THE MANHATTAN PROJECT BEGINS

On September 13, 1942, an important meeting of the Project S-1 Executive Committee was held. The United States was now fully engaged in the war, and it was time to move the atomic bomb project from a cautious and ten­tative rate of progress to full speed forward. Present at the meeting were Arthur Compton (1892-1962), director of S-1; Lyman Briggs (1874-1963), the former chairman of the Uranium Committee; James Conant (1893­1978), president of Harvard University; Ernest Lawrence, the cyclotron expert from Berkeley; Eger Murphree (1898-1962), petroleum chemist at Standard Oil; and Harold Urey (1893-1981), another chemist, but with a Nobel Prize. Complete secrecy was necessary, so the meeting was held deep in a forest in Monte Rio, California, in front of the massive stone fireplace in the clubhouse of the Bohemian Grove.

The Grove, populated by undisturbed redwoods more than 1,500 years old, is owned by the Bohemian Club, an exclusive, extremely secre­tive men’s club founded in 1872. Over the entrance is carved the motto: “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here.” A more secure venue could not be found. The urgent topic of discussion was fast neutrons.

A report sent from the MAUD Committee, the top secret British study of nuclear fission, had just come to light, and it detailed an important

finding. It had been known since 1939 that uranium-235 would fission under the influence of neutrons slowed to thermal speed, but there was another point on the spectrum of neutron energies where fission would also be initiated. It was at the opposite end of the range, where 1 MeV neu­trons, fresh from the fissioning event, would also cause energy-releasing fissions. This fact was key to the development of nuclear weapons, because it meant that a bomb could be built small and light and carried by an air­plane. Until then, it had been thought that any chain-reacting uranium explosion would have to be graphite-moderated, and the weapon would be the size of a small house and weigh many tons. Without the modera­tor, and using pure uranium-235, the explosive core could be as small as a pineapple.

The men in the meeting understood the implications of this new infor­mation, but they also realized that they were in over their heads. They decided to establish a new, centralized laboratory to do nothing but study fast neutrons. For the next couple of days, it was code-named Project Y, and they decided it should be run with military precision, speed, and effi­ciency by a West Point man. Four days later, Colonel Leslie Richard Groves (1896-1970) of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned to run this new project. Born in Albany, New York, Leslie Groves was educated at the University of Washington, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and West Point, where he was fourth in the class of 1918. He had just com­pleted a huge construction project, building the Pentagon military office building in Virginia, and was looking forward to a vacation.

Instead, he was promoted to brigadier general and handed a project called “Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials,” a name chosen for its misdirecting properties. Groves did not like the name. He changed it to the “Manhattan Engineers District,” for a nonexistent office of the Corps of Engineers, and seven days later he bought 52,000 acres (210 km2) of land in rural Tennessee, hidden between mountain ranges, called Oak Ridge. It would be given the prosaic name “Site X,” and his project would be headquartered there, far from prying eyes. Everyone except Groves would call it the “Manhattan Project.”

Nuclear physics was now on the fast track. Decisions and directives that had taken months to become effective before the war now took min­utes to be implemented, and budgets that were in the thousands of dollars were now in the billions. New cities would be built from scratch in weeks, universities would be drained of science and engineering faculties, and even silver would be shipped out of the U. S. Treasury by the ton. It would

be an industrial application of pure science as the world had never seen, and it would be carried out in secret. Unlike Germany or any other place in Europe, the manufacturing plants and laboratories would not be sub­ject to bombing, sabotage, or enemy observation.

The next chapter covers the intense three-year effort, beginning with construction projects in Tennessee, Washington State, and New Mexico, and ending with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan. This unusual, government-sponsored endeavor would forever skew nuclear power, reminding everyone of bombing and unleashed radiation, but it would also give it a tremendous push.

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