Every teenager dreams of working in a giant warehouse full of discarded nuclear test equipment, well used high-pressure vacuum fittings and an endless assortment of puzzling devices which may or may not have any value in the modern era. Ok, so maybe not every teenager has this dream, I was and still am somewhat of a strange person, but in High School in New Mexico, this particular dream of mine came true.After tooling around the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Library and the Bradbury Museum for the better part of a day, my father took a break from coding the labs IBM AS/400 systems he was responsible for and took me to The Black Hole, also known as the Los Alamos Sales Company. He introduced me to Ed Grothus (photo below), an eccentric old fellow who had worked for the lab (what the locals call LANL) until being let go after marching in a peace protest in the '60s.
Ed offered me a job, which paid minimum wage, which I believe was about $4.25 in New Mexico. He didn't really tell me what the job would entail, and honestly I didn't care. I had fallen in love with the endless piles of mysterious equipment that filled the former supermarket that had become The Black Hole. As it turned out my job description was quite eclectic and covered everything from taking apart electronic assemblies to recover whatever was valuable inside to helping customers find that centrifuge they were looking for to tearing old lockers out of High Schools.
I worked for Ed for 3 or 4 summers and I really enjoyed my time there. It was an amazing experience and I learned about all types of scientific laboratory equipment, how it worked, and what it was worth second hand. I had been meaning to visit the Black Hole and Ed for almost a decade, and I did just that on my recent vacation to New Mexico. Here are some photos with short captions covering what I saw:
Ed Grothus shows off his Peace Obelisk, one of two identical 3 ton marble obelisks. Ed traveled to China to have the massive monuments hewn from quarried marble and then polished and inscribed. The obelisks will have a message in fifteen languages inscribed in the hematite spheres that the obelisks will rest on. He is still searching for a location to place the monuments, I recommended the Trinity Site.
Except for the rusted sculptures and the "Military Surplus" sign, the front entrance to the Black Hole hasn't changed much in the decade and a half since I worked there. The former supermarket, it's parking lot and the church next door no longer sell groceries or facilitate worship, but instead provide cover to millions of salvaged scientific apparatuses. His frequent customers include LANL employees who are ironically buying back the same equipment the lab sold to salvage for pennies on the dollar over the years.
Ultra High vacuum equipment is some of the most high-tech looking hardware in the world. Comprised of thick walled stainless steel and machined with great precision for even greater amounts of money, HVac or UHV fittings are designed to withstand extremely high levels of vacuum. They are used for thin-film and spectroscopy research applications which require insane levels of negative pressure.
This large device is a Marley High Speed Camera built in England in 1944. The camera is capable of taking 100,000 photos per second. It was most likely used to photograph nuclear or other explosions.
To the left of the parking lot in the photo above you can see the A-frame church. When I worked at the Black Hole, it was filled with especially old, and possibly valuable equipment. The parking lot has been a source of trouble for Ed through the years, after neighbors complained the city of Los Alamos ordered Ed to clean up the lot. He ended up refusing to do so, being arrested, and while he was in jail the city hired a private firm to clean up the Black Hole. Instead of cleaning the parking lot out, they sold most all of Ed's most valuable items and pocketed the profit. As you can clearly see, the yard is still not clean.More after the jump, and the whole archive can be found in my gallery
On the left are various thermocouples and spools of thermocouple wire. Thermocouple wire is made of two types of metal that register different micro-currents depending on their temperature and thus are used as electronic thermometers. The items in the middle and on the left are temperature recorders and meters.
Here are some more Ultra High Vacuum fittings including several flexible tubes and a vacuum chamber. The vacuum chamber shows a copper ring which, when perfectly clean, creates an strong gasket where plastic or rubber would fail structurally. If the vacuum chamber were to be used, the copper gasket would have to be replaced because even a tiny amount of contamination would cause the seal to fail. On the lower left of the photo is a fitting that has been sealed with tape to keep out the contamination.
Along the back wall in the photo above are Nuclear Instrumentation Modules and the racks they fit in to, called NIM Bins. These self contained modules provide a multitude of tools for nuclear research and development. The NIM Bins are made by several manufacturers, but the modules are mostly interchangeable. There is quite a good market for NIM Bins and modules, as evidenced by a good friend of mine who has the world's largest private collection of NIM Bins and modules which he makes a nice living selling.
The Black Hole's library is filled with tens of thousands of highly technical books and manuals for some if not most of the items for sale at the Black Hole.
The greenhouse is a new addition to the Black Hole and is filled with a fairly wide assortment of glassware. I was looking at a condensing column and mentioned that it would be good for distilling. One of the employees who was hanging out said that people use those to recover solvents from methamphetamine manufacturing.
Oscilloscopes measure frequency and amplitude of alternating current signals and display them as a moving graph. These 'scopes are fairly outdated and like many types of measuring equipment have been reduced in size and cost due to digital and computer based systems. You can buy a USB oscilloscope that uses your computer as the display for under a hundred dollars.
The beautiful New Mexico sky provides an interesting contrast to the massive vacuum chamber and bomb casings that litter the supermarket-cum-salvage yard's parking lot. Several summers before this photograph was taken, a massive fire burned the hills in the background. Ed Grothus snuck passed the fire-line and fought the fire in his own back yard, likely saving The Black Hole in the process.
Ed Grothus is the most photographed and written about person in Los Alamos. He is quite a character and his amazing collection of what some might call junk, but I call gold, must be seen to be believed. If you're ever in Los Alamos and have a few hours to spare, stop by the Black Hole and explore.
Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544
Hours: Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm