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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Hugh “Brad” Bradner was a physicist at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Bradner has become well-known for the home movies he recorded at Los Alamos. He has also been credited on numerous occasions for inventing the wetsuit. 

After getting his Ph.D., Bradner was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. At Los Alamos, he took on a variety of jobs ranging from designing the town’s facilities to developing the atomic bomb’s trigger mechanism.


Early Years

Hugh Bradner was born on November 5, 1915 in Tonopah, Nevada. His father was a chemist, who worked for Nevada mining interests. After moving east, Bradner grew up in Findley, Ohio.

In 1936, he graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1941.

In 1941-43, he worked for the United States Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, DC, where he was involved with designing and building magnetic anti-shipping mines. He found the slow pace of activity – in terms of production and authorization for projects – to be infuriating, and asked for a transfer. The director of the lab (“Quite unexpectedly and different from what he did with everybody else,” Brad expressed) said he would put Brad in touch with people at Chicago (who, he later learned, were just getting ready to open Los Alamos). He was transferred to Chicago in February 1943.


Work on the Manhattan Project

At Chicago, Brad was brought into the Manhattan Project and was recruited by J. Robert Oppenheimer to work at the Los Alamos site. He was one of the first three scientists to arrive at Los Alamos. While there, he helped to develop a wide range of technology needed for the bomb, including research on the high explosives needed to implode the atomic bomb, development of the bomb’s triggering mechanism, and even helped to design the new town around the laboratory. In preparing to design the town, he got a Chicago phone directory and looked at the businesses, from which the idea for barber shops, cleaners, restaurants, etc, came from. (But when people started to move there, they realized that what was missing were banks!). His first job at Los Alamos was working alongside Seth Neddermeyer seeking a way to trigger the nuclear chain reaction.

According to 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant: “For the first few weeks in Santa Fe, Oppenheimer and his key staff worked out of an office at 109 East Palace Avenue in the early mornings and made daily trips up to Los Alamos to inspect the progress of the construction of the classified site.  They were rather hectic early days, as everyone’s thought were preoccupied with the war and the prevailing sense of immediacy.  In the morning buses – consisting of station wagons, sedans or trucks – would pick up the men at the ranches and take them up the “Hill”. These figures, Brad included, wanted to get on with their work, and it took time to wait for the laboratories to be established. To hurry things along, Hugh Bradner commandeered anything with wheels and helped ferry men and equipment up to the site.” (76)

In November 1943 an informal ski club was organized to sponsor winter activities, mainly ski trips into the wilderness.  Most new skiers outfitted themselves with Army ski equipment, white army skis (7 feet long, purchased for $5), soft leather boots that strapped into bear-trap or cable bindings, bamboo poles with large baskets, and seal skins.

In spite of the long and intense daily work hours, another aspect of Los Alamos life was the prevalence of security.  Scientists were not allowed to take any papers out of the office or even talk about their work outside the technical area; this included to not confide in their work with their spouses.  This policy, while largely dictated by security concerns, had another effect as well: it encouraged an active social life on the mesa. There were lots of dinner parties, dorm dances, and weekends in the country around Los Alamos.  There were various cliques: the hikers and the horsey set (in which Brad and his wife Marjorie participated), and skiers in season, fishermen, etc.

Brad – along with Seth Neddermeyer, John Streib and Charles Critchfield – worked in an arroyo away from the main part of the Technical Area, carrying out exploratory research in which they wrapped steel pipes with explosives and blew them inward, the goal being to compact the hollow pipes to compress a spherical shell of fissionable material so as to form a critical mass. This research into implosion and the very notion of a triggering device was at the foundation of the later bomb.

In September 1943, Brad wed Marjorie Hall, who was a secretary at Los Alamos.  He joked about having a “shotgun wedding,” because three guards were posted outside the adobe where the couple exchanged vows. Their families were not permitted at the ceremony because they didn’t have security clearance for the program that resulted in the world’s first atomic bomb. So J. Robert Oppenheimer, the technical director, graciously offered to give the bride away. From Conant’s 109 East Palace: “Brad was one of the first people Marge met when she arrived at the mesa at Los Alamos. ‘Hugh was the first person I met when I came through. I walked in to Dorothy’s Santa Fe office, and this good-looking guy said ‘Come in,’ and I fell for him.’ Dorothy [McKibbin] had played matchmaker to a degree, turning to Marge and Brad after lunch at La Fonda one day and observing pointedly that her house was ‘a lovely place for a wedding.’ Brad took the hint and proposed a few days later. Priscilla [Duffield] served as matron of honor, and Henry Barnett as the best man. Oppenheimer stood in as father-of-the-bride, and armed guards stood watch at the end of the driveway.  Marge never asked her husband what was going on, even when he went off to the distant operation sites for days at a time. ‘I had no idea what my husband was doing,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know, and I didn’t speculate because I didn’t want to know.’ Even for those who knew about the ‘gadget,’ there were still too many unknowns not to lie awake in bed worrying into the night.” (163)

On July 16, 1945, he was at the Trinity site to witness the first test of a nuclear device. Brad favored the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945: “I was raised to love my country. I had no compunction about bombing an enemy if it meant ending the war,” he is quoted as saying to family members.


