William Shurcliff’s “Fission Vocabulary”

by Alex Wellerstein, published November 23rd, 2011

The discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 foisted a number of vitally important scientific, political, and ethical questions on the world. Less vitally, it also raised a number of linguistic questions. How does one express the act of "fission" in the future tense? "Can be made to undergo fission"? What a mouthful.

On the case was one of my favorite characters of the Manhattan Project, William A. Shurcliff, who pops up all over the place in the archival record of the atomic bomb, despite being obscure even to scholars of the bomb.

A painting of William A. Shurcliff from 1948 by his father-in-law, the American artist Charles Hopkinson.

Shurcliff was a physicist with three Harvard degree (B.A., Ph.D., business admin.) who worked across the hall from Vannevar Bush at the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was involved in the OSRD's Liaison Office (shuffling reports from one division of the OSRD to another), worked as a patent censor for the Manhattan Project,1 was an assistant to Richard Tolman (who was himself an assistant to General Groves), was a copyeditor of the Smyth Report,2 and in 1946 he would be the "official historian" for the Operations Crossroads tests, of all things. So he's all over the place, but always just on the periphery.

What really distinguished Shurcliff, though, was his propensity to write lots of little, unsolicited memos to Bush and Tolman on ideas that came to mind. These included speculations on the future uses of atomic energy, his analysis of arguments for and against secrecy, and, to bring it around again, a suggested "fission vocabulary" for the atomic age.3

Click the image to view the full PDF.

"It is obvious," he wrote to Tolman in November 1944, "that sooner or later a vocabulary must be worked out for concepts pertaining to 'fission.' Some suggestions are made below. By using the words suggested — or equivalent words — embarrassments, apologetic quotation marks, and cumbersome circumlocutions may be avoided."

Shurcliff correctly takes the pronunciation of "fission" to rhyme with "fishin'," and not "fizz-shion," as one sometimes hears it. He then conjugates it out ("25" being Manhattan Project code for uranium-235):

Transitive verb:

      I fish 25.
      He fishes 25.
      He is fishing 25.
      He has fished 25.
      25 has been fished.

Intransitive verb

      25 fishes readily.
      Yesterday 1 gram of 25 fished.

Noun: (for the process)

      Fission is important.

Noun: (for the material)

      25 is a well-known fishant.


      25 is fishable.

And so on — click the document to read the full thing (it's not very long). Note that it is classified "Secret," just because it is concerned with the importance of fission. It is darkly amusing to imagine that one could have been executed under the Espionage Act for transmitting this to enemy powers.

There's an obvious Dr. Seussian quality about this, but it's unlikely that Shurcliff was joking. This is just the sort of thing he would have appointed himself to puzzle over, write out methodically, and forward on to his superiors. It's what makes Shurcliff a joy to find in the archives, and also is an interesting form of intellectual independence.

It's not clear that Shurcliff's many memos had any great impact on atomic policy, but there is documentary evidence that Bush and Tolman read them, thought about them, and often forwarded them on to others. At one point, Bush forwarded one to  to James B. Conant with the note that Shurcliff was "a  thoughtful individual." Pretty high praise from Vannevar Bush.

William Shurcliff passed away in 2006. I spoke to him once on the phone very briefly before then, but his hearing was not very good and we communicated very little. I've since had the opportunity to become friends with one of his sons, Arthur, who lives in Somerville, spends his time working with the homeless in Cambridge, and enjoys talking about nuclear history.

  1. For more on Shurcliff's patent work, see my articles on the subject: the long article (the section on "Fear of the Lone Inventor") or the short article (almost entirely about Shurcliff's work). []
  2. Smyth, he later wrote, "seemed not to have heard of topic sentences." []
  3. Citation: William A. Shurcliff to Richard C. Tolman, "'Fission' vocabulary," (29 November 1944), in Manhattan Engineer District records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, Record Group 77, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Box 88, "Shurcliff, W." []

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One Response to “William Shurcliff’s “Fission Vocabulary””

  1. […] A. Shurcliff is one of my favorite Manhattan Project dramatis personae. I’ve written about him before on here, some time back. In a nutshell, Shurcliff was a physicist who worked as a technical advisor to […]