Lookout Mountain Laboratory

By Kevin Hamilton and Ned O'Gorman Posted December 16, 2013

Lookout Mountain Laboratory.

Medium lml camera mount

We know their names: Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Sandia, Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, and so on. These are America’s great cold war (and now post-cold war) research hubs, the birthplaces of “big science,” sites of secrecy and security at which weapons of shock and awe were forged. These are America’s nuclear weapons laboratories.

But we hardly remember anything about the laboratories that gave these infamous national laboratories their diffuse historical and institutional presence, whether in the clinical wards of hospitals, behind the cinder-block walls of universities, upon the remote islands of the Pacific, or, as our work explores, up in the hills of Hollywood. 

Hidden in Laurel Canyon above Los Angeles was a cold war experimental site known as Lookout Mountain Laboratory, or the 1352nd Photographic Division of the U.S. Air Force. Lookout Mountain functioned as a distinct kind of nuclear weapons laboratory, a space where specialized cultures of labor and knowledge collaborated to technically and ideologically frame America’s nuclear weapons complex for public, private, and state audiences.

“Framing” is, of course, a ubiquitous concept in media studies. (And perhaps for this reason not the best concept for us to use here. We are certainly open to suggestions.) We are struck, however, by the metaphorical conjunction between the film frame and the media frame. This metaphorical conjunction materialized in our study: Lookout Mountain Laboratory’s technical work—much of it experimental and innovative—could not be separated from its cold war ideological work. Here the cold war camera was reconfigured as an ideological instrument.

Cameras, along with mechanical and later digital computers, were the most important “new” information technology in America’s rise to nuclear power in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s.  Cameras were scientifically crucial, as they could be rigged to record the otherwise indiscernible visual facets of nuclear detonations, especially those phenomena that computers failed to model, and thus which scientists could not anticipate. In addition, as seen in the films of Lookout Mountain, motion pictures were vital because they brought ready-at-hand rhetorics as yet unheard of in computing, including editing, mise-en-scène, and narrative. Consequently, cameras and their operators accompanied scientists and soldiers to every corner of the planet where the new weapons were tested or deployed, and the resulting films were carefully dispersed through the scientific, military, governmental, and sometimes public channels of the nation and the world.

As a film studio created for the purpose of “cold war” in a nuclear age, Lookout Mountain Laboratory was at once a propagandistic agency, a chronicler of institutional evolution, an instructional and training aid, an inter-office communication medium, a scientific and historical witness to the grand experiments of nuclear-weapons related science, and a producer of therapeutic cinema meant to reassure government officials that everything was under control.


Kevin Hamilton (kham@illinois.edu) is an artist and researcher with the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois. Kevin’s research-based artistic work spans the domains of Public Art, New Media, and the Digital Humanities. Recognition for his work has included grants from the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, presentation at conferences across Europe and North America (ISEA/ DEAF/CAA/NCA/ACM-SIGCHI), publication in edited journals and anthologies (Routledge/CCCS/Palm Press/UCLA), and invited residencies (Banff/USC-IML/Bratislava). 

Ned O’Gorman (nogorman@illinois.edu) is an Associate Professor, Associate Head, and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He works in several different areas: the history of rhetoric (in practice and in theory), political thought/theory, aesthetics, technology studies, and the digital humanities. He has special interest in the crises and tensions of modernity, or late-modernity, as they were manifested in the Cold War in the United States. He is the author of Spirits of the Cold War: Contesting Worldviews in the Classical Age of American Security Strategy (2012, Michigan State University Press), and the forthcoming (currently titled) The Iconoclastic Shutter: Image, Catastrophe, and Economy in America since the Kennedy Assassination (under contract with the University of Chicago Press, expected publication 2014), as well as a number of journal essays on topics related to rhetorical theory, aesthetics, religion, political theory, and political history.