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70 years ago: Vannevar Bush worries about French Patents

Monday, March 5th, 2012

This Week in Nuclear History: Vannevar Bush worries about French Patents.

On March 7, 1942, Vannevar Bush — the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development — wrote an unusual letter to Conway Coe, the US Commissioner of Patents. Bush, who was essentially in charge of the nascent US atomic research program at that point, was sending up a plea for assistance in a matter of some delicacy:

Dear Commissioner:

When you find a moment, I would like to talk to you about patents in a special field of some difficulty. There is a particular point in connection with the applications by Joliot and Halbane, Serial Nos. 328160 and 328372. I thought you might care to note what the status of these is before we get together, and I will be available to discuss the subject any time that we can arrange. There is a matter of general policy of some difficulty involved on which I certainly need your guidance.

Cordially yours,
V. Bush

The "special field of some difficulty" was, of course, nuclear fission. "Joliot and Halbane" were Frédéric Joliot and Hans von Halban (whose name Bush, or his stenographer, misspelled), nuclear physicists working out of the Collège de France in Paris, part of the same team that had broken Leo Szilard's self-censorship ring and published on the ability of uranium to sustain a chain reaction in 1939.

 

The troublesome French physicists of the College de France team: Lew Kowarski, Joliot, and Halban.

The patent applications in question are for none other than the nuclear reactor. Neither were ever granted in the United States — a point we'll come back to. But they were later granted abroad, so we can see what they said with some ease.

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