Meet the Chadwicks
Becoming the Baker House
Leap of Faith
The British Mission
Meet the Chadwicks
Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan explains the role of Nobel Prize-winning scientist James Chadwick in the Manhattan Project, and how he and his family came to live in the Baker House.
Narrator: The Baker House was where Nobel Prize-winning physicist James Chadwick lived with his wife Aileen and twin daughters during the Manhattan Project.
In Cambridge, England, Chadwick had led the British effort or Tube Alloy project. Convinced that an atomic bomb was feasible, Chadwick made a compelling case to his American counterparts for a full-blown effort.
In 1943, Chadwick led the British Mission consisting of more two dozen physicists, many of them refugees from Nazi Europe, to work jointly on the Manhattan Project.
Heather McClenahan: This unusual brown and white building is known around town as the Baker House. Originally, it was the chief mechanic’s house for the Los Alamos Ranch School. He lived right across from those diesel generators that supplied the electricity, and took care of those.
When the Manhattan Project came along, the most famous person to live in this house was Sir James Chadwick. He won the 1936 Nobel Prize for the discovery of the neutron, and Sir James came with the British Mission.
He lived in this house with his wife and twin daughters, who were of course all London debutantes. They just did not appreciate the mud streets, and the cold winds that blew here in the springtime, and the dust. They really did not like living in Los Alamos. After a few months, Sir James moved his family back to Washington, DC, where he continued to be a scientific ambassador for the project.
Becoming the Baker House
Los Alamos Historical Society Executive Director Heather McClenahan discusses the Baker House’s residents after World War II, Colonel Gerald T. Tyler and Richard D. Baker.
Narrator: In 1959, Manhattan Project veteran Richard D. Baker moved into the house and lived there for thirty-six years, until 1995. Before that, it was home to one Colonel Gerald T. Tyler.
Heather McClenahan: Colonel Tyler was one of the base commanders here in Los Alamos, and he lived in this house after the Chadwick’s left. He had a safe here, and we often wonder if the walls of that safe could talk, what sort of secrets it might reveal.
After the war, Richard and Bonnie Baker moved into this house. Richard was high up in the laboratory, as all of the Bathtub Row homeowners were.
The Baker House is a private residence, and we would appreciate it if you would respect the owner’s privacy when you are touring.
Leap of Faith
Chemist Richard Baker explains how he was recruited work on a top-secret war project in a secret location – the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.
Narrator: Richard Baker graduated from Ames College, worked at Ames Laboratory, and then for a company in Chicago as a physical chemist. At age twenty-five, he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, but he was not told what he would be doing or where he would be doing it. He remembers J. Robert Oppenheimer showing him a postcard of Ashley Pond with mountains in the distance.
Richard Baker: They couldn’t tell me a great a deal. They just told me that it was a very vital defense project. They told me that it was, from a technical point of view, very challenging, and that they would have no trouble putting me on leave of absence with the company. Pretty much, I joined the project on just what they told me: that it was very important, and would be challenging.
What you did when you started out here like that was, you just put your faith in the people that had talked to you, because you really didn’t know what you were doing or where you were going.
I had never been in New Mexico. The only thing that I recall about that was, Oppenheimer had a picture with him that was taken during the Ranch School days here that showed Ashley Pond over here. It had two swans floating around on it and a canoe. This was taken when the boys were here. Well, it looked pretty good. You could tell by the picture that it was in the mountains, you see.
By the time I arrived here, Ashley Pond—due to construction—had been reduced to just one great big mud hole. No swans. There were no canoes. They were drawing water out of that for construction purposes, you see.
The interesting part of it was, that coming out here through dry New Mexico, I was wondering where all this water of this pond and the swans was!
British physicist Anthony French remembers Sir James Chadwick’s advice on how to dress for American weather.
Narrator: Sir James Chadwick led the British Mission’s group of accomplished physicists in Los Alamos. Anthony French remembers Chadwick’s advice on how to prepare for life in New Mexico.
Anthony French: Chadwick was a very taciturn man. He was given to sitting for minutes puffing on his pipe before saying anything. So we didn’t learn much from him.
One amusing thing that happened actually was, he more or less told us that we were going to a place in America. He said, “Now the winters are rather severe, and you had better get yourself a really good overcoat.” That was about the size of it.
I followed his advice and bought an expensive tweed overcoat, which I never actually wore. New Mexico weather wasn’t quite that severe at all, even on the top of the mesa.
The British Mission
Historian Dr. David Kaiser explains the important role many British scientists played in the Manhattan Project, from Nobel Prize winner Sir James Chadwick to Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs.
Narrator: The Manhattan Project was truly an Anglo-American effort. In 1939, Sir James Chadwick, Rudolf Peierls and other British scientists began exploring how to create an atomic bomb, and urged their United States counterparts to join them. As MIT professor David Kaiser explains, the physicists who were part of the British Mission in Los Alamos made valuable contributions. Unfortunately, not all of them were trustworthy.
David Kaiser: The British actually had been, as with radar, they had been ahead of the game—certainly ahead of the Americans—in thinking about the implications of nuclear fission, possible wartime weapons, devices, bombs, that could be made. There were at the time top-secret calculations done by British researchers on, what would the critical mass be? How much enriched uranium would one need to build a runaway nuclear explosion, to build a bomb?
There was all kinds of knowledge and expertise on a fairly small scale, before the Manhattan Project really got up and running. And then, many of those figures were able to come over and work at various sites across the United States during the war.
Sir James Chadwick, who was famous for discovering the neutron, an experimental physicist who brought his expertise. Rudolf Peierls, himself an émigré to Britain from Central Europe, and then he came over and further helped the war effort here in the United States.
As we now know, they also brought people like Klaus Fuchs, who was another German émigré who had naturalized in Britain, and then came over to work both at Oak Ridge with the efforts to separate isotopes of uranium and eventually made his way to Los Alamos as well. That’s relevant because as we now know, Fuchs was sending information to his Soviet handlers throughout the war and continued to do so even after he went back to Britain, working on the British nuclear program, throughout the late 1940s.