The background to the atomic bomb

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William Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895 when he was bombarding substances with high energy electrons. About a year later, Antoine Becquerel experimenting with X-rays, placed his photograph plates in a drawer with a few crystals of uranium salts; the next morning he found that the plate had been developed.

Pupils of Becquerel, Marie and Pierre Curie, discovered radium in 1898. It was the first known radioactive element, and is always present in uranium. Marie Curie was the first woman awarded a doctorate, and she and her husband received the Nobel Prize in 1903; Marie received a second Nobel Prize in 1911, five years after the death of her husbad, and later saw her daughter receive the 1934 Nobel Prize.

Uranium decays and turns into lead through an excruciatingly long process. Uranium-derived lead is chemically lighter than naturally occuring lead. That fact stood the world of physics on its collective head, since until then, elements were thought of as being unchangeable, and unchanging.

Exposure to radium is dangerous, though, in nature, one gram of radium would take 100 years to give off enough energy to boil a small amount of water. Trying discover the reason, early in 1900, J. J. Thompson, discovered that the atom, then thought to be the smallest of all things in the elements, actually had a smaller particle, which he called the electron.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published four different papers, one of which had the revolutionary assertion that all mass is energy, and all energy is mass. He summarized it via the equation E=mc2 . Einstein moved to Berlin in 1914 and was a professor at the Berlin Institute (though he still professed to dislike Germany, it was the center of science at the time). While in New Jersey, he learned that Hitler’ss Brown Shirts had broken into his Berlin house, and ransacked it thoroughly, searching for anything that would lend credence to their assertions that he was a Jewish enemy of the state. What they couldn't take, they broke, leaving the house wide open. Eventually the house was destroyed. (Einstein was also denounced at a conference for his “Jewish science.”) Einstein sailed to Europe, taking up a temporary stop in Belgium, on the thin belief that the people would come to their senses and Hitler would be sent away. However, the Civil Service Reform Act that Hitler rammed through the Reichstag in 1933 removed all of Einstein's doubt and hope. Anyone that was a Jew, or of Jewish descent, was barred from holding public office in Germany. Einstein sailed to America and spent the rest of his life as a professor at Princeton, seeking a unified field theory that included gravity. 

In 1918, a student of J.J. Thompson, Lord Ernest Rutherford of New Zealand, had chipped a fragment from an atom, discovering another particle, which he named as a proton.

In 1932, British physicist Sir James Chadwick discovered the final part of the atom, which he named the neutron.

nuclear bombIn 1934, Enrico Fermi began bombarding uranium elements with a stream of neutrons. Before then, scientists had been using positive charges to bombard uranium elements in an effort to smash the atom. Fermi found that by directing his stream through hydrogen, he could slow the stream down and hit the core exactly. He believed he had created a new element, at the time his only intent. However, others believed he had smashed the atom, and Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize. Given that his wife was a Jew, he elected to not return to Italy. He went to the United States instead, like Albert Einstein, settling in New Jersey.

In 1938, physicists all over the world began experiments in excitement with the hydrogen slow neutron bullets on uranium. In Berlin, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (which Einstein, Szilard, and other notable physicists had fled from), Otto Hahn assigned Dr. Lise Meitner, a Jew, to perform further research. Just ahead of the Gestapo, who had issued a warrant for her, Dr. Meitner escaped to Sweden, barely getting across the border, because she held an Austrian passport. Dr. Hahn continued what she had started, and in 1939 ended up with a new element he named as Barium.

Barium isn't even distantly related to uranium, so Dr. Hahn was uncertain about what the results of his experiment meant, and managed to get his papers forwarded to Dr. Meitner. To her, it was obvious that the atom had indeed been split, roughly by half (barium contains 56 protons; if subtracted from uranium, which has 92 protons, it should leave krypton, which has 36 protons).

