Home History 103 Manhattan Project Facts – Dawn of the Atomic Age

103 Manhattan Project Facts – Dawn of the Atomic Age

by Sankalan Baidya
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In this rundown on Manhattan Project facts we will learn how the atomic age began. We will learn about the development of the first atomic bomb and its subsequent usage.

Well, whether the development of such weapons of mass destruction was good or bad is a subject of intense debate and we shall, under all circumstances, refrain ourselves from such debates.

So, without further ado, let us begin learning about the history of Manhattan Project.

Manhattan Project Facts : 1-5 | Introduction

1. The term ‘Manhattan Project’ is a code name. It is the name that was given to a project led by the Americans to create a functional Atomic Bomb.

2. The project took place during the closing years of the infamous World War II.

3. The project involved some of the greatest scientific minds of that time as well as the US Military.

4. Most of the work for the Manhattan Project was done in Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States.

5. The reason why the Manhattan Project came into existence was the fear of German scientists working on a weapon using the nuclear technology since the 1930s and speculations that Adolf Hitler was ready to use the weapon.

Manhattan Project Facts: 6-25 | The Origins

Manhattan Project Facts: The Letter

6. In 1938, two German chemists by the names Fritz Strassmann and Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission.

7. In the same year, two physicists by the name Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner came up with a theoretical explanation of nuclear fission. This allowed development of nuclear bomb a theoretical possibility.

8. Many scientists who were refugees from Nazi Germany and several other fascist countries feared that the Germans will first develop a nuclear bomb.

9. In 1939, Leo Szilard, along with Eugene Wigner – physicists who were born in Hungary, drafted a letter (that later became known as Einstein-Szilard letter). The letter was signed by Albert Einstein.

manhattan project facts
Image Source

10. The letter that they drafted was sent to the then President of USA – Franklin D. Roosevelt. The letter warned of a potentially extremely powerful bomb of a new kind.

Manhattan Project Facts: The Advisory Committee on Uranium

11. The letter was good enough for United States to take actions and the country went on to stockpile Uranium Ore. Several steps were also taken to accelerate the research done by Enrico Fermi and various other scientists who were working on nuclear chain reaction.

12. President Roosevelt went on to set up what is known as the Advisory Committee on Uranium.

13. He then called Layman Briggs – an American engineer and physicist from National Bureau of Standards and asked Briggs to head the committee so that it can investigate the issues that were presented by the Einstein-Szilard letter.

14. A meeting was organized by the Advisory Committee on Uranium and the matter was discussed on 21 October, 1939.

15. The committee went on to report to the President that Uranium was capable of becoming the possible source of bombs with unmatched destructiveness that man has never seen before.

Manhattan Project Facts: Funding for Research

16. Based on the findings and reports of the committee, the President sanctioned funding and the US government started funding the research that was done by Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi at Columbia University.

manhattan project facts
By Department of Energy. Office of Public Affairs – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 558578., Public Domain, Link

17. The research that Szilard and Fermi was engaged in was referred to as ‘radioactive isotope separation’ aka ‘Uranium enrichment’ and nuclear chain reactions.

18. In 1940, the name of Advisory Committee on Uranium was changed to National Defence Research Committee and the committee was given $6000 in February 1940to start research.

19. In 1941, the name was once again changed from National Defence Research Committee to ‘Office of Scientific Research and Development’ or OSRD.

20. Enrico Fermi was named as a member of the OSRD in the same year.

Manhattan Project Facts: It Becomes a Military Project

21. In 1941, the Pearl Harbor attack happened. US Navy came under a surprise attack by the Japanese.

22. President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, thereby marking the engagement of USA in the WWII.

manhattan project facts
Image Source

23. Allies of Japan, that is, Italy and Germany declared war on USA three days after USA declared war on Japan. In turn USA declared war on Italy and Germany.

24. USA aligned with Great Britain, Russia and France to fight against the Japanese in the Pacific Theater and the Germans in the Europe.

25. In 1942, President Roosevelt approved the joining of the Army Corps of Engineers into the OSRD. This formally morphed the project into a military project with scientists working as support.

Manhattan Project Facts: 26-52 | The Beginning of the Project

Manhattan Project Facts: The Initial Steps

26. OSRD went on to create Manhattan Engineering District in the year 1942. The place was located in Manhattan – a borough in New York City.

