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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.

Milton Levenson’s Interview

Milton Levenson is an American chemical engineer and former president of the American Nuclear Society who has worked in the nuclear energy field for more than 60 years. During the Manhattan Project, he worked at Decatur, IL, and Oak Ridge, TN, where he was a supervisor at the X-10 plant. In this interview, he describes how he joined the Manhattan Project and his experiences at Oak Ridge, including his memories of segregation there. Levenson then talks about his post-war career as an expert on nuclear safety, including his role in responding to the SL-1, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl accidents. He also recalls having to tell Enrico Fermi that he could not perform an experiment for safety reasons.

Robert Nobles’s and William Sturm’s Interview – Part 2

Robert Nobles and William Sturm were physicists at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. They contributed to the creation of experimental nuclear reactors, including the world’s first heavy water reactor, the Chicago Pile-3. In this interview with author Stephane Groueff, Sturm and Noble discuss the security of the bomb project in Chicago, and the movement of scientists between the different sites. They also recall Eugene Wigner’s graciousness, Leo Szilard’s excitability, and Walter Zinn and Enrico Fermi’s leadership styles. They praise the scientific community for its embrace of international cooperation and respect.

David P. Rudolph’s Interview

David R. Rudolph was an administrator in charge of inventory at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory. In his interview, he discusses how he was one of the few individuals to be present at both the startup of Chicago Pile-1 and the Trinity test. Rudolph recalls the process of reactor construction, along with the disassembly of CP-1 for the construction of CP-2. He explains the importance of inventory control when it came to the uranium and graphite blocks used in CP-1, and how he helped discover that a section had not be stacked with enough blocks.

Alexander Langsdorf’s Interview

Dr. Alexander Langsdorf was an American physicist who worked under Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago. He helped design the nuclear reactor Chicago Pile-2, following the success of Chicago Pile-1. After the war, Langsdorf become an outspoken opponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and helped found the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In this conversation with author Stephane Groueff, Langsdorf describes how he became involved in the Manhattan Project, his decision to stay in Chicago rather than go to Los Alamos, the genius of Enrico Fermi, and the process of designing and building a heavy water nuclear reactor. He discusses the personalities of many of his superiors, including Walter Zinn, Arthur Compton, Norman Hilberry, Samuel Allison, and Fermi.

Herbert Anderson’s Interview (1965)

Herbert Anderson worked with Enrico Fermi on the Chicago Pile-1 at the Met Lab at the University of Chicago. He grew up during the Depression, accepting a scholarship to study electrical engineering before he transferred to physics. Anderson worked alongside Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi at Columbia and helped run the night shift when physicists were putting together the CP-1.

Robert Cantrell’s Interview

Robert Cantrell joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 and worked as an architect for Dr. Walter Zinn’s design group at the University of Chicago. Working from his office in Ryerson Hall, Cantrell helped design a new mechanism for inserting the control rods into the nuclear reactor. He also designed innovative tools for scientists who were working on radioactive materials. Cantrell recalls borrowing a peace of platinum from the New Chem building at Chicago and being reprimanded walking back to his office without an armed escort; he found out that the piece of platinum was worth “about seventy thousand dollars” and that he “had about half of all the available platinum in the country.” After the war, Cantrell continued his career as an architect and helped design buildings for universities across the country.