Preservation at Dayton, OH
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Preservation at Dayton, OH

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Although rarely recognized for its contributions, Manhattan Project scientists and engineers working in Dayton, Ohio produced the polonium triggers used to begin the chain reaction in the atomic bombs. Below, we have included a recent article discussing the merits of including Dayton in the National Park System survey lobbied for by AHF.

Dayton shunned, stunned by exclusion from bomb history:
Area faces hard fight to win place in nation's park system linked to Manhattan Project

By Jim DeBrosse
Dayton Daily News

December 8, 2004

 Charles Allen Thomas was one of dozens of scientists who lay in the desert sand of Alamogordo, N.M., in the predawn gloom of July 16, 1945, waiting for a frightening new era in human history to begin.

Twenty miles away, atop a 100-foot tower, was the world's first atomic bomb, code-named Trinity and equipped with a polonium trigger designed and developed in Dayton by a team of hundreds of researchers and technicians led by Thomas, research director at Dayton's Monsanto Chemical Company.

If the trigger didn't work, the bomb wouldn't work, and the $2 billion invested in the Manhattan Project, as well as the concentrated efforts of thousands of the nation's best physicists, chemists and mathematicians over the past three years, would have been for nothing.

At 5:29 a.m., the final warning flare was thrown: the A-test was just a minute away. Thomas and the others held plates of smoked glass over their eyes, making the darkness even darker. No one said a word.

"Then all of a sudden there was an intense speck of light," Thomas wrote in a memo 10 days later. "This grew to a giant ball which rose rapidly in the air - it was awful! ... It was literally a sun coming up too close."
Almost 60 years after the world's first successful atomic explosion, Congress has directed the National Park Service to study three key sites as parts of a possible national park system dedicated to the Manhattan Project and the development of the first atomic bomb - Los Alamos, N.M.; Oak Ridge, Tenn.; and Hanford, Wash.

Conspicuously absent from the list is Dayton, where the polonium triggers for the first and subsequent atomic bombs were designed and built as part of the Dayton Project. Historians and local officials say they believe that Dayton is not being given its proper due, since the trigger was a crucial part of the bombs and because the pioneering employees at Dayton's Monsanto facilities risked their lives to develop the bombs' triggers with the highly radioactive element polonium.

"The Dayton Project should certainly be part of this park system," said James M. Maroncelli, co-author of The Traveler's Guide to Nuclear Weapons and a Web site ( detailing what's left of the Manhattan Project and the nation's early A-bomb program.

Prior to Dayton's contribution, pure polonium existed only in theory. Here it was produced, purified and harnessed for the first time in a crash program that took place in residential areas of Dayton and Oakwood, where neighbors hadn't a clue of what was happening under their noses.

 "Between big trucks rolling in and out, the floodlights and heavy-duty power lines strung all over, the place was a real mess," Lee Jones of Oakwood recalled in a 1983 story about Runnymede Playhouse, part of the Talbott family estate where the polonium was refined. "But those were the days when you knew enough not to ask questions."

The Playhouse had been the leisure palace of the Talbott family, with giant ballroom, indoor squash and tennis courts as well as a stage for community theater. But when the Dayton Project needed a quick means of expanding, Thomas, who was married to Margaret Talbott, suggested the Army take over the massive glass-topped structure, much to his mother-in-law's displeasure.

Thomas promised to return the building to the family intact after the war - a promise he wouldn't be able to keep. Too radioactively "hot" to clean and restore, the Playhouse was dismantled in 1950 and was later buried in Tennessee.

But Dayton has retained many of the other original buildings involved in the trigger project - including the General Electric Supply Warehouse at 610 E. Third Street, home to one of the nation's first radiation health safety programs; and six smaller buildings that surrounded the Bonebrake Seminary on West First Street, a block from Paul Laurence Dunbar House.

National Park Service officials in Washington say they are open to including Dayton in their park system study - but only if money can be found. They say they are still trying to drum up the funds to assess the significance and suitability of the three sites already designated by Congress. The study of those sites alone will cost the service $700,000 to $800,000.

