Category Archives: History

Before and after a nuclear attack on the UK

A set of posters produced by the Home Office Civil Defence department in 1958. The posters showed the effects of a nuclear attack on British cities. The posters were printed by the Hydrographic Supplies Establishment and sold for one pound, seven shillings and six pence.

The posters are 29 inches by 23 inches.









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Nuclear war by accident

Eric Schlosser has a fascinating and frightening article [World War Three, by Mistake] in the New Yorker  which describes how close we came to accidental annihilation during the Cold War, and how close we are to it now.

When the US public see their military idiots prodding the bear by posturing around Europe and wingnuts like Senator John McCain describe Putin as “a thug, a bully, and a murderer” they might want to think about what will happen if things go wrong and they prod too much.

The photo below shows a Russian Voevoda R-36M2 missile being loaded into a silo somewhere in Russia. Each missile carries up to ten warheads and up to 40 penetration aids to overwhelm enemy defences. Russian missile technology is much superior to that of the US and their missiles have a greater throw weight than US missiles like the Minuteman.  That technical superiority is why the US has to buy rocket engines from Russia.

There are at least 46 R-36M2  complexes. Probably the US knows where most of  are and could destroy most of them in a first strike. I very much doubt if it knows where all of them are and could destroy them all. If even one or two of them got out of their silos the US would become a third world country with ten or twenty of its largest cities destroyed. Don’t worry though, US senators and military commanders would be safe underground when the warheads arrived. Nobody important would be harmed.


This post describes what would happen if a 800 kiloton warhead detonated over Manhattan.


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Cold War Calculator for Radiation Contaminated Food

A rare British Cold War calculator. Presumably intended for use  by civil defence after a nuclear attack.




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Forgotten History – Tally Sticks

Tally sticks were once  essential for recording government and commercial transactions. Kings used them to help collect taxes. Individuals and businesses used them provide a tangible record of debts and  investments.

Tally sticks were usually made of wood, but could also be made of bone, ivory or stone. The Ishango Bone tally was made from the thigh bone of a baboon and dates from around 18000-20000 BC.

Tally sticks were introduced into England in about 1100 and continued to be used by Exchequer until 1827. In 1834 someone decided to dispose of the remaining sticks and succeeded in setting fire to the Houses of Parliament link.


Single tallies were usually used as a memory aid. Split tallies had a much wider range of applications. They were used to acknowledge receipt of goods, payment of taxes or a fine. Or, like the example below, provide proof of a debt. They formed part of a primitive but essential accounting system in medieval times.

Few tally sticks have survived [they made good firewood], so I made the one below to illustrate their features.

The stick is just under 12 inches long [about 30cm] and made of a wood with a clear grain. It records that AB owes CD five British pounds [£5], six shillings [6s] and three pence [3d]. Before decimalisation a pound was divided into twenty shillings and each shilling was divided into twelve pence. AB is the debtor [who owes the money] and CD is the creditor [who is owed]. It also shows when the debt is due. In the example repayment is due when CD demands it.

NN means non negotiable. CD cannot sell or give the debt to anyone else. AB will only repay CD.  You can see the point of that. If CD sold the debt to an enemy of AB the enemy could bide their time and then present the tally when they knew AB was overstretched.


The notches in the top edge indicate value. There were different notches for pounds [and thousands of pounds], shillings and pence.

Sticks were made of woods that split easily so the one part of the split tally could be kept by the creditor and the other part taken by the debtor.


The creditor’s [CD] part was called the ‘stock’ and was longer than the ‘foil’ which was taken by AB.  This is why we refer to someone getting the ‘short end of the stick’ when they have the worst part of a deal.

If someone lent money to the recently established Bank of England they would get a stock [from which we get the ‘stock’ in ‘stocks and shares’] recording the transaction. The Bank would keep the foil.

When we pay someone by cheque we send the cheque to our creditor but we keep a record of the payment on a ‘counterfoil’ in our cheque book.

Tally sticks had a number of anti-forgery features.

  1.  The notches on a stock and a foil had to match exactly when payment was demanded.
  2.  The grain had to match. If you look at the first photograph you can see that the grain clearly continues from the foil to the stock.
  3.  Details of the debt was written on both the stock and the foil.

The two photographs below show another tally stick. I made this to resemble one that was used in Switzerland until the end of the 19th century and is now in a museum.  The same anti-forgery features are present.  The holes in each part were presumably drilled so that the tallies could be strung on a string and not mislaid or used as firewood by a housemaid. Thoughtless housemaids were a real danger. A maid burned Thomas Carlyle’s only copy of his book, the ‘The French Revolution: A History’,  after mistaking it for waste paper and using it to kindle a fire.



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Nuclear Proving Grounds and stick charts

After WW2 the USA needed to develop and test its nuclear technology. It set up two proving grounds.

