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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Who Built the Atomic Bomb?

History Page Type:
Monday, June 16, 2014
A worker at Hanford

In just 27 months, America accomplished what other nations thought impossible. How did the United States achieve the remarkable feat of building an atomic bomb when Germany, Italy and Japan failed? Hundreds of physicists, mathematicians, and engineers were needed to design, build, and test the world’s first atomic weapon and the Unites States government did everything in its power to lure these individuals to the Manhattan Project. To Bulgarian-born journalist Stephane Groueff, the Manhattan Project was an outstanding example of the “American way”: a combination of creativity, courage to try unorthodox approaches, and a relentless determination to succeed.  



The Manhattan Project benefited from an unusual number of extremely intelligent, experienced, and effective leaders. Their enormous energy and undaunted spirit carried the project forward despite the odds against its success. Some of these exemplary leaders included the Army Corps of Engineers’ General Leslie Groves, physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, DuPont’s Crawford Greenewalt and Kellogg’s Percival Keith, MIT’s Vannevar Bush, Harvard’s James B. Conant, and Berkeley’s Ernest O. Lawrence.

To ensure that the nation fully engaged its scientific and technical resources in World War II, Vannevar Bush asked President Roosevelt to create the Office of Scientific Research and Development. As its director, Bush forged an unprecedented alliance between government, academia and industry. Under Bush’s direction, the nation’s most talented scientists and engineers were mobilized and developed radar, the proximity fuze, and the atomic bomb, inventions that were critical to the Allied victory in World War II.



One aspect of the Manhattan Project that has been generally overlooked by historians has been industry’s contribution. Virtually overnight, the Manhattan Project created a nationwide “factory” that rivaled General Motors in size and scale despite serious wartime shortages of manpower and materials. The battle on the home front was waged without restraint. Crawford Greenewalt of the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware and Percival Keith of the M. W. Kellogg Company in Jersey City, New Jersey, which opened a subsidiary in Manhattan, NY to focus on research for the Manhattan Project, led these efforts.



Over one hundred scientists who had recently fled from the Nazis contributed immeasurably to the effort. America benefited by being one of the few countries during these dark years before and during World War II that opened its doors to these refugees. The “Martians,” four brilliant scientists who were born in the same neighborhood in Budapest, Hungary, allegedly earned their nickname from Enrico Fermi. A refugee from Italy himself, Fermi quipped that there must have been a spaceship from Mars that landed in Budapest, dropping off the extraordinarily gifted Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Leo Szilard. The British mission, led by Sir James Chadwick, also made very important contributions. Well versed in experimental physics, the 20-plus members of the British mission in Los Alamos were instrumental in translating the abstract notions of the theorists into reality.



The contributions of the Army Special Engineer Detachment servicemen and the many African-American and female workers on the Manhattan Project must be recognized. These groups helped to construct the bombs, build the factories, and keep the Project running. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of individuals at dozens of sites nationwide, the Manhattan Project was able to produce an atomic bomb in a little over two years.


Related Video:
AHF President Cindy Kelly provides an overview of the Manhattan Project and the people who worked on the project.
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