How Did the Atomic Bomb Get Built?

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Originally published 7-8-02

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

Awestruck, the physicists watched what they had wrought. The date, 16 July 1945 at sunrise, when the sun came down to earth--the first atomic bomb blast imploded from"The Gadget" atop the one-hundred foot high tower. The site, a place called Trinity on desert sands, not far from Alamogordo, New Mexico, where this blue Earth's Atom Age began. It would end World War Two, so devastating a conflict that it should be known as Armageddon.

No wonder the scientists of Los Alamos, who had been secluded there under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer could scarcely believe their senses. For what they were witnessing had never been seen before--at least not on planet earth. Beginning with the blinding flash (at least without protective welder's goggles), the unfolding in only seconds into a cloud with power (and with an intense heat--hotter, in fact, than that at the depth of the sun), which had vaporized the tower and turned the sand at its base and roundabout to glass, known to this day as the"pearls of Trinity," it soon became an enormous mushroom-shaped inferno, reaching a height of 35,000 feet--a mile in diameter. The whole brought to the stunned mind of Oppenheimer a few words from the Bhagavad-Gita, the great Hindu scripture, wherein Vishnu says:"I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Indeed the next two atomic bomb detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the main island of Japan, August 6 and 9, 1945, did bring death and the destruction of one world at least--the Japanese Imperial Empire under Hirohito. For both cities were practically leveled with hundreds of thousands of the unsuspecting populations perishing. At Hiroshima, with only the Enola Gay (and, if memory serves me correctly), but one other B-29 in the sky above, no one below had bothered to seek shelter when the alarm sounded. Much the same thing happened three days later at Nagasaki. And, it certainly must be added--a lingering death awaited many others from radiation sickness against which there was at the time little or no effective treatment. So that within five years of the blast above Hiroshima the death toll had reached 200,000.

Worth remembering to this day though, and for the future, the atomic bomb, terrible weapon though it was, did finally conclude the six years (1939-1945) of World War Two--to be recognized by all as the most horrendous half-dozen years in mankind's history, which included the Holocaust against the Jewish people, nothing like the sum total of which must ever be allowed to happen again. And, one should never forget either, the Germans made an unsuccessful effort to develop the atomic bomb before the Allies. A talented group of scientists under the guidance of the brilliant physicist Werner Heisenberg had been gathered together for the purpose.

Imagine, if you will, the fate of the world if the Third Reich, under the megalomaniac Adolf Hitler, not to mention the likes of Heinrich Himmler, head of the infamous S. S., had acquired nuclear weapons before us? The thought alone is enough to"shiver" the spine. But, mercifully for all humanity, that thought never became"father to the deed." For, after the Germans surrendered unconditionally on 8 May 1945, the Japanese followed suit the same year, in Tokyo Bay, aboard the wide deck of the greatest battleship ever built, the U. S. S. Missouri, affectionately called the"Mighty Mo," not long since anchored as a war memorial in the now peaceful waters of Pearl Harbor.

With what we know from hindsight, the German effort to perfect an atom bomb was doomed to failure. Early in World War Two, however, the situation looked grave indeed. For instance, the Germans had access to the uranium mines of Czechoslovakia. Besides, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman of Berlin, based upon the previous researches of the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, discovered that uranium atoms could be split to form pairs of other elements. This experiment by the two men in 1939 (ominously in the very year opening World War Two) recorded a huge release of energy.

Well aware of the work of Hahn and Strassman, Albert Einstein delivered a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt on 11 October 1939 in which he expressed to the President, not only his concern and that of several other renowned scientists at the threat posed by German physicists, but also urged Roosevelt to initiate a concerted effort to build an atom bomb in the United States.

To begin such a program the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) took shape in June 1940, chaired by Vannevar Bush, succeeded the next year by James B. Conant of Harvard University. Then, toward the end of 1940, the new fissionable material plutonium was discovered. It became the element, which could be produced in quantity, crucial for building an atomic bomb. Plutonium, it should be added, supplied the force (energy) to set off the core of"The Gadget," as the scientists of Los Alamos dubbed the bomb, by implosion, not an explosion.

After about two years of study by the NDRC, the Manhattan Project, with Major General Leslie R. Groves, soon at the helm, began operations. To construct the bomb a number of eminent physicists were assembled at the University of Chicago, among them Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi, the latter, by the way, the man, known to his colleagues as the"Italian Navigator," who engineered (beneath the football stands of Stagg field on campus), the first man-made nuclear reaction. That was on 2 December 1942.

By March 1943 a plutonium plant, designated the Hanford Engineering Works, in the state of Washington, commenced to build a huge reactor. After its initial failure--it had begun to malfunction following soon upon its start-up on 27 September 1944--the highly ingenious Fermi found the trouble, whereupon the yield of plutonium resumed apace on 25 December 1944.

Almost two years previously, the Los Alamos (New Mexico) Laboratory came into being, where scientists, some of whom had been recruited from the group at the University of Chicago, began to gather. Others, new to the Manhattan Project, joined the research team, however. One of them, a true"giant" with a mind almost, if not as great in intellect as that of Einstein himself, was the Danish native Niels Bohr.

To suggest the power of Bohr's brain, let me give an anecdote. When he was flown from Denmark by the British, who had feared for his life, if not for his possible coercion to the cause of constructing an atomic bomb in Germany, the man's huge cranium had posed an insoluble problem. On that historic flight from Denmark to England no one on the airplane could fit an oxygen mask over Bohr's capacious head! Therefore, he passed out en route, but fortunately without any serious harm.

