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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Dale Babcock’s and Samuel McNeight’s Interview (1965)

Dale Babcock and Samuel McNeight were DuPont employees tasked with constructing the B Reactor at Hanford. The pair discusses the challenges of building a water-cooled reactor. Babcock discusses the process invented to can the uranium slugs, while McNeight recalls the fish laboratories used to test the effects of radiation on the environment.

Norman Hilberry’s Interview (1965) – Part 1

Physicist Norman Hilberry was Arthur H. Compton’s right-hand man at the Chicago Met Lab, serving as associate director and handling administration. Later in the war, he would often go back and forth from Chicago to Hanford. Hilberry recalls being present at the start-up of the B Reactor, its mysterious failure, and the rush to try to figure out what had caused the reactor to shut down. He also discusses his role in selecting Oak Ridge as the site for the pilot plutonium production plant and working with Eugene Wigner and DuPont on the design and operation of the plutonium production plants.

Robert Thornton’s Interview

Robert Lyster Thornton was the assistant director of the Process Improvement Division of the Tennessee Eastman Corporation at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In this interview, Thornton remembers Ernest Lawrence asking him to join the Manhattan Project just after Pearl Harbor. He explains the development and workings of the Beta plant at Oak Ridge. He also discusses the challenges he faced separating uranium isotopes, the uranium enrichment process, and the thousands of men and women who helped in the process.

John Wheeler’s Interview (1965)

John Wheeler was a theoretical physicist who joined the Manhattan Project in 1942. During the early stages of the project, Wheeler worked under Arthur H. Compton at the Metallurgical Laboratory, where he helped examine potential problems that could arise during the startup of the world’s first nuclear reactor. Wheeler later became the lead physicist at the Hanford Site, where he solved the riddle of the B Reactor going dead a few hours after it started, an event that threatened to delay seriously the first production of plutonium. In this interview, Wheeler discusses his early collaboration with Niels Bohr on the liquid drop model of nuclear fission. He also discusses his involvement in designing the B Reactor and solving the problem of xenon poisoning that occurred during startup.

Crawford Greenewalt’s Interview

Crawford Greenewalt was an American chemical engineer for the Dupont Company who acted as the liaison between the physicists at the Chicago Met Lab and the company’s engineers in Wilmington, Delaware during the Manhattan Project. The challenge was to translate the scientists’ theoretical ideas into workable blueprints for the production of plutonium on a massive scale at the B Reactor being built in Hanford, WA. In this interview, Greenewalt discusses his role as a member of DuPont’s review committee, which evaluated the different methods of fissile material production. Greenewalt, who was present at the University of Chicago when the first artificial self-sustaining nuclear reaction was set off, recalls the relatively calm atmosphere in the laboratory that day.

Irénée du Pont, Jr.’s Interview (2003)

Irénée du Pont, Jr. is a member of the storied du Pont family and the son of the President (1919 to 1925) of the the DuPont Company’s predecessor, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. The DuPont Company played a crucial role in the Manhattan Project; in 1942, DuPont was enlisted to design and build the project facilities at Hanford, including the B Reactor. Du Pont served as a member of the company’s Executive Committee. His second oldest sister, Margaretta, also married Crawford Greenewalt, a famous Manhattan Project scientist and chemical engineer who served as liaison between the Met Lab physicists and the DuPont engineers working on the B Reactor. In this interview, Du Pont discusses how Greenewalt first became involved with his sister and his family, and recounts stories of his father and the secrecy of the Manhattan Project.

Warren Nyer’s Interview

Warren Nyer is one of very few physicists who worked at all four main sites – Chicago, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford – of the Manhattan Project. He began working on the classified project at the young age of nineteen. He discusses his interactions with Oppenheimer and Fermi, along with the excitement of viewing the world’s first nuclear test at Trinity. Nyer also describes his living situation at Hanford, from the dormitories to the houses. Finally, he offers his justification for the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

John Marshall’s Interview

After receiving his doctorate, John Marshall was hired to assist Leo Szilard with his experiments at Columbia. Afterwards, Marshall traveled to Chicago to work on Chicago Pile-1, and finally to Richland to work on the B Reactor at the Hanford site. Marshall was on duty when the reactor shut down due to xenon poisoning. He discusses his experience working for Szilard and alongside Fermi, as well as the steps taken when the B Reactor shut down on his watch.

Leona Marshall Libby’s Interview

Leona Woods, later Leona Woods Marshall and Leona Marshall Libby, was 23 in 1942, the only woman present when Enrico Fermi’s nuclear pile at the University of Chicago went critical and into the history books. She moved to Hanford in 1944 with her husband, fellow physicist John Marshall. Marshall Libby was one of the few women scientists in the Manhattan Project and probably the most well known. Even so, during an interview she laughed off questions about what it was like to be so distinctive. She did mention DuPont had been thoughtful enough to provide her with a private bathroom at the reactor buildings.

John Wheeler’s Interview (1986)

John Archibald Wheeler was the leading physicist in residence at Hanford. He solved the riddle of the B Reactor going dead a few hours after it started, an event that threatened to delay seriously the first production of plutonium. Early in his career at Princeton, in 1939, Wheeler and Danish physicist Niels Bohr collaborated to develop the first general theory of the mechanism of fission, which included identifying the nuclei most susceptible to fission, a landmark accomplishment that helped make Wheeler, at age 28, world fa­mous among nuclear physicists. After the war, at Los Alamos, he directed the group which produced the conceptual design for the first family of thermonuclear weapons. He became interested in astrophysics and coined the term “black holes.” In 1976, Wheeler joined the department of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was interviewed.