27. The person who was appointed as the project lead was Leslie R. Groves – a Lieutenant General in the US Army.

manhattan project facts
By Hawkeye7 – This file was derived from: Manhattan District.pngFor official description and monochrome sketch, see WAC Detachment Yearbook – 9812th TSU-CE – Manhattan District – May 1946 (p. 8); for official monochrome image of actual patch, see here; for full-color image of actual patch, see here, Public Domain, Link

28. Szilard and Fermi were still involved in their research that involved nuclear chain reaction (that is the process that in involved in the interaction and separation of atoms) as well as successful enrichment of Uranium for producing Uranium-235.

29. However, this time, Szilard and Fermi were not working at Columbia University but at the University of Chicago.

30. While this all was happening in the USA, other scientists such as Glenn Seaborg were busy producing samples of pure Plutonium but on microscopic scale.

31. The Canadian government as well as Canadian military officials were busy working on nuclear research at various Canadian sites.

Manhattan Project Facts: The German Threat

32. It became well-known in 1940 that German scientists were also working on a similar project of creating an atomic bomb.

manhattan project facts
Emblem of Nazi Germany | By RsVe. – Own work., Public Domain, Link

33. This threat forced Harold Urey and George Pegram to visit Britain because even Britain was working on the problem.

34. The whole idea of Urey’s and Pegram’s visit was to come up with a cooperative effort to defeat the Germans in the race of building an atomic bomb.

35. Their efforts were successful and eventually a committee on combined policy was established that included America, Britain and Canada in the year 1943.

36. Following that success, a number of scientists from Britain and Canada moved to America to work together on the project that was active in the USA.

37. The idea was that for the project to become successful quickly, several lines of research were to be merged and carried out simultaneously even without knowing whether they will work or not.

38. The other uncertainty was that even if the researches became successful, the next big problem was that of producing the explosive materials and ensuring that those materials were suitable for use in an actual weapon.

Manhattan Project Facts: The Hurdle with Uranium

39. There was a big problem with the enrichment of Uranium-238 into Uranium-235 using chemical methods. Thus, the need for physical methods was strongly felt.

40. Several physical methods were researched intensively out of which only two were selected. Those two were: The Electromagnetic Process and The Diffusion Process.

41. ‘The Electromagnetic Process’ was developed under Ernest Orlando Lawrence at the University of California.

42. The other process that is, ‘The Diffusion Process’ was developed at the Columbia University under Harold Urey.

43. Both the processes (in particular, the Diffusion Process) required extreme amounts of electric power for generating very small amounts of Uranium-235.

44. A third method known as the ‘Thermal Diffusion’ was developed by Philip Hauge Abelson.

45. All the methods were brought together and put into practice at a 180 sq. km. tract near Knoxville, Tennessee. The tract was initially known as Clinton Engineering Work but was later renamed as Oak Ridge.

manhattan project facts

Manhattan Project Facts: The Plutonium Issue

46. Plutonium on the other had was facing another challenge. There was only one method that was available for making fissionable Plutonium-239.

47. The available method was developed under Arthur Holly Compton in the University of Chicago. The process involved transmutation inside a Uranium-238 reactor pile.

48. For producing Plutonium-239 on a large scale, a massive reactor was required that would be able to release nearly 25,000 kilowatt-hours of heat for every one gram of Plutonium-239 produced.

49. However, that wasn’t the only problem. The method of producing Plutonium-239 also required development of some chemical extraction process that could work only under certain set of conditions that was not encountered by anyone before!

50. To put the process in work, a mid-sized reactor was constructed in Oak Ridge.

51. For large scale production of Plutomium-239, huge reactors were built on an isolated tract spanning over 2,600 sq. km. on the Columbia River that was located to the north of Pasco in Washington.

52. The setup of the tract on Columbia River became known as the Hanford Engineer Works.

Manhattan Project Facts: 53-74 | The Bomb

Manhattan Project Facts: The Bomb Design and Oppenheimer

53. The design and the function of the atomic bomb was only a theory before the year 1943. All the theory was dependent on the various experiments that were scattered here and there.

