Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan Project’

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How to die at Los Alamos

Friday, February 13th, 2015

The people who ran the Manhattan Project worried about a lot of different things. Usually when we talk about this, it’s a story about the Germans, or the Japanese, or the physics, or other very specific things of that nature. But they also worried about banal things, like occupational safety: reducing the number of people injured, or killed, as part of doing their job.

Around half of the 500,000 or so people employed by the Manhattan Project were employed in construction. As a result, most of the injuries and fatalities associated with making the bomb were of a banal, construction-related variety. Heavy machinery, ditches, collapsing buildings — these were the most dangerous parts of the project for those who made it. Occasionally there were more exotic threats. Criticality accidents took the lives of two scientists in the immediate postwar, as is well known. Concerns about criticality excursions at the plants used to enrich uranium were a non-trivial concern. And there were other, more unusal ways to die, as you would expect from any body of people that large, working over so great an area, especially when they are concentrated in places that were for much of this period constant construction sites, as were Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford.

Exhibit 14 - Fatalities at Los Alamos

“Exhibit 14: FATAL ACCIDENTS: Since the inception of the Project in the Spring of 1943, until September 1946, twenty-four (24) fatal accidents have occurred. The following history of these incidents was taken from hospital records, reports of investigation boards, and the safety division files.”

Some time ago I happened upon a list of all of the fatal accidents that occurred at Los Alamos between its inception in 1943 through September 1946. There were exactly twenty-four, an even two-dozen ways to die while working at an isolated nuclear weapons laboratory. I reprint them here, not only because there is a morbid fascination with this sort of thing, but because I’ve found that this list gives a really remarkable summary of the people of Los Alamos, the hazards of Los Alamos, and the work that goes into making a bomb, which requires much more than star physicists to pull off successfully. Each death was followed by an inquiry.

My summaries are below; the original document (linked to at the end of this post) contains more details on some of them. The copy of the document I have is very hard to read, so I may have gotten a few of the names wrong.

1943
  1. Estevan Roches, bulldozer operator. Crushed by a rock in his tractor while trying to build an access road to Los Alamos, at night. Died February 11, 1943.
  2. George H. Holtary, diesel motor mechanic. Was working on the power plant at Los Alamos, got crushed between a crankshaft and the housing. Died March 1, 1943.
  3. George J. Edwards, a soldier. Fell into a drainage ditch at night after drinking, injuring his back and puncturing his kidneys. Died July 19, 1943.
  4. Jose Montoya, construction laborer. Was digging an acid sewer ditch between “C” and “D” buildings. The 8-foot ditch was not reinforced and it collapsed on him. Died November 2, 1943. Investigation board recommended reinforcing ditches in the future.
  5. Pfc. Frederick Galbraith, military police. Was accidentally shot by another serviceman while sleeping. Another private was cleaning the gun and did not realize there was a live round in the chamber. It caused a severe wound in Galbraith’s thigh. He died of severe shock, November 4, 1943.
  6. Efren Lovato, construction laborer. Lovato was in the back of a dump truck being used to transport laborers to lunch. The truck’s accelerator got stuck and it crashed into a car at the pass gate and overturned, killing Lovato and another laborer, on November 20, 1943. Investigation board recommended increasing the size of the motor pool so the vehicles could be inspected more regularly.
  7. Fridon Virgil, construction laborer. Killed in the same accident as previous.
1944
  1. Fred Wolcott, contractor engaged to clear woods near the site. Attached a bulldozer to a tree and tried to pull it out. The tree snapped and fell on him. Witnesses say he appeared to be “frozen” to the seat of his tractor. Died May 9, 1944.
  2. Elmer R. Bowen, Jr., age 10 and a half. With a friend, was using a canoe from the former Los Alamos Ranch School in the main pond. His canoe capsized; neither him nor his friend could swim, and he drowned on July 1, 1944. He was the son of a maintenance mechanic, one who remained at Los Alamos for several decades after the war, until his retirement. Canoeing prohibited after death.
  3. Ernesto Freques, truck driver. He was standing next to a pile of reinforcing steel, unaware that workers on top were trying to move pieces and having difficulty because the steel was bent. The pile of steel collapsed on him; he was pinned against the truck, his heart lacerated. Died on July 6, 1944.
  4. Horace Russell, Jr., a research chemist, age 26. Fell from a horse while riding it in a canyon near the project. Suffered a serious head injury. Died August 5, 1944. The first of only four scientists on this list.
  5. Pfc. Hugo B. Kivsto, a member of the Provisional Engineer Detachment. Was fatally injured while driving an Army vehicle on a poorly graded surface of dirt road near Santa Cruz, New Mexico. Lost control of the vehicle while rounding a hazardous curve. Tried to jump clear of the truck as it went over the embankment and was pinned under it. Died on December 3, 1944.
 1945
  1. Pvt. Grover C. Atwell, member of Special Engineer Detachment. Assigned to hospital ward duty, died of an overdose of barbiturates taken from the hospital pharmacy. He died on July 21, 1945, but his body was not found until August 22, 1945. The report does not elaborate on why there was such a delay in finding his body. The investigation concluded he was “depressed over his assignment,” no indication of financial or family difficulties. Declared mentally irresponsible for his death, and thus his “death was in the line of duty and not a result of his own misconduct.”
  2. James W. Popplewell, civilian carpenter. Was working inside a building on August 7, 1945, at the same time a caterpillar tractor was pushing dirt over the roof. The roof collapsed and both tractor and dirt crushed Popplewell. Investigation blamed the foreman for not seeing if the building could support the load of the dirt and the tractor; the foreman was recommended for termination. This is a rare case of any liability being found.
  3. Harry Daghlian, physicist, age 24. Criticality accident with the so-called “demon core.” Report notes he “was exposed to too great radiation” on August 21, died on September 15, 1945. The report carries no further information on him and says that Health Physics is still investigating the matter. Second of the four scientists.
  4. Asa Houghton, civilian carpenter. Was going down the hill from project towards Santa Fe in his truck, front wheels locked and caused vehicle to run off the left side of the road, turned 5 or 6 times. Died of internal injuries on September 27, 1945.
1946
  1. Manuel Salazar, janitor. With three friends (also janitors), got extremely drunk on muscatel wine mixed with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). Died from ethylene glycol poisoning on January 29, 1945. Because deaths were not result of duty, descendants received no benefits of compensation.
  2. Alberto Roybal, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  3. Pedro Baca, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  4. Levi W. Cain, civilian blacksmith. Struck by car driven by a military sergeant on site. The sergeant was absolved of blame; the visibility was low, but car was not being driven at an excessive speed. Cain died on February 6, 1946.
  5. Louis Slotin, physicist, age 35. Criticality accident with the same core that killed Daghlian. While making measurements, “was exposed to radiation from radioactive materials” to a fatal degree. Third of the four scientists. Died on May 21, 1946. After Slotin’s death, criticality experiments were effectively put on hold until new safety guidelines could be devised.
  6. Livie R. Aguilar, truck driver for Zia Company. For reasons that were unknown (there were no witnesses or obvious evidence), his truck left the road and turned over into a trench, pinning Aguilard beneath it. He died on July 1, 1946.
  7. Joshua I. Schwartz, a scientist, age 21. With two other scientists (Robert A. Huffhines and William E. Bibbs), he was engaged in an experiment to trace air currents in Omega Canyon. They were instructed to use balloons or other non-flammable equipment for this. Instead, they tried to use smudge pots (smoke bombs). One of the smudge pots exploded, fatally injuring Schwartz, and critically injuring his companions (permanent blindness). Schwartz died on 2 August 1946. The investigation faulted their bosses with inadequate supervision. This resulted in at least one lawsuit over compensation. The fourth of four scientists.
  8. Herbert Schwaner, construction laborer. He was driving a bulldozer up a ramp when one of the treads locked, causing it to topple. He was pinned underneath. He was found five minutes later, by his brother, dead. He died on August 7, 1946.

It’s quite a list. Here is a copy of the original report, if you want more details on any of the above.1

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Construction dominates, but automobiles, recreational mishaps, and scientific experiments make their appearance. As does suicide — one wonders what the report means by “depressed over his assignment” for the soldier at the hospital. The presence of a child reminds us that families lived at this secret laboratory — by the end of the war there were some 1,500 “dependents,” many of them children, living at the project site.

The Hispanic and/or Indian names point towards Los Alamos’ location. On the list of properties near the site that was seized by the Army (via condemnation), there are many Roybals, Montoyas, and Gomezes. In the list of Los Alamos badges, there are many Bacas, Virgils, Montoyas, and a Salazar.2  These are the people who lived there first, often written out of the more popular narratives of scientific triumph.

Even on the question of scientists, I was surprised to find two names I had not seen before: Russell and Schwartz. Both were young. Russell’s death adds a grim pall to all of that footage of scientists riding around in the woods on horses. Schwartz’s death is also a reminder of how much responsibility was thrust onto the young scientists — though frankly, it is maybe surprising that more people did not die this way, given the haste at which they worked and the toxicity, flammability, and radioactivity of the substances they were using.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Both Oak Ridge and Hanford had major industrial and public safety programs during the war. This was not just a matter of responsibility (though there was that), but also because industrial accidents caused lost-time problems. The more accidents, the slower it would be until they had an atomic bomb ready to use. At Oak Ridge and Hanford, they claimed an exceptional occupational safety record — their injury rates were (they claimed) 62% below those of private industry. That still translated into 62 fatalities between 1943 and 1945 at the two sites, and a 3,879 disabling injuries. Given that those sites employed some 500,000 people between them, that means your chance of dying there was about one in ten thousand, while your chance of getting disablingly injured was more around one in a hundred.

Sometimes it takes a raw document like this, something a little off the beaten path to get you out of the well-worn narratives of this history. One knows of the criticality accidents, because they are unusual, and they are famous. But who knew of the child drowning? The janitor’s night out gone wrong? The carpenter crushed by a bulldozer? The accidental shooting of a bunkmate? Out of these little details, grim as they are, a whole social ecosystem falls out. It doesn’t have to supplant the traditional scientific story, which is still an important one. But it augments it, and makes it more human.

Notes
  1. Exhibit 14, “Fatal Accidents,” (ca. late 1946) in Los Alamos Project Y, Book II: Army Organization, Administration, and Operation, copy in Manhattan Project: Official history and documents [microform] (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1977), reel 12. []
  2. Interestingly, I have found no badges in the list that obviously correspond to the people who died, with the exception of Elmer Bowen, Sr., the father of the little boy, and a few people who may be wives or relatives. There is a “Joe Montoya” but this seems like a common name. I wonder if this is because part of the procedure upon death would be to destroy their security passes? Obviously not everyone would have a security pass, but it is a little unusual to have exactly zero hits, including Daghlian, Slotin, Schwartz, and Russell, the scientists. []
Visions

Preserving, and interpreting, the Manhattan Project

Friday, January 30th, 2015

After 10 years of effort, Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation has managed to achieve the seemingly-impossible: she got Congress to agree to preserving several former Manhattan Project sites. I have worked with Cindy in the past and am so extremely proud of her and her organization, and am frankly amazed that she managed to get this through this impossible Congress.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

I completely support this preservation, without reservations. I have seen in various places that there are people who think that preserving these sites might somehow lead to “glorification” of the atomic bombs. I find this an extremely un-compelling objection. The atomic bombs will be glorified, or not, whether you preserve the facilities that produced them. We have preserved far more heinous sites for the historical record, because preservation does not mean endorsement. In fact, preservation often can mean an opportunity to reflect upon the past, warts and all. And razing these sites — which is the other alternative — would not change one bit of their history, or how it is remembered. People who worry about the historical legacy of the atomic bomb should be happy these sites are going to be preserved, because in the future, when we are talking about how they should be contextualized and interpreted, everyone will have a place to put their own vision of these places forward.

To clear one thing up, nobody knows what the “interpretation” — the presentation materials, exhibits, what have you — associated with these sites will look like. That is still a long way down the road. The bill which created these sites, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, signed by President Obama in December, provides no guidance for interpretation, and, non-coincidentally, no funding for it. It merely sets the sites apart, giving the National Park Service the ability to claim custody of them from the Department of Energy. Part of the reason for wanting something like this is evident in the DOE’s destruction of K-25 — the DOE is not really about preservation, and if these sites are not being used by them, they are just as likely to destroy them as anything else.

The relevant section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

The relevant section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

Interpretation funds will presumably come later. A few years ago I participated in an NSF-sponsored workshop related to the interpretation of these sites, in preparation for the possibility of this legislation passing. It was an extremely interesting experience, and I blogged a little about it at the time. My key take-away then was that almost everyone there had fairly similar ideas as to what good interpretation of the Manhattan Project would be — not a mindless glorification, or an equally problematic polemic, but something that would try to contextualize the Manhattan Project both within World War II and the Cold War. This includes both its relationship to the bombing of Japan, and questions about whether it was necessary or not, as well as its environmental and personal legacies.

Obviously this is contested ground. I am hopeful that the NPS will reach out to historians, archivists, museum curators, and other stakeholders (including, but not limited to, veterans) when it develops its interpretation materials. Interpretation of the past in a public context can be incredibly controversial, of course. We all know of the 1995 Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy. Does this have an opportunity to turn out the same way?

At left, the floorplan of the planned Enola Gay exhibition; at right, the actual exhibition that aired: the retreat of the political into the refuge of the technical. From Richard H. Krohn, "History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institute's Enola Gay Exhibition," Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995), 1036-1063.

At left, the floorplan of the planned Enola Gay exhibition; at right, the actual exhibition that aired: the retreat of the political into the refuge of the technical. From Richard H. Krohn, “History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institute’s Enola Gay Exhibition,” Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995), 1036-1063.

It’s not clear to me that it would. For one thing, this isn’t the mid-1990s, with all of its immediate post-Cold-War ambivalences, and its fierce battles over the historical memory of the still-living, mixed with the “Culture Wars” of the time. There are far fewer World War II veterans around than there were then, and the historical scholarship itself is not nearly as polarized around rigid ideological positions as it was then. On the whole, my feeling is that there is an increased willingness to acknowledge the complexities of both American and Japanese actions in the Pacific Theatre. There are ways of talking about this history that doesn’t make it seem like it endorses any particular political position on either World War II or the Cold War. The complexity of the historical events and questions being asked require this kind of complex presentation, if they are taken seriously. Very little in good history boils down to easy ideological stances.

Let’s hope that when it comes to interpretation, the NPS will feel emboldened enough to get a balanced text together, and that our politicians will not show themselves to be so frail and afraid of history as they did during the Enola Gay exhibition. I am personally optimistic — so much has changed since the 1990s, in terms of historical memory of the bomb, and we are getting to that place where enough time has passed that things are not so raw and recent. There is still a “Culture War,” to be sure, though the terms seem a little different than the mid-1990s. But in general, there is, I think, more of a middle-ground between the classic “revisionist” and “orthodox” views on the bomb, and this middle-ground is, I think, less problematic to those on both the left and the right. It will be interesting to see, as a preview, the various “70th anniversary of the bomb” overtures that will be made this summer, and how those resonate culturally. (A colleague of mine recently suggested that frankly the more interesting anniversary will be the 80th one, when there will be exactly zero living veterans still around.)

The Enola Gay today, in a relatively decontextualized display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Via Wikipedia.

The Enola Gay today, in a relatively decontextualized display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Via Wikipedia.

But even if things should get heated, even if old debates over the war and its conduct should bubble up, we should be glad for it. It is better to have a contested site than to have no site at all. We can always argue over the interpretation of the past, and we always will. We should see this as a new an invitation to a discussion, and reasonable people can disagree on key questions and issues, and let us hope that whatever controversies that come from it prove generative. We should keep the experience of the Smithsonian in mind when thinking about the creation of interpretative materials — for example, by making sure that many stakeholders are involved in the planning process, which will lead, at the very least, to fewer surprises down the line.

I look forward to participating in these future discussions. But we can only do that if we preserve the past in the first place, which is what this bill is trying to do. People who object that this bill will just result in the glorification of the past are being short-sighted about its intent and purpose, and making assumptions that, at the moment, are unwarranted. I don’t think there can be any question as to whether preservation is the right move, because the alternative — neglect and destruction — is no alternative at all.

Redactions

General Groves’ secret history

Friday, September 5th, 2014

The first history of the Manhattan Project that was ever published was the famous Smyth Report, which was made public just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. But the heavily-redacted Smyth Report understandably left a lot out, even if it did give a good general overview of the work that had been done to make the bomb. Deep within the secret files of the Manhattan Project, though, was another, classified history of the atomic bomb. This was General Leslie Groves’ Manhattan District History. This wasn’t a history that Groves ever intended to publish — it was an internal record-keeping system for someone who knew that over the course of his life, he (and others) would need to be able to occasionally look up information about the decisions made during the making of the atomic bomb, and that wading through the thousands of miscellaneous papers associated with the project wouldn’t cut it.

Manhattan District History - Book 2 - Vol 5 - cover

Groves’ concern with documentation warms this historian’s heart, but it’s worth noting that he wasn’t making this for posterity. Groves repeatedly emphasized both during the project and afterwards that he was afraid of being challenged after the fact. With the great secrecy of the Manhattan Project, and its “black” budget, high priority rating, and its lack of tolerance for any external interference, came a great responsibility. Groves knew that he had made enemies and was doing controversial things. There was a chance, even if everything worked correctly (and help him if it didn’t!), that all of his actions would land him in front of Congress, repeatedly testifying about whether he made bad decisions, abused public trust, and wasted money. And if he was asked, years later, about the work of one part of the project, how would he know how to answer? Better to have a record of decisions put into one place, should he need to look it up later, and before all of the scientists scattered to the wind in the postwar. He might also have been thinking about the memoir he would someday write: his 1962 book, Now it Can Be Told, clearly leans heavily on his secret history in some places.

Groves didn’t write the thing himself, of course. Despite his reputation for micromanagement, he had his limits. Instead, the overall project was managed by an editor, Gavin Hadden, a civil employee for the Army Corps of Engineers. Individual chapters and sections were written by people who had worked in the various divisions in question. Unlike the Smyth Report, the history chapters were not necessarily written near-contemporaneously with the work — most of the work appears to have been started after the war ended, some parts appear to have not been finished until 1948 or so.

General Groves not amused

In early August 1945 — before the bombs had been dropped — a guide outlining the precise goals and form of the history was finalized. It explained that:

Tho purpose of the history is to serve as a source of historical information for War Department officials and other authorized individuals. Accordingly, the viewpoint of the writer should be that of General Groves and the reader should be considered as a layman without any specialized knowledge of the subject who may be critical of the Department or the project.

Which is remarkably blunt: write as if Groves himself was saying these things (because someday he might!), and write as if the reader is someone looking for something to criticize. Later the guide gives some specific examples on how to spin problematic things, like the chafing effect of secrecy:

For example, the rigid security restrictions of the project in many cases necessitated the adoption of unusual measures in the attainment of a local objective but the maintenance of security has been recognized throughout as an absolute necessity. Consequently, instead of a statement such as, “This work was impeded by the rigid security regulations of the District,” a statement such as, “The necessity of guarding the security of the project required that operations be carried on in — etc.” would be more accurate.1

This was the history that Groves grabbed whenever he did get hauled in front of Congress in the postwar (which happened less than he had feared, but it still happened). This was the history that the Atomic Energy Commission relied upon whenever it needed to find out what its predecessor agencies had done. It was a useful document to have around, because it contains all manner of statistics, technical details, legal details, and references to other documents in the archive.

"Dante's Inferno: A Pocket Mural" by Louis C. Anderson, a rather wonderful and odd drawing of the Calutron process. From Manhattan District History, Book 5, "Electromagnetic Project," Volume 6.

“Dante’s Inferno: A Pocket Mural” by Louis C. Anderson, a rather wonderful and odd drawing of the Calutron process. From Manhattan District History, Book 5, “Electromagnetic Project,” Volume 6.

The Manhattan District History became partially available to the general public in 1977, when a partial version of it was made available on microfilm through the National Archives and University Publications of America as Manhattan Project: Official History and Documents. The Center for Research Libraries has a digital version that you can download if you are part of a university that is affiliated with them (though its quality is sometimes unreadable), and I’ve had a digital copy for a long time now as a result.2 The 1977 microfilm version was missing several important volumes, however, including the entire book on the gaseous diffusion project, a volume on the acquisition of uranium ore, and many technical volumes and chapters about the work done at Los Alamos. All of this was listed as “Restricted” in the guide that accompanied the 1977 version.3

I was talking with Bill Burr of the National Security Archive sometime in early 2013 and it occurred to me that it might be possible to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the rest of these volumes, and that this might be something that his archive would want to do. I helped him put together a request for the missing volumes, which he filed. The Department of Energy got back pretty promptly, telling Bill that they were already beginning to declassify these chapters and would eventually put them online.

Manhattan Project uranium production flow diagram, from book 7, "Feed materials."

Manhattan Project uranium production flow diagram, from Manhattan District History, Book 7, “Feed materials.”

The DOE started to release them in chunks in the summer of 2013, and got the last files up this most recent summer. You can download each of the chapters individually on their website, but their file names are such that they won’t automatically sort in a sensible way in your file system, and they are not full-text searchable. The newly-released files have their issues — a healthy dose of redaction (and one wonders how valuable that still is, all these years — and proliferations — later), and some of the images have been run through a processor that has made them extremely muddy to the point of illegibility (lots of JPEG artifacts). But don’t get me started on that. (The number of corrupted PDFs on the NNSA’s FOIA website is pretty ridiculous for an agency that manages nuclear weapons.) Still, it’s much better than the microfilm, if only because it is rapidly accessible.

But you don’t need to do that. I’ve downloaded them all, run them through a OCR program so they are searchable, and gave them sortable filenames. Why? Because I want people — you — to be able to use these (and I do not trust the government to keep this kind of thing online). They’ve still got loads of deletions, especially in the Los Alamos and diffusion sections, and the pro-Groves bent to things is so heavy-handed it’s hilarious at times. And they are not all necessarily accurate, of course. I have found versions of chapters that were heavily marked up by someone who was close to the matter, who thought there were lots of errors. In the volumes I’ve gone the closest over in my own research (e.g. the “Patents” volume), I definitely found some places that I thought they got it a little wrong. But all of this aside, they are incredibly valuable, important volumes nonetheless, and I keep finding all sorts of unexpected gems in them.

You can download all of the 79 PDF files in one big ZIP archive on Archive.org. WARNING: the ZIP file is 760MB or so. You can also download the individual files below, if you don’t want them all at once.

Statistics on the ages of Los Alamos employees, from Ted Hall (19) to Niels Bohr (59). From Manhattan District History, Book 8.

Statistics on the ages of Los Alamos employees, May 1945, from the young spy, Ted Hall (19), to the old master, Niels Bohr (59). From Manhattan District History, Book 8.

What kinds of gems are hidden in these files? Among other things:

And a lot more. As you can see, I’ve drawn on this history before for blog and Twitter posts — I look through it all the time, because it offers such an interesting view into the Manhattan Project, and one that cuts through a lot of our standard narratives about how it worked. There are books and books worth of fodder in here, spread among some tens of thousands of pages. Who knows what might be hidden in there? Let’s shake things up a bit, and find something strange.


Below is the full file listing, with links to my OCR’d copies, hosted on Archive.org. Again, you can download all of them in one big ZIP file by clicking here, (760 MB) or pick them individually from below. Items marked with an asterisk are, as far as know, wholly new — the others have been available on microfilm in one form or another since 1977. Read the full post »

Notes
  1. E.H. Marsden, “Manhattan District History Preparation Guide,” (1 August 1945), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0727839. []
  2. In fact, I used portions of it — gasp! — on actual microfilm very early on my grad school career, when you still had to do that sort of thing. The volume on the patenting program was extremely useful when I wrote on Manhattan Project patent policies. []
  3. Some of the Los Alamos chapters were later published in redacted form as Project Y: The Los Alamos Story, in 1983. []
Meditations

The luck of Kokura

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

On the morning of August 9th, 1945, a B-29 bomber left the island of Tinian intending to drop an atomic bomb on the city of Kokura, the location of one of the largest arsenals still standing in Japan. On arriving at the target, the plane found it obscured by clouds. It turned south and went to its secondary target: Nagasaki. 

Supposedly, some in Japan still refer to the “luck of Kokura” in reference to this time in which some bad weather saved the lives of tens of thousands of people there. But what really happened that morning? Was it bad weather, or something else, that obscured, and thus saved, Kokura? 

Surprisingly, there are actually a few different theories floating around, and the uncertainty over the matter is generally not realized or acknowledged.

Model of the Kokura arsenal made for targeting purposes, ca. 1945. North is in the lower-right hand corner. Source: USAAF photos, via Fold3.com.

Model of the Kokura arsenal made for targeting purposes, ca. 1945. North is in the lower-right hand corner. Source: USAAF photos, via Fold3.com.

But first, let’s review the basics of the mission. The Kokura/Nagasaki mission (dubbed CENTERBOARD II), as with the Hiroshima mission before it (CENTERBOARD I), did not involve the bomber flying on its lonesome to the target, as is sometimes imagined. There were a total of six planes involved in the mission, all B-29 bombers. One of them was the strike plane that carried the Fat Man implosion bomb (Bockscar).1  Two other planes (The Great Artiste and Big Stink) were instrument and observation planes. One other plane was a “standby” plane (Full House) that was to serve as backup if the three bombing planes ran into air resistance — because they didn’t, it instead flew back to Iwo Jima instead of on to the target after a rendezvous with the bombing plane. Lastly, there were two weather planes that flew out in advance, one to Nagasaki (the Laggin’ Dragon), the other to Kokura (the Enola Gay, the same plane that had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima a few days earlier, but with a different crew). The weather planes would check out bombing conditions and then circle back, helping the bomber plane determine whether the primary or secondary target would be used. Niigata, a third atomic bombing target, was not considered on this mission because of its great geographical distance from Kokura and Nagasaki.

Bockscar was being piloted by Major Charles Sweeney. It had taken off from the island of Tinian at 3:47am, Tinian time. They had arrived at a rendezvous point at Yakushima Island around 9:15am. It rendezvoused with one of the other B-29s (the instrument plane), but did not spot the other one (the photo plane). At 9:50am, the pilot of Bockscar, Charles Sweeney, gave up and continued on to Kokura, having waited some 30 minutes longer than he was supposed to. At 10:44am, they arrived at Kokura. The flight log records that “Target was obscured by heavy ground haze and smoke.” A crew member of Bockscar rated it as “7/10 clouds coverage – Bomb must be dropped visually but I don’t think our chances are very good.”2

Three bombing runs on Kokura were attempted, but “at no time was the aiming point seen,” as the flight log recorded. Visual bombing had been made a mandatory requirement (they did not trust the accuracy of radar-assisted bombing), so this made Kokura a failed mission. Since Bockscar had limited fuel, Sweeney decided to continue on to the secondary target, Nagasaki. They arrived at Nagasaki at 11:50am, which they also found obscured by smoke and clouds, to the degree that they made the target approach entirely by radar. Right at the last possible moment, the clouds parted just enough for the bombardier to site the target and drop the bomb. (It missed the intended target by a significant margin.) Bockscar circled the target once and then, at 12:05pm, took off for Okinawa, and from there, after refueling, Tinian.

Care about the details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings? Get this book.

Care about the details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings? Get John’s book. I’m not just saying that because he says nice things about my blog, either.

An aside: For anyone interested in the nitty-gritty details of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions, my go-to reference these days is John Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Insider Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. I first got a copy of John’s book in 2006 or so. John sent me a new copy a few months ago, and I have been impressed with how much new material he has added over the last 8 years. (And I have managed to find a few useful things for him over the years, which have made it into his book as well — duly credited!) If you’re interested in the history of the Manhattan Project, you can’t not have a copy of John’s book… and if your copy is over 5 years old, considered getting an updated edition! All of these little details about times and planes and whatnot come from John’s book.

So what caused the “heavy ground haze and smoke”?

Theory #1: Bad weather

The most common explanation for the obscuring of Kokura is one of weather. It seems to me to be a valid possibility, but let’s pick it apart a bit.

As noted, the Enola Gay had flown ahead to Kokura to scope out the visual conditions. They had radioed back that the visibility was “3/10 low clouds, no intermediate or high clouds, and forecast of improving conditions.”3 That was a favorable-enough weather report that Kokura, the primary target, was chosen as the first run. Upon arriving, however, Bockscar found the weather conditions were now 7/10 — too obscured to bomb. Is this plausible?

Summer weather patterns in Japan, map made in early 1945. Not great for bombing. Source: Produced for the USAAF's IMPACT magazine, high-res version via Fold3.com.

Summer weather patterns in Japan, map made in early 1945. Not great for bombing. Source: Produced for the USAAF’s IMPACT magazine, high-res version via Fold3.com. There is another wonderful map for winter weather as well.

General Groves, in his 1964 memoir, suggests that it might have been the case that the change in weather conditions was simply a matter of how much time had passed between the forecast and arrival of Bockscar. The strike plane was, as noted, delayed by around half an hour. Groves also implies that there may have been a difference between how visual the target was at an angle — how a bombardier sees it — and how it looks from straight above — how a weather plane sees it). He concludes that the reasons for the haze were “never determined.”4

On the face of it, it’s hard to know whether such a rapid change in visibility is possible through entirely natural causes. In some parts of the world, the weather can be very volatile. Japan is one of these parts of the world, especially around the late fall. The variability of Japanese weather conditions was something that the US Army Air Forces knew very well, and was one of the bane of their bombing plans. It was a major issue in the atomic bombing discussions as well since very early on. At the first Target Committee meeting in April 1945, weather was a major point of discussion:

…it was pointed out that the months in which the initial mission will be run constitute the worst weather months of Japan. […] Dennison pointed out that all weather maps indicated that there were only an average of 6 good bombing days in August and that of those 6 days a conservative estimate would probably result in safely predicting that we would have 3 good days in the month of August but these 3 good days could not be positively predicted in advance of more than 48 hours. 

Elsewhere in the memo it remarks that “3/10ths or less” cloud coverage was considered acceptable for visual bombing. It also notes that “only once in 6 years have there ever been 2 successive good visual bombing days of Tokyo,” which gives some indication of the weather’s variability.

Weather from the nearby city of Shimonoseki for August 8-9, 1945. Click to enlarge, or click here for the Excel file. Source: Japanese M

Weather from the nearby city of Shimonoseki for August 8-9, 1945. Click to enlarge, or click here for the Excel file. Source: Courtesy of the Japanese Meteorological Agency.

So it doesn’t seem impossible that it could have just been according to the weather, though the big difference between the conditions reported by the weather plane and the observed conditions by the strike plane seem, on the face of it, beyond what a half hour’s delay would accomplish. One question I don’t have the answer for is when the weather plane radioed those conditions back. In the case of the Hiroshima run, the weather plane was only 30 minutes earlier than the strike plane. If we assume that was a similar attempt on the second mission, it would mean that the strike plane was reaching the target over an hour after the weather plane had seen it, which could be a significant-enough delay for a serious change in visibility. (And another possibility is that the weather plane could have been, for whatever reason, incorrect — either at the wrong place or had its message garbled.)

There aren’t good weather records from this period, at least none I have seen. The closest site for state weather recording was in Shimonoseki, some 7 miles / 11 km northeast of Kokura. I asked the Japan Meteorological Agency for any records they had from that period and they sent me the above data.5 It is not especially helpful towards answering this question that I can see, but I’m not a meteorologist in the slightest. For me, the big take-away from the data is that it could go from totally clear to totally obscured over the course of an hour, which at least supports the plausibility of the weather theory.

Theory #2: Smoke from firebombing

One of the other causes put forward is that the “smoke and haze” seen over Kokura was actually a result of nearby firebombing. On August 8th, 1945, the 20th AF had sent 221 B-29s to the nearby city of Yahata (Yawata) to drop incendiary bombs.6 Yahata had been bombed several times during the war. It was, in fact, the site of the first B-29 attack on the Japanese homeland in June 1944, and indeed the first bombing attack against the Japanese homeland at all since the Doolittle raid. It had been bombed again in August 1944. The USAAF considered Yahata to be the largest steel producing center in the country, and dubbed it “the Pittsburgh of Japan.” It was the last Japanese city to be hit by a massive B-29 raid, a “night burn job” as a USAAF writer put it, and it was considered “leftover business” that had been scheduled to take place much earlier but delayed because of bad weather.7

Yahata/Yawata target map, March 1945. Kokura arsenal is visible to the east. Source: JapanAirRaids.org. Click here for the uncropped, unadjusted version.

Yahata/Yawata target map, March 1945. Kokura arsenal is visible to the east. Source: JapanAirRaids.org. Click here for the uncropped, unadjusted version.

The weather at Yahata had been 4/10 clouds over the target, but this didn’t matter for B-29 firebombing raids, because accuracy was not as big a concern as with the atomic bombs. The planes had arrived at Yahata around noontime. I’ve found very little in terms of documentation about how much of Yahata was burned out with this raid — perhaps because it was so late in the war, many of the traditional sources for information about incendiary bombing results (especially those contained on the invaluable website JapanAirRaids.org) essentially omit any discussion of this final big raid.

Could the bombing of Yahata have been the cause of the smoke that obscured Kokura? It doesn’t seem impossible, but it seems to me to be somewhat unlikely.

Approximate areas of interest in Yahata and Kokura, as seen on Google Earth today.

Approximate areas of interest in Yahata and Kokura, as seen on Google Earth today.

Bockscar was flying over Kokura just a little under 24 hours after the Yahata raid began. Incendiary raids did produce extreme amounts of smoke cover, as other photographic evidence indicates clearly. Yahata was only around 6 miles / 9 km west of Kokura (and their proximity is emphasized by the fact that both are today just considered wards of a larger city, Kitakyushu).

It seems odd that the Yahata smoke would have caught them off-guard. Wouldn’t the weather plane have noticed that there was smoke over Yahata rolling towards Kokura, or at least threatening it? Yahata is close enough that at the 30,000 feet or so that a weather plane would be flying over Kokura, all they would have to do is glance in its direction to see if there was heavy cloud cover. (One can easily replicate this experience with Google Earth if one chooses.) Could the smoke cloud have been lagged behind by just the amount of time that the weather plane wouldn’t see it, then rush ahead to obscure Kokura an hour later? Could the smoke have gone from non-obscuring to obscuring in just an hour? At the wind speeds measured at Shimonoseki (around 2-12 mph), it doesn’t strike me as super likely, but I’m not an expert in this kind of thing.

Theory #3: Japanese smokescreen

One last, more obscure theory. I first read of this in John Coster-Mullen’s book. I will quote him here:

When [Bockscar] finally arrived at 10:44 AM, smoke and industrial haze had obscured Kokura. Yahata had been firebombed by over 200 of LeMay’s B-29’s the previous day and the smoke had drifted over nearby Kokura. There was also a POW camp right next door to the main downtown power plan. An American prisoner in this camp reported later the Japanese had installed a large pipe that went from the power plant down to the river. He stated that whenever B-29’s were sighted over Kokura, the steam in the plant was diverted through this pipe and into the river. This created enormous condensation clouds that also helped to obscure the city.

John himself seems to have interviewed the POW camp survivor in question, and notes in a footnote that he thinks this was the first time this claim had surfaced in print. I certainly hadn’t seen it anywhere prior to John’s book. John asked Commander Ashworth about this in 1995, and Ashworth replied that this seemed possible, and added “if the Japanese really did that, then they were damn clever!”

German smokescreen use at Wilhelmshaven in June 1943. Caption: "Despite a smoke screen, 168 B-17s of the Eighth Air Force attacked Wilhelmshaven on 11 June. There are three lines of generators to windward of the area covered when the wind is in the north, as it was in this case. Generator boats are at the upper left. Despite the extent of the smoke screen hits are observed inside the circle..." Source: USAAAF IMPACT magazine, vol. 1, No. 5, August 1945, page 18.

German smokescreen use at Wilhelmshaven in June 1943. Caption: “Despite a smoke screen, 168 B-17s of the Eighth Air Force attacked Wilhelmshaven on 11 June. There are three lines of generators to windward of the area covered when the wind is in the north, as it was in this case. Generator boats are at the upper left. Despite the extent of the smoke screen hits are observed inside the circle…” Source: USAAAF IMPACT magazine, vol. 1, No. 5, August 1943, page 18.

A few weeks ago, there was a story carried by Japanese newspapers along these lines:

As the 69th anniversary of the Nagasaki atomic bombing approaches, a former mill worker in the present-day city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, spoke about his untold story on how he burned coal tar to block the view of U.S. aircraft as they were about to drop the A-bomb on the city. … Of the three workers, Oita resident Satoru Miyashiro, 85, who worked at a can factory in the steel mill at around the end of the war said he burned coal tar to lay a smoke screen on Aug. 9, 1945. … Miyashiro said about two days before the Nagasaki attack Yawata steel workers learned that Hiroshima had been wiped out by the “new bomb” from their colleagues who had come back to Yawata via Hiroshima. He thought the next target would be his city as there were arms factories located in the area.

Note that this isn’t quite the same thing — this is someone in Yahata who was burning coal tar after hearing an air raid drill, and the smoke going downwind (east) to Kokura. I find it a little odd that the worker in question doesn’t mention that Yahata itself was firebombed less than a day before he decided to do this.

Are either of these theories plausible? In terms of, could they have done these things — of course. Turning on an incinerator is not an implausible action, and neither is the steam cloud scenario.

But would this have reduced the visibility over Kokura from 3/10 to 7/10 in the time it took the strike plane to get there? I’m not an atmospheric scientist, so I wouldn’t want to hazard a strong position on this. One can presumably model both of these scenarios and see if either were possible. I would be extremely interested if anyone wanted to that!

Susquehanna Steam Electric Station — just an example of what a very large nuclear power plant can generate in terms of steam. It's a lot of steam. Could it obscure a city downwind of it from a B-29 bomber? Image source.

Susquehanna Steam Electric Station — just an example of what a very large nuclear power plant can generate in terms of steam. It’s a lot of steam. Could it obscure a city downwind of it from a B-29 bomber? Image source.

My gut thought is that they were not super likely to be wholly responsible for the cloud cover. If it had been steam from a single plant, I suspect someone on Bockscar would have noted it as such. We have lots of experience with steam-generating power plants — think of the clouds created by nuclear cooling towers. They certainly can put out a lot of steam. Would it be enough to block off the entire city? I’m kind of dubious.

What about the coal tar possibility? I’m especially dubious that this would have been enough. Setting up honest-to-god smokescreen for an entire city is hard work, even if you are a professional. When the Germans wanted to protect individual places (like plants) from bombers they set up dozens to hundreds of smoke pots to do the job, or used multiple dedicated smoke generators. Some of the larger smokescreen images I have found clearly involve lots of smoke sources placed at good intervals upwind of the target they are meant to protect. So I don’t know.

On the other hand, if the smoke from Yahata was not from the firebombing but instead something deliberate, it would explain the time delay issue. If the wind was going due east at around 5 mph, that would in fact be perfect for putting a smoke cover over Kokura. So it has its merits as a theory.

Conclusion

There are narrative aspects of each theory that appeal, and each of them change what is meant by the “luck of Kokura.” If bad weather is what saved Kokura, then it becomes a metaphor for how serendipitously life and death are dealt out by the hands of fate. If it was smoke from the firebombing of Yahata, then it becomes an ironic story about the Army Air Forces’ zeal for destruction could become counterproductive. If it was the result of deliberate action on behalf of the Japanese, then it becomes something much more complicated, a story about how individual action may have led to the saving of some lives… and the dooming of others. It also would change the standard story of how defenseless the Japanese were against these weapons.

The bombing of Nagasaki. Original source. Slightly edited to improve foreground/background distinction.

Of course, what was lucky for Kokura was not so for Nagasaki.

Looking at these three options, I find the weather theory the easiest one to stomach. Japanese weather patterns were notoriously hard to predict and it was known as the worst season for bombing conditions. That they could change over an hour seems unsurprising to me, especially for a coastal city, where clouds can come and go which impressive rapidity (as someone who has lived in the Berkeley, Boston, and New York areas can attest). I like the irony of the Yahata story, but there are things that just don’t add up — I don’t see why the weather plane would not have mentioned it, and it seems implausible to me that it would take almost exactly 24 hours for the heavy cloud cover to have migrated a mere 5-10 miles. And for reasons indicated, I’m not sure I buy the smokescreen story — it would have been really difficult to pull off that degree of cloud cover reliably. It would have taken tremendous foresight and luck. And it is strange that this story would be “buried” for so long. This doesn’t mean that someone didn’t try it (I am emphatically not calling anyone a liar!). It just means that I’m not sure it would have worked even if they did try it.