Dr. Meitner discussed the experiments and her conclusions with her nephew, Otto Frisch, who was visiting her over the 1938 Christmas holidays. He was the son in law of Dr. Neils Bohr, who had fled Denmark earlier under the ever expanding cloud of Nazi vilifications of the Jews.

Frisch knew, as she did, that the atom had been split, they just needed to verify it. He cabled, at great cost, all the experiments and findings Neils Bohr, who was at Princeton University, working with Albert Einstein. Bohr immediately contacted Dr. George Pegram, the head of Physics for Columbia University, in the New York City. Both of them arrived at the same results independently, then proved it in the laboratory: as per Einstein’s 1905 theory, electric oscilloscopes spiked when uranium was hit by the slow neutron bullet. Within days, scores of other laboratories had reported obtaining the same results. The atom had been split and Einstein had been proved correct.

However, many high speed neutrons should have been released, with some of those causing other atoms to split, setting off a chain reaction, but no chain reaction had occurred.

In 1935, Arthur Dempster had discovered that uranium is comprised of three different kinds of atoms — chemically identical, with different numbers of neutrons; Professor Dempster had labeled the atoms as U-234, U-235, and U-238, which comes from the number of neutrons held by the different atoms. These atoms are called "isotopes." In uranium, U-234 is only a trace. U-235 is one part in 140. U-238 then makes up 99% of the atoms in uranium. Dr. Bohr and Professor Wheeler reasoned that only U-235 initiated the release, however, the U-238 suppresses chain reactions.

There would be no way to prove this unless U-235 could be isolated. This had never been done, and it was doubtful that it could ever be done.

Work like this was already being conducted by a young physicist from the University of Minnesota. He had been granted $6,000 from Harvard University in 1936 to separate U-235 and U-238. Turning down an offer from Harvard to remain, he returned to Minnesota in 1938. In 1940, he isolated U-235; later, working with General Electric Laboratories, he produce a sample barely more than a speck the size of a dot made by a fine pencil point.

This discovery became the foundation for the “Manhattan Project,” the government code name for building the atomic bomb.

The government ultimately paid the bills (to the tune of some $3.3 TRILLION, of which the Manhattan Project was a small percentage). Once the flow of money started, it seemed to have no end. It is hard to believe in light of today's budgets that one man had authority to dispense millions of large American dollars in the mid-1940s. Yet that is exactly what happened.

The father of the atomic bomb, the real shaker and mover, was Leo Szilard. A Jew born in Hungary, he had been a reverent student of Einstein at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin; Einstein had characterized Szilard as “a man with a mind rich in ideas.”

Szilard had packed two suitcases after Einstein had repeatedly warned of the danger of remaining in Germany. Informed at work that the Brown Shirts were out to get him, Szilard ran to his apartment, grabbed the suitcases, then fled down the street, and saw the Brown Shirts storm the building he had just left when he turned into an alley. Even after moving to the United States (in 1939), he still kept all his belongings in the two suitcases. He never rented an apartment or owned a car until he finally married his German sweetheart in 1951. He rented rooms or stayed in YMCA locations. Always the bags remained packed. This is the man who envisioned the possibility of atomic fission in his mind.

When Szilard arrived in the United States, he called Edward Teller in Washington. Teller came to get him, in his personal Plymouth.

Teller had advocated fusion hydrogen bombs before fission was perfected, and is created with perfecting the thermonuclear “H-Bombs” in the late 1940s.

Szilard believed Hitler was trying to get the atomic bomb, and gained evidence from a fellow at the KWI in Berlin’s missive to the German War Office. Within a month, all exports of uranium from German-occupied Czechoslovakia were halted.

He convinced another colleague to drive him to see Albert Einstein. Eugene Wigner — wo drove a Dodge — had learned that Einstein was staying in the Long Island Estate of a friend. Einstein, though the public face of science, was now 60 years old, and had isolated himself from the mainstream of physics. When he was called upon by Szilard and Wigner, he had no conception of the advances lately made in physics.

