'stuck it to those commies'

If your Government kills you its murder bro. Period.

Tyler Newcomb's picture

He deleted the comment it seems, but I could not agree more.

Alex Cooke's picture

Thank you! I think it's important to understand how we got to where we are.

Great article, and very interesting. I would disagree that your government sacrificed people in the name of *science*, though. They sacrificed those people in the name of politics, namely Capitalism vs Communism. The atom bombs of that era were all made and detonated to show the might of the US against the USSR. Science was utilised for this, but it was a means to an end. Politics aside, I enjoyed reading the article :)
Alex

Jayson Carey's picture

why don't you do it for him if you care that much?

Jayson Carey's picture

Pot, meet kettle.

And who the hell is "jaceon?"

Senator Tom Harkin held a hearing about this in the 1990's. He made the point that the AEC would tell Kodak when tests were scheduled, so that they would know when corn husks were likely to be contaminated, but would not tell the farm families that drank milk from cows that grazed on contaminated grass. Harkin's brother had died of thyroid cancer, and he himself had had thyroid surgery. The corn husks were used for the heavy black wrappers that enclosed the metal canister.

"We're from the government are we're here to help you." /sarc