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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

William J. Nicholson’s Interview

William J. Nicholson grew up in Chicago, with a strong interest in aviation and aeronautics. During the Manhattan Project he worked as an assistant at the Met Lab. He then served in the Army Air Force. In this interview, Nicholson discusses his childhood and school years spent in Chicago. He then explains how he joined the Manhattan Project out of high school. He recalls the secrecy of the work, and describes working with and machining uranium and other metals. Nicholson remembers Edward Creutz, Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, and other scientists he worked with. He explains why he wanted to leave Manhattan Project work to join the Air Force, and describes flying bombers over Europe and being shot down by the Germans. He ends by discussing his life and career after the war.

Peter Vandervoort’s Interview

Peter Vandervoort is an American astrophysicist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. In this interview, Vandervoort shares stories about the university’s role in the Manhattan Project. He describes in depth how different buildings on its campus were appropriated for the project. He later discusses his interactions with the university’s distinguished physics faculty members after the war, such as Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who was Vandervoort’s Ph.D. advisor in the 1950s. Vandervoort also talks about the university’s community outreach efforts through the years. He concludes the interview by discussing the contributions of women to physics.

John Manley’s Interview (1985) – Part 1

John Manley was a nuclear physicist who worked for the Manhattan Project from its early days. After the war, Manley served as the Executive Secretary of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later also became Associate Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In this interview, Manley discusses how he came into these positions and reflects upon the relationship of the GAC and the AEC. He recalls Oppenheimer’s relationship with others on the GAC, including James B. Conant, and Oppenheimer’s leadership on the GAC.

Carl D. Anderson’s Interview

Carl D. Anderson was a physicist who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the positron. He studied and taught at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he took a class with a young professor named J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, he discusses his impressions of Oppenheimer, including Oppenheimer’s early struggles as a teacher. Anderson describes the research that was going on at Caltech during the 1930s, including the groundwork that went into his Nobel-winning discovery. He also details why he turned down a role on the Manhattan Project, and the work he did on rockets during World War II instead.

Roger Fulling’s Interview (1986) – Part 2

Roger Fulling served as a division superintendent in DuPont’s War Construction Program. In this interview, he discusses the priority that the Manhattan Project received in the industrial sector, especially with materials like aluminum. He talks about coordinating production with the armed forces, including General Douglas MacArthur. He explains how General Leslie R. Groves would intervene if a company was having difficulty acquiring materials or producing products to certain specifications. Fulling also mentions meeting some of the top scientists, including Eugene Wigner, who thought that scientists alone, not DuPont and their engineers, should work on the project, and how DuPont persuaded them otherwise. He remembers his interactions with General Groves after the war, and explains why Groves chose DuPont to work on the Manhattan Project.

Edwin McMillan’s Lecture

Edwin and Elsie McMillan were among the first people to arrive at Los Alamos. Edwin, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was involved in the initial selection of Los Alamos. In this lecture, Edwin describes visiting Jemez Springs and Los Alamos when he, Oppenheimer, and General Groves were deciding on the site for the weapons laboratory. McMillan also discusses his involvement in implosion research, the gun program, and recruiting scientists including Richard Feynman to the project at Princeton University. He also remembers requisitioning Harvard’s cyclotron for the Manhattan Project.

The Search for Atomic Power

This 1954 radio program traces the development of nuclear energy from the discovery of the atomic nucleus to the launch of the USS “Nautilus,” the first nuclear submarine. It includes narration, dramatizations with actors playing physicists Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr, and interviews with Arthur H. Compton and Westinghouse Electric Corporation scientists. The program celebrates Westinghouse’s role in producing uranium for the Manhattan Project and details the challenges behind powering the Nautilus.

Hanford 25th Anniversary Celebration

This program was recorded at the 25th anniversary of the construction of the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, in Hanford, WA. Leading Manhattan Project scientists, including Glenn Seaborg, John Wheeler, Lombard Squires, and Norman Hilberry, as well as its military leaders, General Leslie R. Groves and Colonel Franklin Matthias, participated in the ceremony. They discussed the start of the Manhattan Project, how the reactor’s site was chosen, the challenges of building the reactor and the chemical separations plant, and the different processes that were considered to separate plutonium. They also recalled the relationship between the military and civilian scientists and why they became involved in the Manhattan Project to help win World War II. They philosophized on the significance of nuclear power and its potential for future projects, from agriculture to space exploration.

Colonel Franklin Matthias’s Interview (1965) – Part 2

Colonel Franklin Matthias was the officer-in-charge at the Hanford site. In the second part of his interview with Stephane Groueff, Matthias describes the personalities of the men he worked with, including Enrico Fermi and DuPont’s Granville Read. He recalls a visit by Fermi and Eugene Wigner to Hanford, and explains why Read got along well with General Leslie Groves. Matthias discusses the safety measures at Hanford, and recounts how a Japanese fire balloon temporarily knocked out power to the plant. He also explains how scientists conducted tests on salmon to assess levels of radioactive contamination in the Columbia River.

Ralph Lapp’s Interview

Ralph Lapp was completing his PhD in physics at the University of Chicago when he joined the Manhattan Project. After the war, he worked for the War Department and served as a scientific advisor there before leaving the government to start his own firm. Lapp went on to write several books and advocate for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In this interview, he discusses how he stumbled upon Enrico Fermi’s team working under Stagg’s Field in December of 1942, and was hired on the spot to work on the development of the atomic bomb. Lapp recalls witnessing the 1946 Bikini nuclear tests, and discusses the controversy over the Lucky Dragon boat, caught into the fallout of one of 1954 Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb test. He examines how nuclear weapons have changed the course of human history.