Jeffrey LewisThe Bhangmeter

I was corresponding with a colleague about the Operation Ivy clip I posted the other day. He is is very knowledgeable about nuclear weapons policy, more so than I am actually, and in passing mentioned one of the diagnostic devices used in the test: “The ‘bangmeter’ – really!”

Actually, it is the Bhangmeter, with an “H”.  “H” as in hashish.

Bhang is a drug reference — no kidding — according to the prologue of William E Ogle, An Account of the the Return to Nuclear Weapons Testing by the United States after the Test Moratorium 1958-1961, NV-291 (Department of Energy, October 1985):

An intense afternoon was spent by the entire Group J-7, with its group leader Fred Reines, early in 1950, picking a name for this world-shaking device that was going to produce simple, cheap and easy yield measurements.  At the end of the afternoon, Reines picked a name which we all knew would be misinterpreted for the rest of history. Bhangmeter is not synonymous with bangmeter. Bhang is a variation of Indian hemp, the leaves and seed capsules of which are chewed or smoked, and which produces the same euphoria as other variations of hashish. The now obvious connotation is that we were off our rockers to think that this thing would ever be particularly useful and anyone else who ever believed it must also have a little something wrong with them.

To which my colleague responded “I particularly like the fact that ‘an intense afternoon was spent by the entire group. . . picking a name…’ I think the author forgot the part about the guys ransacking the place in search of munchies.”


  1. John Schilling (History)

    I had always thought the Bhangmeter derived from the “Fannish H”, a custom in early science fiction fandom wherein a silent ‘H’ is added after a leading consonant to add a somewhat extraordinary quality to a noun – e.h. “Bheer” is not ordinary beer. A Bhangmeter certainly does not measure the ordinary sort of bang, the custom dates to the 1950s at least, and one suspects nuclear weapons builders of the era had more than the usual degree of interest in SF.

    The drug reference is somewhat less obvious, but also plausible and apparently supported by eyewitness testimony. A double meaning would also be plausible, of course.

  2. Anon (History)

    It is actually consumed as a drink in India –like lassi — and is not pronounced like bang — but more like bhungh…rhymes with well-hung.

    It was these notorious photometers that gave the disputed signal of the S. African/Israeli bomb via Vela.

  3. Magoo (History)

    Jeffrey, you got Bhang bang on. In north India Bhang grows wild – a rather irritating weed. It “is a variation of Indian hemp, the leaves and seed capsules of which are chewed or smoked, and which produces the same euphoria as other variations of hashish.”

    It gives a high only a little less potent than Opium. Passer bys take a few twigs and rub them between the hands to draw the juice, which when it dries can be rubbed off like dried skin and then either smoked in a ‘Chilum’ (equivalent of a what in the West is a pipe) or dissolved in water and consumed. Over indulgence can result in a bang of a hangover!
    The resulting Euphoria cannot be equated with a nuclear bang.

    • Ian (History)

      That sounds like a lot of bhang for a buck.

  4. Ara Barsamian (History)

    incredibly cheap and reasonably accurate; provides instant estimates for atmospheric tests.

    Underground, forget it, back to spending millions…