Colorado's real-life 'Barbenheimer' ties, from the creator of the Barbie doll to Manhattan Project uranium

Both the fictional bright-pink dreamland and the moody wartime biopic have origins in Colorado.
Posted: 9:40 AM, Jul 21, 2023
Updated: 2023-07-24 08:11:29-04

It’s a mega-weekend at the movies, with the expected blockbusters ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ hitting theaters. And while moviegoers choose between the fictional bright pink dreamland and the moody wartime biopic, both films have their basis in history - and connections to Colorado.

The inventor of the Barbie doll was born in Denver.

Uranium used in the Manhattan Project was mined in Colorado.

Barbie’s ‘mom’ born a mile high

Ruth Handler, who came up with the idea for the blonde-haired doll that would become an American icon, was born Ruth Mosko in Denver in 1916.

“It’s a pretty big deal, I think, where you’re born. And she stayed there until she was about 20 when she got married,” author Robin Gerber said. “And she met the love of her life at a Jewish dance in Denver.”

Gerber wrote the book ‘Barbie & Ruth’ all about the iconic toy’s creator. She described seeing her daughter play with paper dolls, and coming up with the idea of a grown woman toy for little girls. The doll was named Barbie after her daughter, Barbara.

And while Barbie was technically ‘born’ in California, had Handler stayed in her hometown, Gerber joked that it’s possible the Barbie dream house would’ve been more of a mountain house.

“Certainly there’s that great western Colorado influence,” she said. “Daring to do something different and special and individualistic.”

This combination of images shows Margot Robbie in a scene from "Barbie," left, and Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer." (Warner Bros Pictures/Universal Pictures via AP)

Oppenheimer’s main material mined here

Though lesser known and even less celebrated, Colorado has quite the nuclear past. That includes providing a good amount of radioactive material to Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project.

“A lot of folks are surprised to find out that about 14% of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project came from the Colorado Plateau,” western Colorado historian Zebulon Miracle explained.

That includes places like Grand Junction, Gateway, and a small town called Uravan in western Montrose County. That town, along the San Miguel River, was originally started to mine Vanadium, which strengthened steel. But another element was also found in the area which became of greater importance to war efforts: uranium.

After World War II, the market for uranium crashed and the town was eventually abandoned. It was designated a superfund site in the 1980’s, and now ceases to exist.

“It was completely cleaned out. All the buildings are gone today. most of the soil is gone today,” Miracle explained. “For the most part this entire community was wiped off the map.”

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Bill Coors may have 'saved' the Manhattan Project

William Coors, the grandson of the famous Golden brewery founder Adolph Coors and a longtime Coors executive himself, is credited by the Department of Energy's Office of Legacy Management for his contribution to the Manhattan Project.

Coors played a "historic role in providing critical insulators to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan Engineer District (also known as the Manhattan Project) during World War II," according to the office's website.

As the story goes, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, which was built as part of the Manhattan Project, was in need of ceramic insulators for its work in electromagnetic separation of uranium for use in atomic weapons.

Some may not know that the Coors family invested in, and later assumed control of, a pottery company that became Coors Porcelain Company during Prohibition.

Coors Porcelain Company, which also operated out of Golden and today is known as CoorsTek, had the expertise to build high-quality insulators capable of handling the electricity involved in the work being done at the Y-12 plant. So, Y-12 operators reached out to Coors for help.

"Although Mr. Coors had no idea what his insulators were being used for, they arguably saved the Y-12 project from failure," according to the Office of Legacy Management.

That office presented Coors with the Energy Secretary’s Appreciation Award in 2016 for his contribution to the nuclear project.

'Barbenheimer' has unique Colorado origins