It took the hands and brainpower of many very smart people to develop an atomic superweapon that would help the U.S. secure victory during World War II. Some of the most important characters in this effort were the scientists of the Manhattan Project. Many scientists were involved in the production of each physical part needed to develop the atomic superweapon. The ones we will talk about today played the most vital roles.
J. Robert Oppenheimer
You likely recognize the name J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was one of the most famous scientists of the Manhattan Project. His vital role as a physicist in the Manhattan Project pushed the efforts to build the atomic bomb along, and he even came to be known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.”
He became the Director of Los Alamos in June 1942, where they mainly worked on nuclear fission. Less than three years after Oppenheimer was placed in charge of direct weapons development, the United States dropped two atomic bombs. Oppenheimer felt passionate about the security atomic bombs and nuclear power could bring, but felt that it was important to keep it organized through something like the United Nations, to keep from the inevitable nuclear arms race and future possible wars.
In his famous words, “Science is not everything, but science is very beautiful.”
Enrico Fermi was an Italian (later Italian-American) scientist who also played a key role in the Manhattan Project. He was also a physicist whose greatest contribution was the creation of the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1. Fermi accomplished many things that had never been done before. He was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on induced radioactivity by neutron bombardment as well as the discovery of transuranium elements. With his colleagues, Fermi filed several patents related to the use of nuclear power, all of which were taken over by the US government. These significant contributions led to some of his peers’ ability to create other important inventions.
Ernest Lawrence was an American nuclear scientist, known for his work on uranium-isotope separation for the Manhattan Project. He also won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1939 for his invention of the cyclotron, an important particle accelerator.
A Hungarian-American physicist and inventor, Leo Szilard, conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933 and patented the idea of a nuclear fission reactor in 1934. When Szilard learned of nuclear fission which was discovered in Germany, he realized that uranium might be the element capable of sustaining a chain reaction. This is when he got other scientists involved, borrowed funds from a fellow inventor, and set out to prove that a chain reaction might be possible. They proved this and more, but felt conflicted about their findings.
“We turned the switch and saw the flashes. We watched them for a little while and then we switched everything off and went home. That night, there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.”
He decided to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning him of Germany’s findings, sharing his own, and recommending funding the research on nuclear reactions, even nuclear weapons. This letter ultimately led to the creation of the Manhattan Project.