The weapon was developed by the Manhattan Project during World War II. It derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium 235. The Hiroshima bombing was the second artificial nuclear explosion in history (the first was the "Trinity" test), and it was the first uranium-based detonation. Approximately 600 milligrams of mass were converted into energy. It exploded with a destructive power equivalent to between 13 and 18 kilotons of TNT (estimates vary) and killed approximately 140,000 people. It was also never tested at the Trinity test site (unlike Fat Man), due to the fact that uranium was very rare at the time, and the US didn't want to waste uranium.
The Mk I "Little Boy" was 10 feet (3.0 m) in length, 28 inches (71 cm) in diameter and weighed 8,900 lb (4 000 kg). The design used the gun method to explosively force a hollow sub-critical mass of uranium-235 and a solid target spike together into a super-critical mass, initiating a nuclear chain reaction. This was accomplished by shooting one piece of the uranium onto the other by means of chemical explosives. It contained 64 kg of uranium, of which 0.7 kg underwent nuclear fission, and of this mass only 0.6 g was transformed into energy.
No full test of a gun-type nuclear weapon had occurred before the "Little Boy" device was dropped over Hiroshima. The only test explosion of a nuclear weapon had been of an implosion-type weapon using plutonium as its fissionable material, on July 16, 1945 at the Trinity test. There were several reasons for not testing the "Little Boy" device. Primarily, scarcity of uranium-235 compared with the relatively large amount of plutonium which, it was expected, could be produced by the Hanford reactors. Additionally, the weapon design was simple enough that it was only deemed necessary to do laboratory tests with the gun-type assembly (known during the war as "tickling the dragon's tail"). Unlike the implosion design, which required sophisticated coordination of shaped explosive charges, the gun-type design was considered almost certain to work.
Although occasionally used in later experimental devices, the design was only used once as a weapon because of the danger of accidental detonation. Little Boy's design was unsafe when compared to modern nuclear weapons, which incorporate safety features to endure various accident scenarios. The main objective of Little Boy was to create a weapon that was absolutely guaranteed to work. As a result, Little Boy incorporated only basic safety mechanisms, so an accidental detonation could easily occur during one or more of the following scenarios:
None of the other five Mark I bombs built on the model of Little Boy was used by the U.S. Army.
According to the website Nuclear Weapon Archive, inside the weapon, the uranium-235 material was divided into two parts, following the gun principle: the "projectile" and the "target". The projectile was a hollow cylinder with 60% of the total mass (38.5 kg). It consisted of a stack of 9 uranium rings, each in diameter with a 4-inch-diameter hole in the center, pressed together into a thin-walled canister long. At detonation, it was pushed down a short smooth-bore gun barrel by a tungsten carbide and steel plug. The target was a 4-inch-diameter solid spike, 7 inches long, with 40% of the total mass (25.6 kg). Composed of a stack of 6 washer-like uranium rings somewhat thicker than the projectile rings, it was secured by a 1-inch-diameter bolt through the rings, that protruded out the front of the bomb casing.
When the projectile and plug reached the target, the assembled super-critical mass of uranium would be completely surrounded by a tamper and neutron reflector of tungsten carbide and steel. Neutron generators at the base of the spike would be activated by the impact.
Critical mass considerations dictated that in Little Boy the larger, hollow piece would be the projectile. For the assembled fissile core to have more than two critical masses of U-235, one of the two pieces would need to have more than one critical mass, and to avoid criticality by means of shape. A hole in the center increased the surface area, allowing more fission neutrons to escape and not cause more fission.
It was also important for the larger piece to have minimal contact with the neutron-reflecting tungsten carbide tamper until detonation. As the projectile, only its back end would be in contact with tungsten carbide (see drawing above). The rest of the tungsten carbide surrounded the target spike (called the "insert" by designers) with air space between it and the insert. This packs the maximum amount of fissile material into a gun-assembly design.
Comparing this yield to the observed damage produced a rule of thumb called the 5 psi lethal area rule. The number of prompt fatalities will approximately equal the number of people inside the lethal area.
The damage came from three main effects: blast, fire, and radiation.
At Hiroshima, severe structural damage to buildings extended about from ground zero, making a circle of destruction in diameter. There was little or no structural damage outside of this circle. At one mile, the force of the blast wave was 5 psi, with enough duration to implode houses and reduce them to kindling.
Later test explosions of nuclear weapons with houses and other test structures nearby confirmed that is an important threshold. Ordinary urban buildings experiencing it will be crushed, toppled, or gutted by the force of air pressure. The picture at right shows the effects of a nuclear-bomb-generated 5 psi pressure wave on a test structure in Nevada in 1953.
The most important effect of this kind of structural damage was that it created fuel for a firestorm. For this reason, the 5 psi contour defines the lethal area for blast and fire.
Some of the fires started by the fireball's heat were probably blown out by the blast wave. The blast wave would have started additional fires through overturned stoves, wrecked vehicles, electrical shorts, etc. These numerous small fires merged into a single firestorm which consumed everything inside the 5 psi lethal area.
The Hiroshima firestorm was thus two miles (3 km) in diameter, corresponding closely to the severe blast damage zone. (See the USSBS map, right.) Blast-damaged buildings provided fuel for the fire. Structural lumber and furniture were splintered and scattered about. Debris-choked roads obstructed fire fighters. Broken gas pipes fueled the fire, and broken water pipes rendered hydrants useless.
As the map shows, the firestorm jumped natural firebreaks (river channels), as well as prepared firebreaks. The spread of fire stopped only when it reached the edge of the blast-damaged area, encountering less available fuel.