54. In 1943, a laboratory was created on an isolated mesa that was located at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer was made the director of the laboratory.

55. Located 34 miles north of Santa Fe, the laboratory was tasked with development of methods that could be used for reducing fissionable material (from the production sites) into pure metal.

56. That was not the end. Once pure metal was made, the metal had to be fabricated into the required shapes.

manhattan project facts
By Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs – Taken from a Los Alamos publication (Los Alamos: Beginning of an era, 1943-1945, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, 1986.)., Attribution, Link

57. Oppenheimer and his team to come up with methods that would require bringing fissionable material rapidly in order to achieve a supercritical mass that would lead to a nuclear reaction.

58. Oppenheimer was also tasked with the design and construction of the actual delivery weapon that could be dropped from a plane and then fused at a precise moment in air right above the target.

59. There was one catch to all these! Oppenheimer and his team had to achieve all these before any good amount of fissionable material was made available. The reason was simple. The US government did not want wastage and intended to use the first adequate amounts at fighting front without any significant slowdown.

Manhattan Project Facts: The Plutonium Was Ready

60. Hanford Engineer Works managed to deliver sufficient amounts of fissionable Plutonium-239 by 1945 summer.

61. By that time, Oppenheimer and his team had come up with weapon design that was far more advanced that what was back in 1943.

62. The designed weapons were sufficiently advanced for the US Army to go ahead and conduct a field test. The test however was not simple.

63. The equipment for the bomb was complex and elaborate. It had to be assembled along with provisions of complete diagnosis so that failure or success, whatever the result was, could be analyzed.

64. By the time the bomb was nearly ready with all designs and fissionable material in place, the cost of the project was already soaring high at $2 billion but when it started, it was only $6,000.

Manhattan Project Facts: The A-Bomb Detonated

65. The bomb was eventually created and was ready for a test. The first atomic bomb was exploded at 5:30 AM on July 16, 1945. It was referred to as the Trinity Test.

manhattan project facts
By United States Department of Energy – Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie, Public Domain, Link

66. The test site was located at Alamogordo air base located 193 kilometers south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

67. The denotation took place atop a steel tower. The tower itself was surrounded by various scientific equipment. All the equipment had remote monitoring abilities.

68. The people who were monitoring were scientists and a few dignitaries who stayed hidden in bunkers located 9 kilometers of 10,000 yards away from the ground zero of explosion.

69. When the bomb was detonated, there was first an intense light followed by a sudden heatwave.

70. Following the light and the heatwave came a deafening roar and a shockwave that passed and echoed through the valley.

71. There was a fireball that shot up in the air and it was then followed by a mushroom cloud that rose a whopping 12,200 meters or 40,000 feet above ground.

72. The power that the bomb generated was equal to 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT or trinitrotoluene.

73. In the aftermath of the explosion, the steel tower was completely vaporized.

74. Within 800 yards or 730 meters of radius from the ground zero, the desert surface had fused into glass.

With the successful detonation of the bomb, humanity ushered into the Atomic Age.

Manhattan Project Facts: 75-88 | Japan Faces the Wrath

Manhattan Project Facts: Potsdam Conference

75. World War II was nearing its end. In Europe, Germany was sustaining heavy losses and was on the verge of surrendering.

76. Japan on the other hand was not really in any mood to surrender and the US military leaders unanimously accepted the fact that Japan will give a very bitter and tough fight if a full-scale invasion of Japan was planned.

77. A full-scale invasion of Japan would mean extreme losses for both the sides. So, such an invasion was not really a wise option.

78. The Allied Forces had occupied a city in Germany called Potsdam. On July 26, 1945, the Potsdam Conference was organized where USA issued a threat to Japan.

79. As per the threat, USA asked Japan to surrender under the terms and conditions laid down by the conference and then elect a democratic and peaceful government. Failure to comply would mean “PROMPT AND UTTER DESTRUCTION.”

80. Unfortunately, the Japanese did not like that because the Potsdam Declaration did not say anything about the role of the Emperor of Japan in the country’s future. So, Japan did not accept what USA asked her to do.

Manhattan Project Facts: Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s Destruction

81. Back in USA, the military leaders had identified Hiroshima as potential target for dropping an atomic bomb. The reason for that was absence of American prisoners of war in that particular area.

