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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Big Science – 1942

History Page Type:
Wednesday, June 4, 2014
Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at Casablanca. Photo courtesy of NARA.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the research, development, and production of an atomic bomb despite great uncertainties. His closest scientific advisors were Vannevar Bush, who directed The Office of Scientific Research and Development, and Harvard University President James B. Conant, who served as director of the National Defense Research Committee.


Creating the Manhattan Project

In June 1942, FDR approved a plan to assign the Army Corps of Engineers the task of producing an atomic weapon before the end of the war. On August 13, 1942, the Chief of Engineers issued a general order establishing “a new engineer district, without territorial limits to be known as the Manhattan District . . . with headquarters at New York, N.Y., to supervise projects assigned to it by the Chief of Engineers.”  Hard-charging Colonel (quickly promoted to Brigadier General) Leslie R. Groves was put in charge of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED)—as the Manhattan Project was called—on September 17, 1942.

Groves immediately began to recruit America’s leading industrial and construction firms. He appealed to the patriotism of the top executives at Union Carbide & Carbon, Tennessee Eastman, DuPont, Standard Oil, M.W. Kellogg, General Electric, Westinghouse, Chrysler, Monsanto, Stone & Webster, J.A. Jones and dozens of other firms.  If General Groves asked for something, it was virtually impossible to say no. A masterful bureaucrat, Groves obtained an AAA priority for procurement and a virtual blank check. Groves did not wait to be given the extraordinary powers he used; he simply took them.  After the decision to produce plutonium was made, the government needed to draw upon the talent and resources of corporate America to get the job done. General Leslie Groves was familiar with the E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, the major chemical and munitions company founded by Eleuthère Irénée du Pont in 1802. DuPont’s manufacturing history and capabilities were impressive.

DuPont’s Role

Plutionium production.

In the late 1930s, DuPont made news by introducing nylon, the first synthetic polymer. Nylon dresses, stockings and other goods swept the fashion industry. Behind DuPont’s success was a new technique for continuous operations with the ingredients at one end and the product at the other. The process was revolutionary, a vast improvement over earlier step-by-step approaches.

Groves was convinced that DuPont could apply the same ingenuity to the plutonium production process at Hanford and tried to persuade DuPont to join the Project at the end of October 1942. Despite Groves’ urging, it took a call from President Roosevelt to convince DuPont’s president to sign up for this uncertain venture. Most of all, the company did not want to be branded as “war profiteers” as they had been after World War I for producing gunpowder. This time, DuPont insisted that its fee would only be one dollar and all patents would belong to the U.S. government. 

DuPont’s managers knew that the mass-production of plutonium was to be unlike any challenge they had previously faced. Enrico Fermi’s experimental reactor in Chicago had to be scaled up thousands of times. Many technical questions, from how to cool the reactor to how to safely extract plutonium from the spent fuel rods, remained unanswered. There was no time for rigorous testing or a pilot-scale facility. DuPont engineers had to use their best judgment to choose an approach and make it work.


Academia and Breakthrough

Arthur Compton.

For the Project to be successful, industry had to be joined by science and academics. Like many of the nation’s leading physicists, Richard Feynman joined the Manhattan Project out of fear that Hitler would develop an atomic bomb before the Allies could. At the University of Chicago, Arthur Holly Compton lured many American and foreign scientists who fled Nazi Europe to work at the Metallurgical Laboratory to conduct critical research for an atomic bomb. On December 2, 1942, a team of physicists led by Enrico Fermi directed the world’s first controlled atomic reaction and confirmed the possibility of harnessing the energy of the atom. Fermi’s success was critical to convincing skeptics such as Hans Bethe that the undertaking was feasible.



After the war, the Manhattan Project became the model of “Big Science.” Huge projects with expensive, highly sophisticated equipment, large interdisciplinary teams, and government funding became a fixture of scientific research. From the enormous physics projects of the Cold War to the human genome project, “Big Science” was a new form of social organization for science. No longer characterized by the lone scientific genius making a brilliant discovery, scientific research became the product of large laboratories with teams of scientists funded by federal grant money.