TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: A Bad Time to Fall Asleep

A Bad Time to Fall Asleep

TELECOM Moderator (
Thu, 4 Jan 90 0:31:10 CST

There were simpler times in the history of telephony, and simpler
problems to deal with.

During the several years I lived in the Hyde Park neighorhood on the
south side of Chicago during the 1960's, my favorite neighbor was
Lauri Fermi, widow of Enrico Fermi, known for his work on the Atomic
Bomb. Mrs. Fermi and I lived in the same apartment building on East
56th Street, directly across the street from the Museum of Science and
Industry, and we chatted and dined together frequently.

In the fall of 1965, on the occassion of the twentieth anniversary of
the completion and first testing of the bomb, Mrs. Fermi told a
fascinating story of that summer day, twenty years earlier. Her
comments were tape-recorded, and are transcribed below:


"The testing was of course kept closely under wraps, you know, the
government was awfully sensitive about it. All the papers were giving
reports that a monster-like weapon was in the final testing stages,
but some of the newspaper accounts were ridiculous. Enrico was given
his orders only two days earlier as to exactly where we were to be
stationed in the test zone area. Even the local people in New Mexico
were told as little as possible; I think the governor and some state
officials were told, and sworn to secrecy.

"In Alamogordo, we checked into the hotel then drove out to where
Enrico had been assigned. It was set up that the scientists were
deployed over about a two hundred square mile area; we were about
fifteen miles from the target.

"The test was set for 4:30 AM the next morning, so we returned to the
hotel and went to bed early. We got up at 3 the next morning and drove
out to the location, since it took about an hour to set up the test
gear Enrico would use ... I suppose it was about 4:15, when a fierce
rain storm developed. It lasted only five or ten minutes, but was
quite a downpour, and Enrico remarked he hoped nothing would go wrong
with the test because of it.

"Well, the time came and went, everything was quiet, no bomb, nothing.
About 4:45, Enrico decided we had better return to town and see what
was what, and we drove back. He wanted to make a phone call and see if
the test had been cancelled or not, and the only place open in town at
that time of night was the hotel where we had stayed. There was a
payphone in the lobby, and Enrico went in the booth, but he didn't get
anywhere. I heard him flashing the hook and swearing softly, then he
came out and said he could not get the operator. (Alamogordo had
manual service at that time, just a small switchboard.)

"We got in the car, and Enrico had me drive while he leaned out the
window and kept looking overhead at the phone wires. He'd have me turn
down one street, then turn back up another street, and finally he said
pull the car over and stop.

"Where we stopped was in front of a house on one of the residential
streets there, but what looked odd to me was on the side of the house,
there were hundreds of wires converging, coming in from a dozen
telephone poles which all seemed to meet in the back yard or on the
side of the house. And all these wires came down out of the sky you
might say, and went in the side of the house in a big bundle.

"The front porch light was burning, and when we went up on the front
porch, the front door was open, but the screen door was latched from
the inside. A radio was playing music very softly, and the room was
rather dim with just a single light burning. A switchboard sat on one
side of the room, and the signal lights on it were flashing off and on
like Christmas tree lights. Over by the other corner was a sofa, and
a woman was laying on the sofa, obviously sound asleep. This was right
about five o'clock, I guess, or a few minutes after.

"Enrico banged on the screen door a few times, then kicked it once or
twice with his foot. All of a sudden, the lady woke up; she looked
over at us very startled, standing at the door; she looked over at the
switchboard; looked back at us; jumped up and rushed over to the board
and sat down, pausing long enough to light a cigarette and she started
frantically answering all the flashing signals.

"We got back in the car, and drove out to where we had been before. We
were there about five minutes, and the test was conducted. Everything
the poets have said about the brilliance and beauty of that first
explosion was true ... later, we got together with the others who had
been assigned there and found out that it wasn't the rain that delayed
things; it was that woman asleep; you see, the main people responsible
were linked by phones through Alamogordo; they had to coordinate what
they were doing and sychronize their work. All of them got the same
thing on the phone we got: no answer from the operator for 45 minutes!

"Really, I can't blame the lady much. The whole summer of 1945 was
just horrid. When we arrived the day before, the temperature was over
a hundred; the poor lady probably couldn't sleep at all that day from
the heat, and still had to go to work that night exhausted. Then the
rain cooled things off twenty degrees in fifteen minutes; that sofa
was just too tempting for her; and probably every other night she only
got two or three calls in the whole eight hour shift ....

"No one ever said anything to her or the woman who owned the phone
exchange there, so I suspect to this day, twenty years later, she
doesn't realize she was responsible for causing the first atomic bomb
explosion in the world to be delayed for a little over an hour ... but
as I think back now, probably someone should have told her ahead of
time about that very special morning, and sworn her to secrecy until
the test was completed.

"When I was there in town two weeks ago for the (twentieth
anniversary) reunion, just from curiosity I went past that house; it
took me awhile to remember where it was. No wires anywhere like
before; and I asked someone there if the phone exchange was there. He
told me the 'telephone lady' had been gone for years; Bell or someone
had bought it and moved it to a building in the downtown area."

===================== End of Transcription =======================

And that was Laura Fermi talking about the summer of 1945 in the desert
of New Mexico, in the fall of 1965 at a dinner. Enrico had been dead
for a few years at that point. Times were indeed simpler and easier
in those days, the summer of 1945. Today, 01-07-1990, we have seen
many changes in the phone industry, almost 45 years later.

Patrick Townson


[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: Note above I mentioned we had seen
'many changes' in the 45 years since 1945. Of course now, 17 years
after that, the changes are still even greater. I have often wondered
what happened to Laura Fermi. I am sure she must be long-dead by now.

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