In Memoriam: Warren Nyer

In Memoriam: Warren Nyer

We are sad to report that Manhattan Project scientist Warren Nyer died on February 4, 2016 at the age of 94. Nyer had the unusual distinction of working at four different project sites: Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos. According to his son Michael, he was the last living member of the group that worked directly under Enrico Fermi at the Chicago Metallurgical Lab.

Nyer became involved in the Manhattan Project when he was a 19-year-old physics student and laboratory assistant at the University of Chicago. He worked with Enrico Fermi on the construction of exponential piles, important precursors to Chicago Pile-1, the world’s first controlled, self-sustained nuclear reaction. He was present when Chicago Pile-1 went critical on December 2, 1942.

After a year at Oak Ridge working on the construction of the X-10 Graphite Reactor, Nyer transferred to Hanford at the request of DuPont. He remembered the ever-present dust at Hanford: “My wife would go around the house regularly with a tablespoon, scraping the dust out of the corner of the windows [even though] they were shut all the time.” At Hanford, he helped prepare equipment and measure radioactivity levels at B Reactor.

In February 1945, seeking what he thought would be a more exciting job, Nyer arranged to work at the Manhattan Project’s scientific laboratory at Los Alamos. He helped prepare the equipment that took blast measurements at the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear device.

Nyer vividly remembered Trinity. “I had a piece of welder’s glass taped to a hole I had cut in a cardboard box that I had over my head,” he recalled. “I saw the most brilliant flash and knew instantly, of course, that the whole thing was a success. Then I saw the mushroom cloud and just going on forever in the sky and how enormous the whole thing was, of brilliant colors. It looked like a living thing with a blue glow.”

After the war, Nyer moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho to work at the National Reactor Testing Station, now known as Idaho National Laboratory. He later became a manage­ment consultant to electric utility firms.

For more about Nyer and his Manhattan Project work and career, you can listen to an interview with him taken in 1986 on our "Voices of the Manhattan Project" website.