Once briefed, Einstein grasped the concept instantly and dictated a letter that Wigner wrote down in long hand, later bringing back in typed form to be signed.

Szilard found trouble in just getting the letter to the right person to get it to the President. He had already been rebuffed by the Army and Navy. It took until October 11, 1939 for the letter to be hand delivered to FDR. The courier was a personal advisor to FDR on economics, Edward Sachs.

Roosevelt called in his personal assistant, General Edwin “Pa” Watson. Headed by a career bureaucrat with 43 years of government service, Dr. Lyman Briggs — head of the Bureau of Standards after starting at the Department of Agriculture, studying soil — the first meeting was upsetting for all around.

Dr. Briggs didn't care for foreigners and had no conception of what comprised nuclear fission. Szilard presented his case for the purchase of graphite to build a chamber to produce a chain reaction. Briggs said nothing. An Army colonel said he had no belief in "new fangled contraptions." When asked how much Szilard might require, he replied “about $6,000.” Briggs was relieved. It wasn't as large an outlay as he expected. He authorized the expenditure but it still took some chicanery on Szilard's part to actually get the money.

Szilard became increasingly more and more alarmed, not only due to the lack of urgency displayed by the Uranium Committee, but the Nazi Blitzkrieg then galloping across Europe.  No one seemed to be paying attention, especially the American military establishment. The engine that would power the B-29 that carried the weapons to Japan had been authorized and tested since 1936. Initial studies for the B-29 were proposed by Boeing to the Army in early 1938. Boeing continued the study with its own money.

After taking over Poland in 26 days, Hitler declared Austria as a province of Germany, in 1938. Later tha tyear, Hitler took over the Czechoslovakian area known as the Sudetenland. The entire Czech government resigned. By March 16 1939, the Nazis had taken over the entire country, without firing a single shot. No one did anything.

In August 1938, Hermann Goring warned all the Jews in Austria, numbering about 220,000, to “get out now.” Einstein, Wigner, Meitner, Bohrs, Fermi, Szilard and many other European scientists of Jewish descent were well acquainted with Hitler and his intent.

Germany attacked Finland at the end of November 1939; it fell on March 12, 1940. Denmark and Norway fell in 1940 and then Hitler invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The fall of France in 1940 finally galvanized the world.

Einstein, again at the prodding of Szilard, had written Roosevelt another letter in April 1940. Roosevelt replaced the Uranium Committee with the Office of Scientific Research and Development, headed by Dr. Vannevar Bush; word had reached intelligence services that Japan was engaged in research to create a bomb of its own, and British commandos had raided a heavy water plant in Norway.

The race to isolate U-235 was full on. Two American teams were able to produce plutonium, which, like U-235, has a “hair trigger.” 

To show that a chain reaction could happen, a “reactor” that could be controlled had to be built. Szilard and Fermi had plans for such a “pile” as they called it, based upon bricks made of pure graphite. Dr. Arthur Compton, charged with bringing together all the disparate research, met with Dr. Ernest Lawrence, one of the plutonium-discovering teams, and both agreed that plutonium should be used for the fuel for a nuclear device.

On October 9, 1941, about two months from war, Dr. Bush, head of the Atomic Committee, met with Vice President Wallace and Franklin Roosevelt. Hitler’s armies were then 25 miles from Moscow, and it looked like Russia would fall. Without hesitation, FDR gave Dr. Bush all the funding that he asked for, out of the Presidential emergency funds.

One day before war, the order was finalized for Professor Compton to proceed with the bomb design. Berkeley professor J. Robert Oppenheimer was chosn to lead the project, he calculated that 100 kilograms of pure U-235 would be needed to make the bomb work. Neither U-235 nor plutonium was even available yet.

Skip forward to Chrysler’s role

Things changed swiftly after Pearl Harbor. Congress voted huge funding for the military including “blind” funds that Congress did not know the purpose of.

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