There was room only for a short bit of film, of course: The camera could shoot only 24 frames. But you could time exposure within a tenth of a microsecond, an interval so precise that when the test failed again, scientists had a frame-by-frame record of the event.
“Brixner’s camera was like a ray of light into a very dark situation,” says Nebeker. The problem indeed lay with the uneven detonation of the conventional explosives. A movie camera cleared the final serious obstacle in the path to the atomic age.
The original Cordin camera, built in 1956 shortly after the Manhattan Project technology was declassified, and capable of 1.25 million frames per second, was based on the same rotating-mirror design—a design that is still at the heart of the company’s biggest, most expensive machines.
High-speed camera manufacture has always been a small, clannish industry serving a highly specialized academic community-shock-wave and cavitation physicists, hypersonic-aviation researchers, materials scientists interested in the dynamics of fractures, cracks and vibration—as well as the military research labs working on “energetic materials,” ballistics, bombardment and bombs. The most recent biennial conference of the trade’s worldwide professional organization, the International Congress on High Speed Photography and Photonics (which includes all forms of high-speed imaging, still and moving), had just 226 attendees. Much work involving high-speed cameras continues to come out of labs such as Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, with their deep roots in military-tech research. And much of the photography continues to be secret—not only for security reasons but because a car company studying, say, combustion efficiency in an engine fitted with transparent cylinder heads keeps competitive data to itself. “I think I saw some stills [of weapons research] once in a slide show at a conference,” Nathan Nebeker says. “That’s as close as I’ve gotten to seeing the footage.”
The international market is constrained as well: Cordin cameras must be licensed for export by the Department of Energy, which regulates technology related to nuclear weapons. In 1990, an import-export firm located in New Jersey approached Cordin to try to buy one of its cameras for more than $200,000. The end user turned out to be Al Kindi General Establishment, an Iraqi weapons lab involved in nuclear research. Export license denied. “After the first Gulf War,” Sid Nebeker relates, “they found [in Iraq] some Japanese cameras that would have been somewhat helpful. But they wouldn’t have provided nearly the crispness or speed of ours.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.