Mini-Stories: Volume 8

PO Box 1663 by Delaney Hall

In the early 1940s, the town now known as Los Alamos, NM was selected as the site for a top-secret atomic weapons lab.  The area was remote and there was an old boys’ school there that could be repurposed into living quarters for the physicists, explosives experts, and military personnel who would go on to develop the first nuclear bomb. 

Los Alamos Tech Area circa 1945.

Establishing a new, top-secret laboratory in the middle of nowhere was a logistical challenge. Not only did the government need to build a small town, they needed to import particle accelerators, a cyclotron, and all the other high-tech equipment necessary for bomb-building. They had to recruit not just dozens of scientists, but also machinists, glass-blowers, engineers, and other technicians. They had to get all this equipment — and all these people — to the top of a steep mesa about 30 miles northwest of Santa Fe, accessible only by a small road that climbed up to the top of the mesa. 

The site of this new laboratory was, at the time, one of the country’s most closely guarded military secrets and there were various ways that government officials maintained the secrecy of the isolated plateau. The town wasn’t listed on any map, and the people who went to live and work there weren’t allowed to tell friends or family members what their work involved.

Scientists referred to Los Alamos as “The Hill.” Military members called it “Project Y.” And just two post office boxes — PO Box 1663 for civilians and PO Box 1539 for the military, both in Santa Fe, NM — served the entire town.


Many of the people who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos were young. “The average age was 29,” says Alan Carr, the senior historian at LANL. “There were a lot of young single people here. There were a lot of young couples.” And as it turned out, having so many young people working on the project presented some unexpected security challenges. For one thing, quite a few people ended up having children while living in Los Alamos — a place that wasn’t even supposed to officially exist.

“All of a sudden you went from a locale in New Mexico where no children were ever born — hardly at all — to eight births a month. That looks awfully suspicious if you’re doing the paperwork down in Santa Fe. Why are all these kids being born in Los Alamos?!” says Carr.

So in an effort to maintain secrecy, babies didn’t have “Los Alamos” named on their birth certificates. Instead, their place of birth was listed as “PO Box 1663.” Carr estimates that 100 to 150 children were born at the PO Box.

  1. Susan Nace

    RE: Concert Pitch by Sean Real

    RE: Concert Pitch now
    Orchestra directors are still playing with concert pitch. Not certain, but I heard San Francisco is A=441, many are at 442, and Von Karajan pushed his orchestras as high A=452.

    RE: Temperament – A great area to explore
    Great book about temperaments, which is even more fascinating than tuning pitches, is Temperament by Stuart Isacoff. There were huge arguments over it and J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” was a theoretical work (although it is a series of 48 Preludes and Fugues in every key) because equal temperament was a controversial idea in Bach’s day. There are several different temperament systems and several are used now. Choirs and Instruments use either just or a combination of just and Pythagorean tuning. Ragnar Bohlin with the SF Symphony Chorus is all about tunings and his choirs (generally toward the end of the season) show it!

    Finally, glad you posted Vivaldi in A=415 Youtube
    Historically Informed Performance (HIP) has been around for a long time in the 20th/21st centuries and Early Music musicians are all over the tuning, techniques, and using instruments of the period (or facsimilies) Andrew Parrott’s groups do original tuning. I had the opportunity of hearing Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” with period instruments and lowered tuning. I am not a Mozart afficionado, but with period instruments and lowered tuning ,I fell in love with Mozart. It was a completely different experience! The San Francisco Early Music Society can link you up with performers and scholars!

    Cheers! Keep exploring: Music has a lot of “invisibleness” by design!

  2. On the Dutch bond value: A Dutch guilder (‘Gulden’ in Dutch) is valued in 100 ‘cent’. And a ‘stuiver’ is simply 5 cent! In the report is was mentioned that a guilder is „20 stuivers“, 20 times 5 cent equals 100 cent, which gives one guilder.
    This has been the case until the introduction of the Euro also in Holland.

    1. Stephane Famelaer

      So 1 stuiver was almost the same as one Belgian Frank. Interesting 🤔 never knew this!

  3. Charles Wu

    The concert pitch story is totally missing any mention of the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) movement in classical music which aims to play classical music as the original composers had heard it, on historically-accurate instruments and using historical tuning (usually around A=415). Even a layperson can hear the differences in tuning and style:

    Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony played by the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Frans Bruggen on period instruments and tuning:

    The same piece played by the Vienna Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein on modern instruments and tuning:

    There are at least a dozen world-class period orchestras who specialize in historical performance (see, the best-known of which are the Academy of Ancient Music, Concentus Musicus Wien, the English Concert, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Orchestra of the 18th Century.

    There’s also a number of soloists who similarly play on period equipment (Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze are the most famous violinists). For piano pieces, Robert Levin has recorded most of Mozart’s best known piano concertos on period-accurate fortepiano instruments. This just scratches the surface, and would make a great 99PI story.

    So you don’t need computer modification to hear period-accurate tuning, you just need to fire up Youtube or Spotify and listen to some great musicians who are keeping old music alive today.

  4. Tim Harris

    Not precisely bearer bonds but, to this day, the design of English bank notes includes a printed promise from the Bank, such as “I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds”. I have always been curious what the Bank of England would give me if I arrive and ask them to make good on this.

  5. Sheryl

    On concert pitch, being obsessed with Bach at one point I was well aware of baroque music ensembles that tune their instruments to the appropriate historical tuning. I also was looking this up and found that contemporary musicians like Jimi Hendrix and U2 tune down a semitone for greater resonance. When I tune my violin by ear I always end up about a semitone flat from A440. I wonder if that is a somewhat “unnatural” tuning to my ear?
    Something else to explore: Temper. Around Bach’s time there were many ways to tune a piano/ klavier. Not just in terms of the central pitch but how far each tone is space from the others. Perfectly “even” temper (equal spacing of tones) ends up sounding out of tune to our ears. So thus Bach’s “well tempered Clavier”. I’m far from an expert, but I think there is a whole show’s worth of stuff to explore w/r/t tuning and pitch!

  6. Jim Crigler

    Parts of Richard Feynman’s memoir, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” talk about life at Los Alamos during the war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize