Atomic Bomb Project Engineer
From Recollections of World War II, compiled by J. Read Murphy ’38; pages 6–8
After graduation from Yale I worked for Chemical Construction Corporation whose business, oddly enough, was constructing chemical works. Not only did we build them, but we also hired and trained the personnel and started up the plants.
We had just finished Lake Ontario Ordnance, a turnkey TNT plant, at the end of 1942 when I was asked to report to the personnel office. There I reluctantly agreed to work for the SAM Labs at Columbia University on some project the recruiters couldn’t mention, to do a job they wouldn’t discuss. I was helped in my decision by asides such as, “Well, if he doesn’t want to work for Columbia we could always draft him and assign him to Columbia—we’ve done that a few times.” So I signed on and when I got to Columbia I eventually realized that this was part of the Manhattan Project and we were trying to do what was described in my Physical Chemistry textbook in my sophomore year at Yale: “If some day you wake up and find half the State of Connecticut blown away, somewhere, somebody had harnessed atomic energy.” I didn’t understand my involvement until later when I was sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to do what I did when I worked for Chemical Construction Corporation.
What we had at Columbia was a pilot plant for developing the barriers used in the gaseous diffusion method of separating the isotopes of uranium. The people involved were most interesting. Urey was there on a daily basis with George Murphy, the Yale professor who shared the Nobel Prize with Urey, and Fermi occasionally. The Works Manager was Ed Mack, head of Ohio State’s Chemistry Dept.; the Plant Manager was Frank Vilbrandt, head of VPI’s Chemical Engineering Dept. Pat Welles, who built huge projects worldwide, constructed this little electroplating pilot plant, and I ran three shifts loaded with degreed engineers, some Ph.D.s, all of whom were greatly underemployed in terms of their capabilities, but didn’t mind because we were able to develop prototype barriers that were the forerunners of the thousands needed to build the plants in Oak Ridge.
Oak Ridge’s site in the Tennessee Valley was originally chosen for all the Manhattan Project plants, but the plutonium plant was constructed elsewhere. Oak Ridge is on the Clinch River about 30 miles from Knoxville. The choice was made because of the availability of water, TVA power, and the fact that, on the greater than 70-square-mile tract, the plutonium pilot plant could be located in one valley, the electromagnetic separation plant in an adjoining one and the diffusion separation plant in a third.
The first family moved in on July 3, 1943, and the population grew to 75,000 in two years. Up to 1,000 houses per month were built and in 1945 spring term there were 11,000 pupils and 320 teachers in the high and grammar schools.
Not only did most of the workers not know what they were producing in the mammoth plants that used tremendous amounts of electrical energy, but the vast majority weren’t sure they were actually producing anything. They would see huge quantities of material going into the plant, but nothing coming out. This created an atmosphere of unreality in which the plants operated day and night producing nothing that could be seen or touched. The first bomb weighed only 400 lbs. in total and the bomb material, which came from the Oak Ridge electromagnetic plant, was only the size of a grapefruit.
What’s remarkable is that the secret was so well kept. The people of Oak Ridge avoided discussions involving secret projects and cooperated in maintaining security even after they left the project. President Truman didn’t learn of it until after FDR’s death. The word “uranium” was never mentioned. Even in chemical equations describing chemical reactions the letter T was used instead of U for uranium.
I arrived in Oak Ridge from Columbia University in October 1943. The city grew by almost 50,000 during the time I lived there. The gaseous diffusion plant had not been built yet, but the electromagnetic separation plant was ready for startup. So I did what I did for Chemical Construction Corp. I assisted the startup and operator training and then I worked on ways to make the plant more efficient.
The plant, as its name implies, was equipped with huge electromagnets and the amount of copper required in the plant would have hurt the war effort, so silver from the U.S. Treasury was used instead. All the bus bars had the U.S. Treasury stamp. This plant was later closed because it couldn’t compete with the gaseous diffusion plant.
My next assignment was the NEPA (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft) project. Thank the Lord we didn’t get that one off the ground, but some of the work my group did was extremely valuable in the development of shielding for the reactors in nuclear submarines. After the war this group started G.E.’s Nuclear Power Division.
I received a Presidential Citation in August 1945 for my work on the Manhattan Project.