The Making of the Atomic Bomb

by Richard Rhodes

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The Scientists
Rhodes describes extensively, up to World War II, the lives and work of an international community of scientists, mostly physicists and chemists, whose work eventually culminated in the making of the first atomic bomb. Theories of the existence of atomic particles date back to Greek philosophy in the fifth century B.C., and, by the seventeenth century A.D. most scientists assumed the existence of the atom. However, no actual proof of the existence of the atom had been formulated until J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. In 1884, Thomson was chair of the distinguished Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge where he exerted tremendous influence on a generation of scientists. Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity was announced in 1915. Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born Jewish theoretical physicist, entered the University of Berlin in 1921, where he collaborated with Einstein. Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealand born British physicist credited with inventing nuclear physics (also called atomic physics). Rutherford studied under Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory, replacing Thomson as head of the lab in 1919. Rutherford’s most significant accomplishment was the development of a theory of atomic structure called the Rutherford atomic model.

Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, made significant advances with his formulation of the Bohr atomic model. In 1921, Bohr became director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, which, under his direction, soon gained an international reputation as a leading center for research on quantum theory and atomic physics. Bohr broke new ground in the application of quantum theory to the study of atomic and molecular particles. Robert J. Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist, studied atomic physics under Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1927, Oppenheimer took a post in physics at The University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. In 1932, James Chadwick, an English physicist who worked with Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, discovered the neutron. Otto Hahn, a German chemist who was working with Fritz Strassmann, discovered nuclear fission. The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted important research on nuclear fission at the University of Rome.

When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, many of Europe’s greatest physicists emigrated in order to flee Nazi persecution, several of them settling in the United States. Szilard emigrated to London, where he first conceived of the possibility of creating an atomic bomb, and later settled in the United States, taking a post at Columbia University. Einstein, in particular danger of Nazi persecution due to his international prominence, fled to the United States, where he took a post at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, in New Jersey. In 1938, Fermi, under the pretext of traveling with his family to Sweden to receive his Nobel Prize, fled fascist Italy, eventually settling in the United States. Meitner fled Nazi Germany in 1938 to settle in Sweden, where she continued her research with her nephew Otto Frisch. After Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, at the outbreak of World War II, Bohr and his family fled to England and then the United States.

The Manhattan Project
Upon reaching New York in 1939, Bohr alerted Einstein to the possibility of Germany developing an atomic bomb. Along with several colleagues, Bohr persuaded Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, suggesting that the United States initiate research into the development of an atomic bomb before Germany developed one. However, government officials failed to comprehend the enormity of the implications of these new developments, as explained by several brilliant scientists. It was not until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 that the United...

(This entire section contains 1061 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

States entered World War II, at which point the possibility of creating such a military weapon appeared more relevant to government and military officials. The result was the organization in May of 1942 of the secret Manhattan Project, which included several teams of American and British scientists conducting research at such disparate sites as the University of Chicago and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Other locations where scientists were working on the Manhattan Project were the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia University in New York City, and Oak Ridge in Tennessee. It came to be called the Manhattan Project because of the location of the new government office organizing the project, known as the Manhattan Engineer District Office. (The Los Alamos site, however, is most commonly associated with the Manhattan Project.) On July 16, 1945, the first test atomic bomb, named Trinity, was successfully exploded on an air base in Alamogordo, New Mexico. In the meantime, scientists in Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and Russia were coming to the same conclusions about the possibility of creating an atomic bomb. However, several factors discouraged efforts by these nations to develop such a bomb.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki
On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died, and Vice President Harry S. Truman was sworn in as president of the United States. Up to that point, Truman had only a vague idea of the goals of the Manhattan Project; he was quickly informed of the significance of its efforts. In May 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allies. Peace negotiations were initiated at the Potsdam Conference, held in a suburb of Berlin, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. President Truman of the United States, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Premier Joseph Stalin of Russia, known collectively as the Big Three, were the leading figures in these negotiations. The War with Germany concluded, the Allies sent a message from Potsdam to the Japanese government, calling for unconditional surrender. When Japan refused to surrender, the United States dropped the first offensive atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. The bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, had been carried in a modified B-29 bomber called Enola Gay, flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets. Although the Japanese Emperor Hirohito was willing to surrender, the Japanese military was unyielding, as a result of which the United States dropped a second bomb, nicknamed Fat Man, on the city of Nagasaki, on August 9. Japan immediately surrendered to the Allies. Both Japanese cities were utterly devastated by the bombs. Hiroshima, with a population of about 350,000, suffered the deaths of 140,000 people as a result of the bombing. Two-thirds of the city was demolished in the explosion. Of Nagasaki’s 270,000 residents, some 70,000 died as a result of the bombing, and half of the city was demolished. After the war, the United States began work on developing the more powerful hydrogen bomb.