A Crucible for Innovation
MIT professor David Kaiser discusses the impact of the Manhattan Project on scientific enterprise in the United States.
Narrator: In less than three years, the Manhattan Project created 5,600 inventions and generated 2,100 secretly filed patent applications. The extent of this legacy is described by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor David Kaiser.
David Kaiser: Our recent MIT President Susan Hockfield has said—and I think quite rightly—that our entire research enterprise in the United States really is built on a pattern, is modeled on the Manhattan Project. I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
The assumptions behind how basic research should be done, let alone applied projects or mission-oriented work, but even very basic research, which might not have an immediate payoff or immediate application—the system for supporting that kind of work really was fastened in a hurry under great duress during World War II in the United States. It had an enormously long-lived legacy. In fact, we really, in some sense, are still within it to this day. Many features that were put together in the 1940s still are how we organize and fund and disseminate the results from research today.
MIT professor David Kaiser explains that scientists and engineers had to learn to cooperate if the Manhattan Project was going to succeed.
Narrator: According to Professor David Kaiser, cooperation was essential to success.
David Kaiser: Science and engineering clearly share a pretty broad overlap and yet they’re not the same thing. They’ve also changed a lot over time. One of the things interesting going back to World War II was the degree to which the two different styles had to come at a very rapid contact. On many Manhattan Project sites there were people trained in engineering who were sometimes for the first time working very closely—elbow to elbow—with people trained in very abstract and very theoretical basic sciences.
The knowledge transfer went both ways. Physicists are often very cocky: “We know all about the laws of electricity and magnetism. We know what makes waves propagate. We know all of that stuff. We have these beautiful equations in our beautiful text books.” And, that was true. But, applying those beautiful equations to real world situations where you can’t assume that everything has beautiful symmetric geometries where there are all kinds of messy surfaces to worry about, that’s the engineer’s world.
Those were relationships that were not very common before World War II, at least in American science. These were people who were trained separately, housed in different academic departments. They might not ever even bump into each other on campus. And, the kind of hot house of war threw them into projects with immensely pressured timelines where they had to learn how to work together.
Physicist John Wheeler discusses his cooperation with DuPont’s engineers in order to solve complex problems.
Narrator: Many physicists are accustomed to working alone on theoretical problems. But creating the world’s first atomic bomb required teamwork. One physicist who realized that engineers could help transform theory into a finished product was John Wheeler.
John Wheeler: There were people there, particularly [Enrico] Fermi, who were accustomed to doing things themselves as physicists and were not very eager with the idea of engineers coming in and taking over such a responsibility as this. It made no particular difference to me that the Army engineers and the advisory group had to come out with the idea of an engineering group to work with. Fine, let’s get the job done. So I found myself one of the people spending more time than most other people working with the engineers.
We had this group of ostracized people, you might say [laughs], the engineers. And it would seem to me a shame because, after all, they were the people that had been told to get the job done and it seemed to me one ought to get in there and help them to get it done.
The whole enterprise was soon seen to be at such a scope that this engineering group was not going to have the size to do it. I did not have the perspective at my young age to realize this but I think there were enough wise people, too, looking at the whole process to say that we were going to have to get into a much larger industrial organization.
Physicist John Wheeler gained an appreciation for engineering after experiencing first-hand the difficulties of building a nuclear reactor.
Narrator: The DuPont Company was enlisted to help construct the massive separations facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennesee and Hanford, Washington. DuPont engineers had to teach physicists like John Wheeler what it took to turn their theories into reality. And it wasn’t always so simple.
John Wheeler: I was fascinated with this whole new group of people I had met in Chicago. I was assigned full time there from Chicago to Wilmington [Delaware] to help in this design process. And having been through it once before with this other group of engineers, I knew very much more what to tell them about the nature of the process and what the issues were. And they, on the other hand, had to instruct me in many things, which were very hard for me to get accustomed to.
The idea that you could not have one man who followed the process all the way through, that there were five different groups of people. A process engineer who would get the general idea of a reactor vessel; and then a design engineer who would have to consider the process of how you built this vessel to be strong enough; and then a construction engineer who would say to you, “Oh, no that design is no good because this requires welding and it is very difficult to get welding done in the field. We better design it in a different way so it can be built together because it is hard to get welders.” And then another group of people, the operating group, “This is going to be too complicated to keep going. It is going to cause us all sorts of difficulties on keeping a watch on the process.”
This specialization on different points of view was something that I could see that my physicist friends and I myself had never considered as the idea that Fermi had had of going all the way through and building the thing himself; it wouldn’t have worked.