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Chrysler Corporation helps to build the atomic bomb (A-bomb)

Plymouth cars at the atomic bomb siteIn August 1939, Albert Einstein and former student Leo Szilard wrote to President Roosevelt to say that splitting uranium atoms could result in a powerful new bomb. Germany had already begun their quest, and some American physicists were establishing the research needed to get there.

Chrysler was a major contributor in making both the actual bomb and the delivery system: seven of the eight engines that powered the nuclear-bomb-laden B-29s were built by Chrysler.

After years of dithering by project leaders, President Franklin D. Roosevelt put the military in charge, tapping 46-year-old Colonel Leslie R. Groves, an engineer and one of the oldest colonels in the military. His PhD had taken ten years to obtain; he was harsh, strict, a hard worker, and, as Chief of Army Construction, was finishing up the building of the Pentagon.

Groves was not well liked. Still, he was told he would be promoted to brigadier general if he took the job, and that very day (September 17, 1942), he met with the current engineer in charge. The office that had the lead in the project was in New York, so the name was coded as the “Manhattan Engineering District.” Groves shortened it to the “Manhattan Project.”

No uranium had been acquired. No one had figured out if they could make the U-235 or plutonium that would be needed for a bomb.

Oak Ridge atomic bomb plantAfter just one day, Groves found a source of uranium in Canada. On September 24, 1942, he was in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, scouting a site to refine U-235 and plutonium. 

Since it would be extremely dangerous to have both plants in the same area, Groves looked elsewhere for a spot to make plutonium, settling near Hanford, Washington — where he bought a thousand square miles of land. Oak Ridge grew extremely rapidly, with whole streets and barracks set up from modular kits. It took three days to set it up for 540 people, including streets and curbs. Eventually, the staff hit 75,000; in less than one year, Oak Ridge became the State of Tennessee’s fifth largest city. Yet, you could not find it on any map. Its location was secret.

Ground was broken for the diffuser plant one year after General Groves took charge.

Chrysler diffuser plant for atomic bomb

To separate U-235 from uranium by diffusion, it must be brought into contact a highly corrosive gas, uranium hexafluoride, which devoured steel and was only resisted by pure nickel. There was simply not enough nickel to build the equipment. General Groves gambled that it was an engineering problem, not a scientific one, and Colonel Edward Garbisch, an Army engineer and son-in-law of the late Walter P. Chrysler, telephoned Chrysler President K.T. Keller, requesting a meeting at the Detroit Office of the Corporation. The meeting was led by now-Major General Groves himself.

The Corporation was in, for $75 million.

diffusers built by ChrylserThe engineers at Chrysler suggested that, with careful bonding, nickel plating should work just as well as solid nickel. They believed that it was not the depth of the metal that counted as a barrier, it was the metal itself. Chrysler suggested electroplating, which would also purify the nickel.

The experts pushed back, saying that the gas would attack the plating, peel it off, and eat through the steel, so Mr. Keller ordered that a large shell be plated and tested. The Head Engineer of the Plating Engineering Section at Chrysler Corporation, Carl Heussner, had to argue with the Columbia scientific team assigned to test the idea for two whole days to get them to agree to test the sample.

K.T. KellerNo hexafluoride gas could be used at the time, so Mr. Heussner covered a large chunk of boiler plate with a thin sheet of nickel, and immersed it in a solution of boiling water and carbon dioxide. The experiment was a success, and the electroplating was green-lighted.

Now the problem was finding a work space. Mr. Keller attended a war bond rally at 1525 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. The building used to be a department store, but now the first floor was serving as the temporary headquarters for the bond drives. Upon returning to his office, he immediately ordered that the space up above be rented. All the Chrysler personnel associated with “Project X-100” moved in and stayed there for nearly two years.

Then he had to find 500,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and sterilize it. Chrysler converted the Lynch Road factory from making military trucks to manufacture the diffusers, and added air conditioning with a complex filtration system. They used Chrysler’s AirTemp division, which had done the Chrysler Building in New York and Pullman cars for the railroads.

separating uraniumOutsiders estimated the number of diffusers at 7,000, and each one needed millions of pin holes at precise places to allow the gas to flow freely, and had to be radius turned to smooth the edges.

Chrysler accomplished its assigned task in record time, passing the completed drums to the next contractor, who was supposed to attach tubes to the insides. Unfortunately, these tubes were not precisely sealed, allowing leaks of fluoride and Freon. Later studies indicated that the diffusing process at Oak Ridge, which would operated for over four decades, was the single largest source of ozone damage.

Union Carbide operated the K-25 diffusing plant; it took weeks to set it up, an engineering triumph. If it had not been for the engineering acumen and prowess of the Chrysler Corporation Engineering Team, the diffusing plant would not have been on line until late 1945.

nuclear bombRobert Oppenheimer, in charge of the Las Alamos Development Laboratory in New Mexico, had U-235 that was around 90% pure by mid-April 1945. By the end of June 1945, while the “Gadget” was being assembled at Las Alamos, Oak Ridge had provided 132 pounds of the enriched U-235 from an estimated ore delivery of 150,000 rail cars. 

The plating process applied by Chrysler in all of the diffusers never failed, functioning right up until the plant was taken apart in 1985.

Appendix: costs

The Brookings Institute estimated the U.S.’s expenditures for World War II:

  • All tanks (including Chrysler's arsenal): $64 billion
  • Bombs, mines and grenades: $31.5 billion
  • Radar: $27 billion
  • Small arms material excluding ammunition: $24 billion
  • Heavy field artillery: $4 billion
  • All other artillery: $33.6 billion
  • Manhattan Project: $21.6 billion (around $5 billion per bomb), with Oak Ridge at $13 billion and Hanford at $4.4 billion.

The atomic bomb drew the most attention, but the government spent more on radar. Without radar, the plane that flew the bombs would likely not have made it to its target, and air superiority would not have been possible. In addition, England would have been pounded heavily by German rockets and planes, and the Allied troops may not have been able to invade without Chrysler’s radar-guided anti-aircraft guns.

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