Health and Safety Monitoring
Physicist James Schoke invented instruments to detect uranium to prevent Manhattan Project workers from taking the dangerous element home with them.
Narrator: James Schoke, a physicist in the instrument group at Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, was charged with building specialized devices to detect radioactive elements–at first not so much for safety as to catch thieves.
James Schoke: I was told that they were pilfering uranium, which was called “T metal” at the time, from Site B, which was another site on campus where they were machining uranium and cladding it in aluminum for the X-10 reactor at Oak Ridge in order to produce plutonium. I learned all of this only because I was going to work on an instrument to detect uranium because people were walking out with it through the security gate. There was a good reason for that. Uranium was very heavy, very valuable–they were led to believe–by the way it was handled and treated. When it was machined it gave very large sparks, fiery sparks. And so it was a great souvenir, paperweight.
However, the people working on it did not know it was radioactive. So I was to make an instrument which would detect the chunks of uranium when they were walking out with them to prevent them from taking radioactivity home. And I did develop that and it was installed and it worked.
James Schoke invented so many new devices during the Manhattan Project that he was assigned a dedicated patent officer.
Narrator: Jim Schoke’s pioneer work on radiation detectors earned him the attention of laboratory director Samuel K. Allison. He also challenged the young physicist with making all sorts of new and innovative devices. Schoke received so many patents during the Project that he was assigned a dedicated patent officer to help keep up with his inventions.
James Schoke: Alpha rays are one type of radioactive ray and I was asked to make improvements in alpha detectors. I worked on that for several months and did make substantial improvements by inventing a new way to use a vacuum tube in the device.
As a result of those inventions, the patent department of the project sent a Colonel to file patents on behalf of the project in my name. And he would come looking for me. And everybody would joke about “Schoke’s Colonel” because he would come looking for me. They did file, and it was my understanding the patents were granted, although I never saw them because they belonged to the government.
James Schoke used the skills he learned during the Manhattan Project to start his own nuclear instrument company after the war.
Narrator: After the war, increased demand for radiation detectors led Jim Schoke and several other colleagues from the University of Chicago to launch their own nuclear instrument company. At age twenty-five, Schoke and his company were featured in a 1949 Popular Mechanics article, “The Million-Dollar Baby of the Nuclear Age.”
James Schoke: We hired people who had made Geiger counters on the [Manhattan] project, so they knew how to make them and how to get the apparatus built for making them. Similarly, as our business grew and as we added product lines, we added radioactive chemicals and we hired a radioactive chemist that had been on the project to head up our chemistry and manufacture chemicals with radioactive isotopes that were acquired from the Atomic Energy Commission.
The first thing that I learned on the Manhattan Project was that I had some ability to solve problems with new means. And that was of course paramount in all of the positions and companies that was involved with. I would say about two-thirds of the companies that I knew about when I was in the atomic instrument industry were started by people who had been on the project or who were coached by somebody who had been on the project.