A separate possibility is “all of the above.” Maybe the weather was bad. Maybe there was haze from the Yahata bombing. Maybe someone did try to release steam or smokescreen. Maybe all of these things occurred at once, making “the luck of Kokura” something that was the result of multiple causes. That would make Kokura extra lucky, I suppose, and not fit into any of the above pat narratives. And make Nagasaki extra un-lucky in turn.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter which of these things happened. The bare fact is that Kokura didn’t get bombed and Nagasaki did. But I find looking into these kinds of questions useful as a historian. Too often it is easy to take for granted that the explanations given in narrative works of history are “settled,” when really they are often resting on very thin evidence, thinner perhaps than the historian who writes them realizes. I don’t think we really know what happened at Kokura, and I’m not sure we ever truly will.

Notes
  1. Sometimes you see it as “Bock’s Car,” but it said “Bockscar” on the side of the B-29. This is one of those places where I say, “who cares?” but purists are concerned with this kind of detail. []
  2. Flight diary of Lt. Fred Olivi, quoted in Coster-Mullen’s book. []
  3. Bockscar flight log by Commander Frederick Ashworth, included in Norman F. Ramsey, “History of Project A,” (27 September 1945). A full of copy of Ramsey’s report is included in Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs book. []
  4. Leslie Groves, Now it Can Be Told, 345: “At Kokura, they found that visual bombing was not possible, although the weather plane had reported that it should be. Whether this unexpected condition was due to the time lag, or to the difference between an observer looking straight down and a bombardier looking at the target on a slant, was never determined.” []
  5. Here is the original Excel file they sent me. []
  6. Most US sources list the city as “Yawata,” but it apparently corresponds with what is today transliterated as the city of Yahata, in Fukoka prefecture, and there is an entirely different city known as Yawata in Kyoto Prefecture. The kanji is the same. Yahata has since been absorbed by Kitakyushu, along with Kokura. []
  7. Tom Prideaux, “Mission to Yawata, 7 Aug. 1945,” IMPACT, vol. 3, no. 9 (September-October 1945), 53. []
Meditations

A bomb without Einstein?

Friday, June 27th, 2014

If Albert Einstein had never been born, would it have changed when nuclear weapons were first produced? For whatever reason, I’ve seen this question being asked repeatedly on Internet forums, as odd as it is. It’s kind of a silly question. You can’t go in and tweak one variable in the past and then think you could know what the outcome would be. History is a chaotic system; start removing variables, who knows what would happen. Much less a variable named Albert Einstein, one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, and whose importance extended well past the equations he wrote… and those were pretty important equations, at that!

1946 - Einstein Time magazine - detail

Einstein’s 1946 cover of Time magazine. The mushroom cloud is a beautifully executed combination of the Trinity and Nagasaki mushroom clouds.

On the other hand, this kind of science-fiction counterfactual can have its usefulness as a thought experiment. It isn’t history, but it can be used to illustrate some important aspects about the early history of the atomic bomb that a lot of people don’t know, and to undo a little bit of the “great man” obsession with bomb history. Albert Einstein has been associated with the bomb both through his famous mass-energy equivalence calculation (E=mc²) and because of the famous Einstein-Szilard letter to Roosevelt in 1939. On the face of it, this gives him quite a primary role, and indeed, he usually shows up pretty quickly at the beginning of most histories of the Manhattan Project. But neither E=mc² nor the Einstein-Szilard letter were as central to the Manhattan Project’s success as people realize — either scientifically or historically.

In terms of the science, E=mc² gets a lion’s share of attention, most perfectly expressed by Einstein’s portrait on the cover of Time magazine in 1946 (above) with his equation emblazoned on a mushroom cloud. A lot of people seem to think that E=mc² played a key role in the development of the bomb, that the weapon just falls out of the physics. This is wrong. The equation can help one understand why atomic bombs work, but it doesn’t really tell you how they work, or whether you would expect them to even be possible.

The way I like to put it is this: E=mc² tells you about as much about an atomic bomb as Newton’s laws do about ballistic missiles. At some very “low level” the physics is crucial to making sense of the technology, but the technology does not just “fall out” of the physics in any straightforward way, and neither of those equations tell you whether the technology is possible. E=mc² tells you that on some very deep level, energy and mass are equivalent, and the amount of energy that mass is equivalent is gigantic. But it says nothing about the mechanism of converting mass into energy, either whether one exists in the first place, or whether it can be scaled up to industrial or military scales. It gives no hints as to even where to look for such energy releases. After the fact, once you know about nuclear fission and can measure mass defects and things like that, it helps you explain very concisely where the tremendous amounts of energy come from, but it gives you no starting indications.

Eddington's famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

Eddington’s famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

What about the rest of Einstein’s main theoretical work, both Special and General Relativity Theory? They are pretty irrelevant to bomb-making. The physical processes that take place inside atomic bombs are what physicists call “non-relativistic.” Relativity theory generally only shows its hand when you are talking about great speeds (e.g. large fractions of the speed of light) or great masses (e.g. gravitational fields), and neither of those come into play with fission bombs. You can neglect relativity when doing the math to make a bomb.1

An intelligent follow-up question might be: “well, just because relativity theory didn’t play a role in the bomb process itself doesn’t answer the question of whether it started physics on a path that led to the bomb, does it?” Without getting into a long timeline of the “science that led to the bomb,” here, I think we could reasonably summarize the situation like this: Einstein’s 1905 papers (of which E=mc² was one) did indeed play a role in the subsequent developments that followed, but perhaps not as direct a one as people think. E=mc² didn’t inspire physicists to start looking into processes that converted mass to energy — they were already looking into those through an entirely separate (and earlier) line of development, namely the science of radioactivity and particle physics. The fact that huge amounts of energy were released through nuclear reactions, for example, had already been studied closely by the Curies, by Ernest Rutherford, and by Frederick Soddy prior (but only just) to 1905.

Arguably, the most important work Einstein did in this respect was his work on the photoelectric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1921), which helped establish the physical reality of Max Planck’s idea of a quantum of energy, which helped kick off investigations into quantum theory in earnest. This had a big influence on the later direction of physics, even if Einstein himself was never quite comfortable with the quantum mechanics that developed in subsequent decades.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

Did any of the relativity work lead, though, down the path that eventually arrived at the discovery of fission in 1939? I don’t think so. The experiments that Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were doing in Berlin that lead to the discovery of fission in uranium were themselves careful replications of work that Fermi had done around 1934. Fermi’s work came directly out of an experimentalist, nuclear physics context where physicists were bombarding substances with all manner of subatomic particles to see what happened. It was most directly influenced by the discovery of the neutron as a new sub-atomic particle by Chadwick in 1932. This came out of work on atomic theory and atomic modeling that was being done by Rutherford and his students from the early 1910s-1920s. And this early nuclear physics came, most directly, out of the aforementioned context of radioactivity and experimental physics of the late 19th century.

