Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Thinkers & Tinkerers

Thinkers & Tinkerers

Ernest Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer and Lawrence

John Wheeler. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

Bugs under the Table

General Leslie Groves addressing a crowd at Hanford

A Very Rare Bird

Chrysler advertisement, 1941

A Lot Learned with Dirty Hands

  • Oppenheimer and Lawrence

    Ernest Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer

    Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and experimentalist Ernest O. Lawrence worked together and built on each other's strengths to help the Manhattan Project succeed.

    Narrator: There was powerful collaborative potential when teaming exeprimental engineers with theoretical physicists, as David Kaiser explains:

    David Kaiser: Another good example of teamwork that spanned completely different styles or approaches to research came from two Berkeley colleagues—Robert Oppenheimer who went on to lead the Los Alamos laboratory during World War II, and then his Berkeley colleague Ernest Lawrence who helped invent the modern techniques in accelerating particles and even won a Nobel Prize by the time World War II broke out.

    Lawrence was a master with his hands and he could make these devices just dance and sing. I mean, he was absolutely the tinkerer’s tinkerer. He could design devices and he had a kind of ambition to make them always bigger, always bigger, always bigger. Lawrence was pursuing big science long before that became the norm.

    Oppenheimer was again the kind of theorist’s theorist. He was trained in Europe. He was trained very beautiful, very formal mathematical physics. He could do sort of wizardry with his calculations, but was frankly not a very hands-on sort of person. That became clear early in his undergraduate studies when he would break everything in laboratory and that kind of thing, like many theory students would.

    So between them, again, Lawrence and Oppenheimer were able to find ways to work together to build on each other’s strengths. Oppenheimer was able to clarify certain ways to make Lawrence’s accelerators grow larger and larger. Certain kinds of unexpected effects would start to hamper the performance machines until people realize there are good basic physics, theoretical reasons to think about why these effects are cropping up now. We can now see them coming, head them off, and design bigger machines.

    So, there was a need for them to work together and that carried over well into World War II. Lawrence was able to use his accumulated expertise in big machinery, making big grandiose things work, making them work efficiently—troubleshooting them. And, Oppenheimer was able to use his kind of synoptic view of worlds of knowledge that few individuals had the capacity to really master the way he did to really coordinate very different groups within this sort of sprawling laboratory at Los Alamos. So, they both had enormously important strengths that came to bear during the Manhattan Project.

  • Bugs under the Table

    John Wheeler. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

    DuPont engineer George Graves worked closely with physicist John Wheeler to help translate theory into reality, leaving no possible problems uncovered.

    Narrator: Manhattan Project engineers were responsible for translating theoretical ideas into workable blueprints to create first-of-their-kind devices. Working closely with DuPont's lead engineer George Graves to anticipate “bugs” in the process was physicist John Wheeler.

    John Wheeler: George Graves is a remarkable person. It was he who took, I think, more than any other person the responsibility for putting in these extra tubes in the plant to take care of the poisoning; he followed the calculations. Every day I would be working on these “bugs under the table” you might say: what would be the consequences of poisoning? What would be consequences of a bad temperature coefficient? What would be the consequences of a failure in the control rod system? And these memoranda that I would produce would then go to other people who would then go on with the engineering steps in the process.

    He kept a book in which all these possible crises situations were catalogued and week by week he would follow what was being done on them and keep prodding people to prod the Chicago people to do experiments on checking on each of these points so nothing was left uncovered.

  • A Very Rare Bird

    General Leslie Groves addressing a crowd at Hanford

    Percival Keith's understanding of theoretical science combined with his industrial experience and engineering know-how made him the perfect man to lead Kellex, the company tasked with building the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge.

    Narrator: Percival Keith, also known as “Dobie,” was the one of the top chemical engineers in the country, the vice president of engineering for M. W. Kellogg Company. When Keith was asked to lead a new subsidiary called “Kellex” for the Manhattan Project, he demanded complete control with no interference from General Groves or anyone else.

    Keith: When I took this job, I wrote [General] Groves a letter in which I said that I would spend as much or as little time on this project as I in my uncontrolled discretion thought was necessary. I thought he would refuse that. He was smarter than I was, because he accepted it and then later laughed at me and said, “Now all right, if this thing fails, I have got this letter." It's a two- edged sword. I was very fond of the General and I must say that very few people were.

    Narrator: General Groves admired Keith, a hard-driving Texan with big, bold ideas.

    Groves: He [Keith] had a drive and he had a willingness to make a decision instead of saying, “Well, maybe we can get something better around the corner.” And he was entirely satisfactory. For one thing, you couldn’t get a man who was pure and simply an executive and a driver who wasn’t also thoroughly trained scientifically. And the two don’t go together normally. I was favorably impressed because it was evident to me that here was a man with industrial experience. He was a crossover between engineering and theoretical science."

  • A Lot Learned with Dirty Hands

    Chrysler advertisement, 1941

    When Ernest O. Lawrence had trouble with his cyclotron, he contacted Chrysler President and mechanical engineer KT Keller.

    Narrator: The Manhattan Project could not have succeeded without collaboration between scientists and industrial leaders. When Berkeley physicist Earnest O. Lawrence needed advice on how to improve his cyclotron, he contacted K.T. Keller, a renowned engineer and President of the Chrysler Corporation.

    KT Keller: I went to see his cyclotron out in Berkeley. He wanted my technical advice. He said they were having trouble. I told him I didn’t think his precision and manufacture was close enough to do what he was trying to do. You know all of these new gadgets—if you listen to them, they’ll tell you what’s wrong with them. But you got to get your hands dirty. You've got to pay a lot of attention to them. They can’t speak. You’ve got to learn their secrets from their failures and analyze them out. That’s just the same with anything; same with an automobile engine. There’s a lot learned with dirty hands.

Quick Fact:
The Manhattan Project could not have succeeded without brilliant minds who could think up new ideas and theories and talented experimentalists who could tinker and repair machines with their hands.