Home Movies at Los Alamos

Bradner was given informal permission to use his film camera around Los Alamos. While cameras were not forbidden at the site, they were supposed to be strictly reserved for personal use. Most of Bradner’s footage captured daily life in Los Alamos and leisure activities with friends. They were seen hiking, skiing and horseback riding, among other things.

Not all of Bradner’s footage, however, was non-work related. He did record a few scientific experiments, such as the RaLa Experiment. RaLa or “radioactive lanthanum” was used in the experiments testing the design of a plutonium-based weapon. The RaLa method was proposed by physicist Robert Serber, a friend and colleague of Bradner. 

His videos also depict Los Alamos’ concrete bowl, the wilderness around the town, and scientists leaving for the Trinity Test. Many well-known names and faces made appearances in Bradner’s videos including Hans Bethe, Robert and Charlotte Serber, and Oppenheimer. 

Footage from Hugh and Marjorie’s wedding party at Dorothy McKibbin’s house is also on Bradner’s home movies. If you’d like to view Bradner’s videos, please click here.


Later Years: Wetsuit and Oceanography

After World War II, Bradner returned to California to become a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was reunited with Manhattan Project physicist Luis Alvarez. During this time, he also worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on high-energy physics. In 1951, Brad worked in Switzerland for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). 

When not working on physics, Bradner was pursuing his interest in diving. During the war, he had learned from Navy frogmen about problems of warmth loss from extended immersion in cold water. 

In 1950, Bradner discovered that neoprene, a synthetic material resembling rubber, could trap water between itself and the body. In turn, this trapped water would heat up to body temperature and keep the body warm. Brad tested the first neoprene wetsuit in the winter of 1950 at Lake Tahoe. He said, “I remember walking from shore and there was ice at the edge of the lake. I had to break it to get in. I splashed around.”

Luis Alvarez approached Brad and Herbert York in the spring of 1950 to share something about the expanding work on the Superbomb at Los Alamos. Alvarez and Edward Teller had spoken, and felt the project could use some assistance from scientific groups from other laboratories. They flew promptly to Los Alamos to meet with Teller and others, and it was agreed to quickly set up a special group at Berkeley to perform some diagnostic experiments on the ‘George’ nuclear test, part of Operation Greenhouse. Brad helped organize about 40 physicists who were tasked with preforming diagnostic experiments in preparation for the operation. Many were tasked specifically with making experimental observations of certain physical phenomena as these unfolded during the first microsecond of the thermonuclear explosion.

During downtime from the experiments, at an atoll surrounded by coral reefs, Brad practiced underwater photography, making and modifying his equipment for his own interests. He was researching the wetsuit design at this time. While in the South Pacific he would explore the coral lagoons. 1951 is considered to be the conceptual ‘birth year’ of the modern wetsuit, as Brad offered his first public presentation of his work on the wetsuit at the Swimposium.

Starting in 1952, Bradner and some of his co-workers began selling the “EDCO Sub-Mariner.” It was available in a short version for $45 and a full wetsuit for $75. Although his business was ultimately not successful and he did not patent the design, Bradner has been recognized as the creator of the first neoprene wetsuit by multiple sources including the San Francisco Chronicle and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. 

Given his interest in oceanography, Bradner was recruited to the University of California, San Diego in 1961. At UC San Diego, he served on the faculty of the Scripps Institute and worked on various oceanography projects, such as experiments with underwater breathing devices for scuba diving.

In the summer of 1961, Bradner embarked on a seismic expedition across the Pacific on a 106-foot schooner. Across the ocean, he deposited seismographs to study seismic shaking of the ocean floor. His daughter Bari also told the San Fransisco Chronicle that it would serve ‘as a way of detecting bomb tests in other parts of the world.’

He retired from Scripps in 1980. At the age of ninety-two, Hugh Bradner died of the effects of pneumonia on May 5, 2008 in San Diego, California.


Thanks to Brad’s grandson John Cornet for contributing information for this profile. For more information about Hugh Bradner, please see the following resources and references:

Hugh Bradner's Timeline
1915 Nov 5th Born in Tonopah, Nevada.
1936 Graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
1941 Earned his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology.
1941 Apr1943 Feb He worked for the United States Naval Ordnance Lab in Washington, DC, where he was involved with designing and building magnetic anti-shipping mines.
1943 Apr1945 Worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project. He was one of the first three scientists to arrive at Los Alamos.
1945 Jul 16th Witnessed the Trinity Test.
1946 Became a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
1946 Began working at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
19501952 Discovered neoprene's ability to use water to keep the body warm while immersed in water and worked on developing and selling the first wetsuit, "EDCO Sub-Mariner.
1961 Recruited as a researcher to join the University of California San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
1961 Embarked on a seismic expedition across the Pacific Ocean.
1964 Became a professor at the Scripps Institute.
19661967 Served as acting provost of UCSD's Revelle College.
1980 Retired from the Scripps Institute.
2008 May 5th At the age of ninety-two, died of the effects of pneumonia in San Diego, California.
1951 Participated in the Operation Greenhouse nuclear test series.

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