 Typically, congressional directives also include planning funds, but not in this case. "Right now, we're talking about how we're going to proceed, considering that we have no money," said Warren Brown, planning studies program manager for the National Park Service. He said the service has a planning budget of $500,000 that is already financing 14 other studies.

If funding can be found, either through the National Park Service or the U.S. Department of Energy, the kickoff date for the Manhattan Project study is March 1.

Jude McCartin, a spokeswoman for the bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said the law does "not actually restrict the study just to those three sites. Those three are the ones we wanted to be sure were studied. The secretary (of the Interior) has the right to include more."

But local officials say they fear that Dayton has a long, hard road ahead in winning the support of Congress and the National Park Service. Several years of studies by the U.S. Department of Energy to determine the "signature sites" in the Manhattan Project overlooked Dayton - a pattern of the past 60 years.

"The work in Dayton was so secret it was just never publicized," said Larry Blake, superintendent of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. "There may still be a tremendous amount of information that may not have been declassified about Dayton."

Richard Rhodes' 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Manhattan Project, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, devotes just two paragraphs to Dayton's role in his comprehensive 886-page tome.

"The burden falls on the community to show that Dayton was indeed a key site in the development of the atomic bomb and deserves that recognition. That's no small task," said Michael Gessel, who follows federal legislation for the Dayton Development Coalition. "How much does Dayton want this? National Park designation is extremely difficult to obtain."

Gessel noted that it took 20 years of prodding, planning and fund raising in the Miami Valley to secure the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, which finally opened in 2003 during the centennial celebration of the Wright brothers' first flight.

The park process is meant to be difficult "so that only the best qualify," Gessel said. "When you add a unit to the National Park Service, you're not simply making a one-time expenditure. You are, in fact, obligating the United States and future generations to support and maintain that site in perpetuity."

If nothing else, proponents of a park site here say, Dayton contributed one of the leading lights to the Manhattan Project - Charles Allen Thomas.

Thomas was among a handful of internationally known scientists who were summoned to Washington in early 1943 and secretly briefed by Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves on the nation's crash program to develop an atomic bomb. Thomas was offered a co-directorship of the project, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer, but declined for family and career reasons since the position would have meant moving to Los Alamos.

Thomas agreed, though, to oversee the development of the polonium trigger in Dayton as well as the chemical research taking place at other Manhattan Project sites. In the end, Thomas was one of just 14 scientists among the thousands involved in the Manhattan Project to be awarded the Medal for Merit, the highest civilian honor for wartime service.

A farm boy who grew up in Scott County, Ky., Thomas' early obsession with chemistry was indulged by his mother, who set up a laboratory for him in the family barn. He went on to attend Berea College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he came to the attention of Dayton's engineering guru Charles F. Kettering. Kettering recruited Thomas to help solve the problem of engine knock, and cheap and efficient leaded gasoline was born.

But the true significance of Dayton's contribution to the Manhattan Project goes to the core of the technical problems in creating a reliable atomic bomb, Maroncelli said. First, the project faced the hurdle of producing enough fissionable radioactive material to reach the critical mass needed for a nuclear chain reaction.

The Hanford site worked on refining plutonium for a bomb, while the Oak Ridge site concentrated on producing enriched uranium. The bomb would work only when a critical mass of uranium or plutonium was crushed together - and only if a few free neutrons were present to kick-start the chain reaction within the few microseconds of highest compression.

Early in their investigations, Los Alamos researchers realized that rapidly mixing polonium with beryllium would release a burst of neutrons that could initiate a chain reaction before the critical mass blew itself apart. But there had never been enough polonium produced to even see it. Dayton scientists worked out the methods for separating sufficient polonium from irradiated bismuth slugs, purifying it, and forming it into the bomb triggers.

Originally, the atomic bombs that were to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both "Gun Type" designs, where two subcritical masses would be compacted together to form the critical mass for an explosive nuclear chain reaction.

