For me, there’s something profoundly creepy about mannequins. It might be those soulless, I’m-going-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep eyes. Or those smiling, impossibly unwrinkled faces. Or it might just be a side effect of my early childhood visit to a wax museum on the Isle of Wight, which still haunts me this very day. (It was like someone had purposefully set out to create the weirdest museum on Earth, complete with a terrifying Chamber of Horrors, several inexplicably naked female figures, and a truly nightmarish taxidermy collection of winged monkeys, two-headed lambs, and cats dressed as Victorians – I kid you not.)
But I digress. Mannequins. What could be worse than a mannequin? Well a whole blimmin’ community of them for starters. And on 17 March 1953, several families of these glassy-eyed dummies gathered together deep within the Nevada desert for a rather unusual occasion. They were about to experience the full force of a nuclear attack.
This strange mannequin community was the brainchild of the US Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Close by was a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon (‘Annie’) that was about to be detonated – the latest in a series of tests carried out by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The location – the Nevada Test Site – had been used for nuclear testing many times before, but this test was different. ‘Operation Doorstep’ was its official name, and it was designed to show what would happen if a nuclear bomb hit a typical American suburb.
About 1km from the explosion, the FCDA built a simple wooden-frame house with two storeys and a basement, kitting it out with government surplus furniture. An identical house was built further away, at a distance of nearly 2.5km from ground zero, and mannequins were placed in the rooms and basements of both houses. Several bomb shelters were also scattered around the site, as well as a selection of vehicles of various shapes and sizes.
More than 600 people watched the test, which exploded with around the same energy as the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima 8 years earlier.
Unsurprisingly, the house nearest the explosion collapsed in dramatic fashion: the ground floor was completely demolished, the first floor collapsed, and the roof was ripped off. The house further away, on the other hand, stood firm, though its doors, windows and interior were badly damaged. The best protection was provided by the bomb shelters dotted around the test site, which sustained hardly any damage even when located just a few hundred metres from the blast.
And the mannequins? They had mixed fortunes. Those in the top two floors of the house closest to the explosion were buried under debris and didn’t stand much of a chance. The mannequins in the more distant house suffered a weaker shock, though many of them were injured by debris. “Heads of the mannequins were generally pockmarked and clothing was cut by flying glass,” notes an FCDA booklet published after the test. “Some … had evidence of more serious injury, such as holes the size of a quarter.” The mannequins in the basements of the two houses fared better, coming through the blast unmoved and unharmed.
Judging from these photos, Operation Doorstep was a pretty vivid demonstration of the devastating power of nuclear weapons. However, it’s somewhat debatable whether blowing up a dummy village can tell us much about the real-life effects of a nuclear bomb. Even if they survived the initial blast, someone this close to ground zero would likely be affected by radiation sickness, either from the initial radiation or from the radioactive material that drifted to the ground after the explosion (the nuclear fallout).
Luckily for mannequins, though, they don’t need to worry about the long-term effects of radiation. This means that they’d probably last longer than us during a nuclear holocaust – maybe that’s what they’re all smiling about…