82. The USA military leaders though that a forceful demonstration of the atomic bombs will lead to prompt surrender of the Japanese and the World War II would quickly come to an end.

manhattan project facts
By Unknown – https://www.archives.gov/research_room/arc/, Public Domain, Link

83. Following the plans, the US bomber Enola Gay dropped the ‘Little Boy’ bomb on Hiroshima from a height of 1,900 feet. Little Boy was based on Uranium-235 and had never been tested before.

84. Nonetheless, the bomb was quite successful in cause destruction on that fateful day of August 6, 1945. The bomb flattened the city and cause unimaginable destruction within 5 square mile of ground zero.

85. Even after Hiroshima, Japan was not surrendering and so, USA decided to drop another atomic bomb and this time on Nagasaki where the Japanese had a torpedo-building plant.

manhattan project facts
By War Department. Office of the Chief of Engineers. Manhattan Engineer District. (08/16/1942 – 12/31/1946) ( Most Recent) – https://www.archives.gov/research_room/arc/, Public Domain, Link

86. The bomb that took Nagasaki was called the ‘Fat Man’ and it was Plutonium-239 bomb. The Fat Man also brought unprecedented destruction with it and leveled the city.

87. The two atomic bombs collectively killed over 100,000 people in the two cities.

88. Finally, Japan informed USA on August 10 about their intentions of surrendering and eventually surrendered on August 14, 1945.

Manhattan Project Facts: 89-93 | The Legacy

89. The stated mission of the Manhattan Project was to develop weapons that would bring an end to the World War II.

90. The mission was accomplished by destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hence, one might be inclined to think that Manhattan Project ended in August 1945. That’s not true.

91. After the war, USA went on to form the Atomic Energy Commission with the purpose of overseeing the research that intended to use the technologies developed under Manhattan Project in various other fields.

92. Until 1963, on the US government had the monopoly over nuclear energy. In 1964, the monopoly was lifted by the then President Lyndon B. Johnson. This brought private players in the market.

93. Over years, the nuclear fission technology that the Manhattan Project gave became the basis of nuclear reactors, medical imaging systems, radiation therapies, power generators etc.

Manhattan Project Facts: 94-103 | Espionage Attempts

94. America was always weary about the possible sabotage attempts on the Manhattan Project and the occasional equipment failures were considered to be espionage attempts.

95. In 1945 on March 10, a fire balloon belonging to the Japanese managed to strike the power line. That event led to an electrical surge which eventually caused temporary malfunction of the three reactors located at Hanford Engineer Works.

96. Before that, by 1943, it came to the attention of the US government that the Soviet Union was making an attempt to infiltrate the project.

97. Boris T. Pash – a Lieutenant Colonel from Counter Intelligence Branch of Western Defense Command started his investigation on the suspected Soviet espionage at Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory.

98. Oppenheimer confirmed to Boris T. Pash that Haakon Chevalier – a fellow professor from Berkeley approached Oppenheimer and asked him to pass on the information to Soviet Union.

99. Klaus Fuchs was one of the most successful Soviet spies who was a member of British Mission. He played a very important role in Los Alamos.

100. His espionage activities were not uncovered till 1950 but once that was discovered nuclear cooperation between US and Britain ended. USA also ended its cooperation with Canada.

101. Several other instances of espionage were uncovered after Klaus Fuchs was found. The subsequent instances led to arrest of various people including Ethel Rosenberg, Julius Rosenburg, David Greenglass and Harry Gold.

102. The extent to help that Soviet Union gained out of the espionage is quite unknown. The problem with Soviet Union was that the country did not have enough Uranium ore.

103. There is however a general belief that the espionage did help Soviet Union and saved them 1-2 years’ worth of effort they had to otherwise put into their nuclear program.

That’s pretty much the brief of the Manhattan Project. In this list of Manhattan Project facts, we have deliberately left out the minute nitty-gritty to keep the write-up as simple and intelligible as possible.

In case you have some suggestions about the facts sheet, feel free to contact us through the comments section or using our contact form. We will promptly respond.

Sources:
History.com
Wikipedia
Britannica
Atomic Heritage
U.S. History
Osti.org

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