Accurate casualty figures are impossible to determine, because many victims were cremated by the firestorm. For the same reason, the portion of firestorm victims who survived the blast and died of fire can never be known. Casualty figures are based on population estimates inside the lethal area when the bomb detonated.
However, intense neutron and gamma radiation came directly from the fireball. Most people close enough to receive lethal doses of direct radiation died in the firestorm before their radiation injuries would have become apparent. Survivors on the edge of the lethal area and beyond suffered injuries from radiation, in addition to those caused by blast and fire.
Some temporary survivors died soon afterward due to acute radiation sickness, but most of the radiation effects are evident only statistically, as increases in cancer rates, birth defects, etc., over the lifetimes of the survivors and their descendants.
The "Little Boy" bomb was constructed through the Manhattan Project during World War II. Because enriched uranium was known to be fissionable, it was the first approach to bomb development pursued. The vast majority of the work in constructing "Little Boy" came in the form of the isotope enrichment of the uranium necessary for the weapon. Enrichment at Oak Ridge, Tennessee began in February 1943, after many years of research.
The development of the first prototypes and the experimental work started in early 1943, at the time when the Los Alamos Design Laboratory became operational in the framework of the Manhattan Project. Originally gun-type designs were pursued for both a uranium and plutonium weapon (the "Thin Man" design), but in April 1944 it was discovered that the spontaneous fission rate for plutonium was too great to use in a gun-type weapon. In July 1944, almost all research at Los Alamos was redirected to the implosion plutonium weapon. In contrast, the uranium bomb was almost trivial to design.
With plutonium found unsuitable for the gun-type design, the team working on the gun weapon (led by A. Francis Birch), faced another problem: the bomb was simple, but they lacked the quantity of uranium-235 necessary for its production. Enough fissile material was not going to be available before mid-1945. Despite this, Birch managed to convince others that this concept was worth pursuing, so that in case of a failure of the plutonium bomb, it would still be possible to use the gun principle. In February 1945, the specifications were completed (model 1850). The bomb, except for the uranium payload, was ready at the beginning of May 1945.
Most of the uranium necessary for the production of the bomb came from the Shinkolobwe mine and was made available thanks to the foresight of the CEO of the High Katanga Mining Union, Edgar Sengier, who had 1000 tons of uranium ore transported to a New York warehouse in 1939. A small amount may have come from a captured German submarine, U-234, after the German surrender in May 1945. The majority of the uranium for Little Boy was enriched in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, primarily by means of electromagnetic separation in calutrons and through gaseous diffusion plants, with a small amount contributed by the cyclotrons at Ernest O. Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory. The core of Little Boy contained 64 kg of uranium, of which 50 kg were enriched to 89%, and the remaining 14 kg at 50%. With enrichment averaging 80%, it could reach about 2.5 critical masses. "Fat Man" and the Trinity "gadget", by way of comparison, had five critical masses.
On July 14, 1945 a train left Los Alamos carrying several "bomb units" (the major non-nuclear parts of a gun-type bomb) together with a single completed uranium projectile; the uranium target was still incomplete. The consignment was delivered to the San Francisco Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point in San Francisco, California. There, two hours before the successful test of Little Boy's plutonium-implosion brother at the Trinity test in New Mexico, the bomb units and the projectile were loaded aboard the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis. Indianapolis steamed at record speed to the airbase at Tinian island in the Mariana Islands, delivering them ten days later on the 26th. While returning from this mission Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine, with great loss of life due to delayed rescue. Also on the 26th the three sections of the uranium target assembly were shipped from Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico in three C-54 Skymaster aircraft operated by the 509th Composite Group's Green Hornet squadron . With all the necessary components delivered to Tinian, bomb unit L11 was chosen, and the final Little Boy weapon was assembled and ready by August 1.
Handling the completed Little Boy was particularly dangerous. Once cordite was loaded in the breech, any firing of the explosive would at worst cause a nuclear chain reaction and at best a contamination of the explosion zone. The mere contact of the two uranium masses could have caused an explosion with dire consequences, from a simple "fizzle" explosion to an explosion large enough to destroy Tinian (including the 500 B-29s based there, and their supporting infrastructure and personnel). Water was also a risk, since it could serve as a moderator between the fissile materials and cause a violent dispersal of the nuclear material. The uranium projectile could only be inserted with an apparatus that produced a force of 300,000 newtons (67,000 lbf, over 30 tons). For safety reasons, the weaponeer, Captain William Sterling Parsons, decided to load the bags of cordite only after take-off.
The bomb was armed in flight 31,000ft (9600m) above the city, then dropped at approximately 8:15 a.m. (JST). The detonation happened at an altitude of 1980ft (580m). With a power of 13 to 16 kilotons, it was less powerful than "Fat Man," which was dropped on Nagasaki (21–23 kt). The official yield estimate of "Little Boy" was about 15 kilotons of TNT equivalent in explosive force, i.e. 6.3 × 1013 joules = 63 TJ (terajoules). However, the damage and the number of victims at Hiroshima were much higher, as Hiroshima was on flat terrain, while the hypocenter of Nagasaki lay in a small valley.
According to published US Army figures 66,000 people were killed as a direct result of the Hiroshima blast, and 69,000 were injured to varying degrees.
The U.S. Department of Energy gives this account of the death toll of The bombing of Hiroshima:
"By the end of 1945, because of the lingering effects of radioactive fallout and other after effects, the Hiroshima death toll was probably over 100,000. The five-year death total may have reached or even exceeded 200,000, as cancer and other long-term effects took hold.
The success of the bombing was reported with great enthusiasm in the United States in the days following the attacks. See Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for discussion of contemporary opposition to the bombings, on both moral and military grounds.