But in August 1944, scientists discovered that the plutonium to be produced at Hanford would be five times more unstable than they had previously thought and that the risk of "pre-detonation" made the plutonium Gun Type unfeasible. A safer "Implosion Type" bomb was quickly put on the drawing board. In case either design failed, both bomb types were to be built - the Gun Type code-named Little Boy and the Implosion Type code-named Fat Man.

That put the pressure on Dayton, where scientists now needed to design a new type of polonium trigger for Fat Man.

For the less sophisticated Little Boy, Dayton Project scientists had built half-inch-long cylindrical "squabs" made of beryllium and a few milligrams of polonium separated by gold foil. Four Dayton squabs would trigger Little Boy when they were crushed by the uranium in the Gun Type bomb as it fell toward Hiroshima.

For the plutonium Fat Man bombs, scientists now needed to devise ¾-inch-diameter spheres of beryllium and polonium, called "urchins," one of which was tucked into the center of each of the bombs detonated at Alamogordo and Nagasaki.

The Dayton trigger was a key technical hurdle in not only the bombs of World War II, but also in hundreds of atomic bombs produced after the war. The Trinity device was tested at Alamogordo to prove the feasibility of the implosion method. Dayton's urchin passed this test perfectly.

"Just because Dayton is less well-known doesn't mean it's less worthy of preservation," said Cynthia Kelly, president and founder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, which has worked closely with the Department of Energy in trying to preserve Manhattan Project sites. "There were a lot of people who were really unsure" that the Dayton trigger would work at all.

In 1949, the Dayton area was rewarded for its success when the new Atomic Energy Commission, which had taken over the Manhattan Project, recognized the Dayton Project's value by consolidating its operations from the four Dayton sites into the new Mound Laboratory in Miamisburg (now the Mound Advanced Technology Center).

Maroncelli agrees with Gessel that Dayton has a long struggle ahead in claiming its place among the most significant Manhattan Project sites. In all, the Manhattan Project included hundreds of facilities scattered throughout almost every state - in part to maintain its vital secrecy.

And Dayton already has lost several historic Manhattan Project structures - the original Monsanto Central Research Department laboratories at 1515 Nicholas Road, where the trigger project was planned and early X-ray spectrographic work took place; the Runnymede Playhouse in Oakwood, near Dixon Avenue and Runnymede Road, where the polonium was refined; and the Bonebrake Seminary building, where much of the breakthrough research on polonium was done.

No deaths or injuries were ever reported as the result of exposure to polonium during the Dayton Project. With a half-life of just 138 days, polonium decays quickly compared with plutonium, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and especially uranium, whose half-life is 700 million years. A half-life measures how long it takes half of the atoms in radioactive material to dissipate.

Bonebrake Seminary was condemned and torn down in the early 1950s by its owner, the Dayton Board of Education, which had no idea of its historical significance at the time. Monsanto demolished its central research department, and several other original buildings, in the 1980s.

As for Thomas, his career at the Monsanto Chemical Company continued to rise after the war. He served as president of Monsanto from 1951 to 1960 and as chairman of the board from 1960 to 1965 before retiring from the company in 1970. He died in 1982.

 Local officials argue that Dayton has retained enough of its atomic heritage to preserve it for future generations. The support buildings, fence and sidewalks at the Bonebrake complex, still used by Dayton City Schools for storage, are remarkably unchanged since the days of the Manhattan Project. So is the General Electric Supply Warehouse on East Third Street, where project employees were screened for polonium exposure. The Mound Museum Association has been able to find and salvage equipment from the project sites, including a highly sensitive quartz microbalance for weighing minute quantities of polonium.

Gessel says Dayton has too much at stake not to push for inclusion in the new National Park system. It's not only a matter of instilling community pride and honoring its Monsanto employees, he said, but a matter of dollars. Dayton could add to its tourism revenue if it became part of an Atomic Heritage Trail, much like the Aviation Heritage Trail that includes Dayton's Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. And a second National Park designation as a center of innovation would boost Dayton's ability to attract new businesses.

"Nobody could solve the problem of flight, except two brothers from Dayton," Gessel said. "And nobody could solve the mystery of the atomic bomb, except a team from Dayton."

Contact Jim DeBrosse at 225-2437.


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