Once at Los Alamos, Bohr and all the other physicists there, along with numerous military personnel, worked under the tightest security and secrecy to solve a number of thorny problems, particularly the vital one of how to bring the uranium in the bomb to what was known as a" critical mass," along with the other components, in no more than a few millionths of a second. For, if that could not be done, the bomb, it might be said, would turn out to be nothing but a"dud."

As the world was soon to discover, however, the atomic bomb proved to be anything but a"dud." Elated though those physicists were at their complete success on 16 July 1945, many, if not all of them, soon had troubled minds, or at least feelings of uneasiness, regarding what they had brought into being, especially if the power of the atom were to be unleashed in warfare again.

Those scientists had justifiable reasons to be so alarmed. For they knew better than any other people on earth the potential for destruction, both in lives and property, not to mention the threat to ecosystems worldwide, if such weapons as atomic bombs were ever set off in quantity. By way of proof, take the rough measurement performed by Fermi shortly after the bomb blast at Trinity. Intent on a simple experiment, he was oblivious of the attendant shock wave. Having taken bits of torn paper from his pockets, he released them into the air, agitated by the force of the generated wind. Once sufficient time had elapsed (only a matter of seconds), he stepped off the distance the scraps of paper had reached from where he had but moments before scattered them. From that measurement he inferred the atomic blast (the first in human history) was equal in force to the explosion of 20,000 tons of TNT.

Certainly that was a power to be reckoned with, but with the subsequent development of much more sophisticated nuclear weapons, including the hydrogen bomb (first detonated in 1952), the initial atomic bomb, triggered in July 1945, amounted to only a"firecracker" by way of comparison. Let me make that abundantly clear with but one fact. Within a decade or so, nuclear weapons were being made for the most part in the megaton range. Now, a megaton, unlike the kiloton for measuring the power of the first atomic bomb imploded in New Mexico, equals instead of 1,000 tons of TNT, a million tons of TNT equivalent! No wonder then physicists, along with scores of other thoughtful people, saw the urgent and growing need to limit, even ban nuclear testing, in the atmosphere, if not yet underground. And, it goes almost without saying, never again resort to such weapons of mass destruction in the wars of the future.

To conclude, it should be of interest to the reader to find out, how the test site near Alamogordo received its name. It happened this way. The scientist in charge over the bomb-site area itself was Kenneth T. Bainbridge. Roughly a year before the bomb was set off, Bainbridge in a telephone call with Oppenheimer told the latter he was to come up with a code name for the site. At the very moment of that phone conversation, the director of the Los Alamos facility had been reading a Holy Sonnet by John Donne with the opening lines:"Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for, you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend . . ." So, after a little musing, Oppenheimer said to himself, the test site would go into history as"Trinity," after God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Bibliographical Note:

To begin a study of the atomic bomb, imploded first on 16 July 1945, one could do no better than read Lansing Lamont's Day of Trinity (New York: Atheneum, 1965). Don't fail either to view the marvelous photographs (six in number on p. 176f) beginning with the first one, taken at 5:29:45 A. M. (the first microsecond of the blast) through the ninth second. Next the researcher might well consult Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), a mammoth study! For a much briefer, but still highly informative account, turn to chapter 18,"Atomic Energy, Government Research, Nuclear Fusion," (pp. 289-92), of Herbert W. Meyer's A History of Electricity and Magnetism (Norwalk, Connecticut: Brundy Library, 1972). Finally, for the Nazi side, be sure to use Thomas Powers' Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993). If at all possible, put that book in overall perspective by first reading the review of it by Robert C. Williams, Davidson College (North Carolina), in The Journal of American History 80 (March 1994):1521-22.

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More Comments:

Mark J. Akers - 11/30/2003

Sir - I have known Phil Monk for about 23 years. Phil can find humor in almost anything. With respect to you sir, Phil's motto
stands quick in the minds of many and I offer it to you to mull over: Humor is a lubricant that keeps friction to a fraction of its fruition. This is "eclat to the nth degree".

We have discussed his comment to you. His take on the Trinity
Blast and fore-ordered research conjurs up the idea of "black"
magic and voodoo to him. Nuclear winters and Mutually Assured
Destruction and "cold"wars" are not assets to amity, they are
devices of fear and fear is the first enemy of anyone trying to acquire knowledge.

In closing Dr.Monk would like me to convey to you his apologies if he has offended you.

Mark J. Akers
Probatory Adjutant
Quid Pro Quo Research & Analysis

emily hannan - 6/10/2003

could you try to write info (informatoin)for younger kids

Keith Miller - 3/9/2003

Dear Mr. Monk, It has been and still would be my major purpose to offer essays with replies, and even more so, "helps" to young readers on American history--"no axes to grind, please!" What serious point are you making with Moogli, Boogli. Don't have a "clue" regarding a measured, intelligently-directed response. Would suggest you read from in some detail and/or depth Victor F. Weisskofp's The Privilege of Being a Physicist and from The Centenary Volume, published by Harvard University in 1985--the centennial year for death and the volume dedicated to life and ideas of Danish physicist Neils Bohr, a leading thinker on quantum mechanics and with Weisskopf, a highly devoted opponent to further uses of nuclear weapons and their proliferation. Could you try again with something less cryptic? Mr. Miller here!

Philonious Ambrose Monk - 2/20/2003

Great Moogli Boogli !