Nevada Proving Ground

The Nevada Proving Ground was only 65 miles from Las Vegas and gamblers could watch the mushroom clouds from the casinos and hotels. Most of the 928 tests were under ground but 100, including the notorious ‘Dirty Harry;’ test, were atmospheric. and winds  carried the fallout of these  to the west. The town of St. George was particularly badly affected and there were  increases in  leukaemia, lymphoma, thyroid cancer, breast cancer, melanoma, bone cancer, brain tumours, and gastrointestinal tract cancers. Over 200,00 cases of thyroid cancer were believed to have been caused [see this post].  Nuclear Test Participation certificates were issued to the people who took part in testing [see post]

Pacific Proving Ground

Only low yield weapons were tested in Nevada. Most of the big bangs took place in the Pacific Proving Ground [1946-62], on the Enewetok and Bikini Atolls in the Marshall Islands. A few of the later tests were conducted on Christmas Island and Johnston Atoll.


A total of 105 atmospheric and underwater tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands. This was only 14% of the total number of tests but accounted for 80% of the megatonage, The estimated total yield of the Marshall Islands tests was about 210 megatons, including the 15 Mt Castle Bravo shot on Bikini in 1954. The Castle Bravo bomb got out of control and produced over twice the expected yield, spreading radioactive contamination over several of the Marshall Islands atolls and a large area of the Pacific.


An atomic stick chart

The Marshall Islands are known for the stick charts charts their navigators created to help them sail between their 29 atolls and 5 islands. These are spread over a huge area of sea and navigation was a non trivial problem. I have made a stick chart to clarify the geography and identify the atolls that the USA used for military purposes. There is  more about stick charts in a separate post.


The Enewetok and Bikini [the swimsuit was named after the atoll] atolls were the ones used for testing. Kwajalien is still used by the USA as the the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. Majuro is the capital of the Marshall Islands. To give some idea of scale; it is 539 miles from Bikini to Ebon, the same distance as from London to Leipzig. The circular calculator in the bottom left is a Time Conversion Computer [see this post].

Testing began on Bikini  in 1946 with the Crossroads tests Two 21 kiloton atomic bombs were detonated. ‘Able’ was an atmospheric test [video] and ‘Baker” an underwater test [video]. The Baker bomb was exploded at a depth of 27 meters in the middle of a small fleet of ex WW2 vessels. The dangers of radioactivity were not fully understood then and sailors were sent to try a scrub ‘clean’ the highly contaminated vessels.

Testing then moved to Enewetok Atoll for the Sandstone, Greenhouse and Ivy series of tests. After that testing took place on both Enewetok and Bikini until  Operation Dominic in 1962 which involved 36 bombs being detonated above and near Johnston Atoll and Christmas Island.

Both Enewetok and Bikini remain heavily contaminated. Bikini is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The natives of the Marshall Islands suffered form American operations in the Pacific Proving Ground, but not as badly as the natives of Utah and the mid west suffered from the operations in the Nevada Proving Ground.

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The DNA Multi-sigma Damage Prediction Rule MSIG – 1 Cold War slide rule

The MSIG – 1  Multi-sigma slide rule was produced by the US Defense Nuclear Agency to assist military planners in calculating the probability of damage resulting from a nuclear detonation.

DNA MSIG-1 Multi-Sigma Damage Prediction Rule 2

The rule is 8″ [205 mm] in diameter and  produced by Perrygraf. It was designed by the DNA and is dated April 1987. This rule is very collectable but the hardest to find of all the DNA slide rules. The one shown was never issued and is in mint condition.

DNA MSIG-1 Multi-Sigma Damage Prediction Rule 3

DNA MSIG-1 Multi-Sigma Damage Prediction Rule 4

The MSIG -1 was the last slide rule to be produced by the DNA. After that they only supplied software for use on desktop and hand held machines. A list of the slide rule and software can be found in this post.

The complete package as issued consisted of a binder, hard cover, documentation, slide rule and two floppy disks.

DNA MSIG-1 Multi-Sigma Damage Prediction Rule 1

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The Defense Nuclear Agency’s Cold War calculators

The Defense Nuclear Agency was an offspring of the Manhattan Project and is now part of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. In its various guises it had many responsibilities connected with America’s nuclear weapons programmes.

In the 1980s and 1990s it produced a series of calculators to help the military plan its nuclear attacks on targets in the USSR and other countries. The US had a list of target Vulnerability Numbers [see this post].  Planners could use these numbers and the DNA calculators to decide whether  a bomber, a submarine launched missile or a ground launched missile be used against a target [they had different levels of accuracy] to achieve a specified level of damage and probability of success.

Vulnerability Numbers 1The first calculators were circular slide rules, designed by the DNA and produced by Perrygraf. These rules are now both very collectable and very rare. A list of these rules is below.

Defense Nuclear Agency Cold War slide rules and software 4This blog has posts on all these. The list is incomplete because the DNA produced a Damage Prediction Rule VN – 1 in 1982 [see this post].

As soon as a introduction of the IBM PC created a technical standard for personal computers the DNA began producing nuclear targeting software programs.  Some of the DNA’ss programs duplicated the functionality of the above slides rules. The Multi-sigma Damage Prediction Rule was produced as both a physical slide rule and as  software programs for hand held and desktop machines.  Programs for a long list of other targeting functions were added to the DNA catalogue.

Defense Nuclear Agency Cold War slide rules and software 2

Defense Nuclear Agency Cold War slide rules and software 3

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