None of which has a strong, direct connection to or from Einstein’s work in my mind. They have some overlaps of interest (e.g. Bohr was a student of Rutherford’s), but the communities working on these sorts of experimental problems are not quite the same as the more theoretical circle that Einstein himself worked in.2 If we somehow, magically, removed Einstein’s early work from the equation here, does the output change much? There would be some reshuffling, probably, but I sort of think that Rutherford would still be doing his thing anyway, and from that much of the other work that led to the bomb would eventually come out, even if it had a somewhat different flavor or slightly different timeline.

My least favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

This is my least-favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

Do you even need to know that E=mc² to make an atomic bomb? Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t! There are other, more physically intuitive ways to calculate (or measure) the energy release from a fission reaction. If you treat the fission process as being simply based on the electrostatic repulsion of two fission products, you get essentially the same energy output in the form of kinetic energy. This is how the physics of fission is often taught in actual physics classes, because it gives you a more concrete indication of how that energy is getting released (whereas E=mc² with the mass-defect makes it seem like a magical lightning bolt carries it away). There are other more subtle physical questions involved in making a bomb, some of which have Einstein’s influence on them in one way or another (e.g. Bose–Einstein statistics). But I think it is not totally crazy to say that even if you somehow imagine a world in which Einstein had never existed, that the physics of an atomic bomb would still work out fine — Einstein’s specific technical work wasn’t central to the problem at all. We also have not brought up the question of whether without Einstein, relativity in some form would have been discovered anyway. The answer is probably “yes,” as there were people working on similar problems in the same areas of physics, and once people started paying a close attention to the physics of radioactivity they were bound to stumble upon the mass-energy relationship anyway. This isn’t to denigrate or underestimate Einstein’s influence on physics, of course. What makes Einstein “Einstein” is that he, a single person, pulled off a great number of theoretical coups all at once. But if he hadn’t done that, there’s no reason to think that other people wouldn’t have come up with his theoretical insights individually, if slightly later.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

What about Einstein’s most direct role, the famous Einstein-Szilard letter of 1939 that influenced President Roosevelt to set up the first Uranium Committee? This is a tricky historical question that could have (and may at some point) an entirely separate blog post relating to it. Its writing, contents, and influence are more complex than the standard “he wrote a letter, FDR created the Manhattan Project” understanding of it that gets boiled down in some popular accounts. My feeling about it, ultimately, is this: if the Einstein-Szilard letter hadn’t been written, it isn’t clear that anything would be terribly different in the outcome in terms of making the bomb. Something like the Uranium Committee might have been started up anyway (contrary to popular understanding, the letter was not the first time Roosevelt had been told about the possibility of nuclear fission), and even if it hadn’t, it isn’t clear that the Uranium Committee was necessary to end up with a Manhattan Project. The road from a fission program whose primary output was reports and a fission program whose primary output was atomic bombs was not a direct one. By early 1941, the Uranium Committee had failed to convince scientist-administrators that atomic bombs were worth trying to build. They had concluded that while atomic bombs were theoretically feasible, they were not likely to be built anytime soon. Had things stayed there, it seems unlikely the United States would have built a bomb ready to use by July/August 1945.

The “push” came from an external source: the British program. Their MAUD Committee (an equivalent of the Uranium Committee) had concluded that a nuclear weapon would be much easier to build than the United States had concluded, and sent an emissary (Mark Oliphant) to the United States to make sure this conclusion was understood. They caught Vannevar Bush’s ear in late 1941, and he (along with Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, and others) wrested control of the uranium work out of the hands of the Uranium Committee, accelerated the work, and morphed it into the S-1 Committee. The name change is significant — it is one of the more vivid demonstrations of the increased degree of seriousness with which the work was taken, and the secrecy that came with it. By late 1942, the wheels for the full Manhattan Project were set into motion, and the work had become a real bomb-making program.

Einstein wasn’t involved with any of the later work that actually led to the bomb. He almost was, though: in late 1941, Bush considered consulting Einstein for help on the diffusion problem, but opted not to push for it — both because Einstein wasn’t regarded as politically reliable (he had a fat FBI file), and his approach to physics just wasn’t very right for practical problems.3 Bush decided that Einstein would stay out of the loop.

Usual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled "The Ignominy of the 20th Century." It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a "scientific saint." Source.

Unusual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled “The Ignominy of the 20th Century.” It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a “scientific saint.” Source.

Let’s sum it up. Did Einstein play a role in the creation of the atomic bomb? Of course — his physics isn’t irrelevant, and his letter to Roosevelt did start one phase of the work. But both of these things are less prominent than the Time-magazine-cover-understanding makes them out to be. They weren’t central to what became the Manhattan Project, and if you could somehow, magically, remove Einstein from the equation, it isn’t at all clear that the atomic bomb wouldn’t have been built around the time it actually was built. I don’t think you can really credit, or blame, Einstein for the atomic bomb, in any direct fashion. Einstein did play a role in things, but that role wasn’t as crucial, central, or direct as a lot of people imagine. If you could magically drop him out of history, I think very little in terms of atomic bombs would have been affected.

So why does the Einstein and the bomb myth persist? Why does everybody learn about the Einstein letter, if it wasn’t really was sparked the Manhattan Project? There are two answers here, I think. One is that Einstein was, even before the war, one of the best-known, best-recognized physicists of the 20th century, and was synonymous with revolutionary science and genius. Having him “predict” the atomic bomb with equations in 1905 — 40 years before one was set off — is the kind of “genius-story” that people love, even if it obscures more than it enlightens. It also has a high irony quotient, since Einstein was forced to flee from Germany when the Nazis took power.

But there’s another, perhaps more problematic aspect. In many early copies of the Smyth Report that were distributed by the government, copies of the Einstein letter were mimeographed and loosely inserted. The magnification of Einstein’s role was purposefully encouraged by the government in the immediate period after using the weapon. (And it was even a convenient myth for Einstein, as it magnified his own importance and thus potential influence.) Hanging the atomic bomb on Einstein’s head was an act of self-justification, of sorts. Einstein was the world’s greatest genius in the eyes of the public, and he was a well-known pacifist, practically a scientific saint. After all, if Einstein thought building a bomb was necessary, who could argue with him?

Notes
  1. As Robert Serber puts it: “Somehow the popular notion took hold long ago that Einstein’s theory of relativity, in particular his famous equation E = mc², plays some essential role in the theory of fission. Albert Einstein had a part in alerting the United States government to the possibility of building an atomic bomb, but his theory of relativity is not required in discussing fission. The theory of fission is what physicists call a non-relativistic theory, meaning that relativistic effects are too small to affect the dynamics of the fission process significantly.” Robert Serber, The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb (University of California Press, 1992), 7. []
  2. For a good, non-teleological, non-bomb-centric approach to the context of 19th- and 20th-century physics, Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2002), is excellent. []
  3. Einstein wasn’t entirely a head-in-the-clouds physicist, of course. He worked at the patent office, and as Peter Galison has written about, even his famous thought experiments were often motivated by experience with practical problems of time synchronization. And he did help invent a refrigerator with Leo Szilard. But his work on diffusion physics was too abstract, too focused on first-principle analysis, for use in producing a practical outcome. []