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The Black Hole: Los Alamos lab surplus store surprises

If Los Alamos National Laboratory had a garage sale, it would look like the Black Hole, a surplus store full of musty old equipment. Crave's Nerdy New Mexico tries to figure out what all those twiddly knobs are for.

Black Hole
Welcome to the Black Hole, watch your step!
Amanda Kooser/CNET

LOS ALAMOS, N.M.--I got sucked into a black hole and lived to tell the tale. Fortunately for me, the black hole is the Black Hole here in Los Alamos, a sprawling store full of old surplus equipment from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The lab's legacy
The national laboratory was founded during World War II, giving it ample time to pile up a lot of equipment like oscilloscopes, Teletype machines, RadioShack computers, and cryogenic gear.

All that stuff has to go somewhere when it gets replaced by newer machines. For many years, the Black Hole welcomed this detritus with open arms.

The store's founder, Ed Grothus, passed away in 2009. The former laboratory employee and ardent peace activist collected and sold surplus from the lab. A former Piggly Wiggly convenience store was transformed into the Black Hole. It's still open today.

Into the Black Hole
I stepped inside the Black Hole and noticed a smell that could only be described as "rotting electronics." It's a mixture of the scents of oil, degrading cardboard, mold, and surface rust.

Neat-freaks will panic at the sight of the interior of the Black Hole. Massive shelves hold piles of broken computers, boxes full of springs, funky lamps, and hefty glass Dewar flasks. There's a Liquid Scintillation Spectrometer and a Noninvasive Vascular Diagnostic System.

Check out the slideshow above to try your hand at naming some of these surplus items. I could identify equipment like oscilloscopes, but the vast majority of the gear was a mystery to me.

Will the Black Hole collapse?
There are leaks in the ceiling and nothing has a price on it. Prop people from the film industry show up regularly to bargain for gear for made-in-New Mexico movies like "Wild Hogs" and "The Avengers."

Curious visitors arrive to paw through the parts bins and poke at the stenograph machines, but mostly they leave with pictures rather than piles of surplus. A conversation with Black Hole staff and regulars revealed that the current owners are considering selling the large property with its mountain views and pleasant location.

If you happen to be traveling through the northern mountains of New Mexico, you might consider taking a detour to the Black Hole and piecing together your own sense of geeky history from among the stacks of mysterious surplus.

Dewar flasks
Large glass Dewar flasks sit at the back of the Black Hole. Amanda Kooser/CNET