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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Albert Bartlett’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Albert Bartlett worked with mass spectrometers at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He was part of the group that photographed the Operations Crossroads nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll after the war. In this interview, he recalls his time at Los Alamos and his colleagues, including Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin, who would both die of criticality accidents. He discusses the significance of the colloquia that allowed scientists to share their research on the project. He also recalls fun times including skiing on Sawyer’s Hill, hiking, and dorm parties that used scientific materials to make the punch.

Date of Interview:
April 13, 2008
Location of the Interview:


Albert Bartlett: I started school in a little college in Ohio and then I dropped out for a while. Then I applied to transfer to Colgate. I was working on steamboats on the Great Lakes, and I was accepted. A steamboat was coming in to Cleveland, and I just told them I was leaving and going back to college. Of course, the war was on. I was on the first ship the day of Pearl Harbor and so I knew, you know, I was a perfect draft age and I was all registered for the draft.

I got to Colgate and took my first college physics course and did well in it. Pretty soon I found myself majoring in physics and doing it very intensively, because it was summer and winter, night and day. In my last year there, the campus was taken over by the Navy V-12 pre-flight training program and some other officer candidate programs. 

Most of these kids had to take physics. Of course, most of them didn’t like it. But the department of physics consisted of about three and a half professors and there was no way they could handle the load. So they hired a lot of people, including me, to help with some of the load of teaching the introductory physics laboratories and recitation sections. It was a wonderful opportunity for me.

But then as I approached graduation, of course, I knew I had to get some kind of defense job in war work, because I had been deferred because of my being in physics. My physics professor who was head of the department there, Professor Paul Gleason, he was scouting around for jobs. 

There was a possibility of a job at the Radiation Lab at MIT and there was a possibility of a job at this Box 1663 in Santa Fe. Santa Fe sounded like adventure and so I said, “That’s what I’ll do.” I don’t think I’ve saved the employment correspondence that I had with them. I’m sorry that that’s the case.

But I took the job. They told me the standard instructions, I think, just report to 109 East Palace in Santa Fe. I didn’t have much money and I’d done all my traveling between Colgate University and home in Ohio by hitchhiking, so just natural I hitchhiked back home. I hitchhiked to Springfield, Ohio. Our friend helped me get two trucks that were to be delivered from the International Harvester Factory to a dealer in Oklahoma City, so I drove those through to Oklahoma City and hitchhiked over to Amarillo. 

And all my life I’d wanted to hop a freight train, so I hopped a freight train in Amarillo over to Belen, which is a little railroad junction down south of Albuquerque. Then hitchhiked up to Albuquerque and then on up to Santa Fe and reported to 109 East Palace.

There was Dorothy McKibbin at the front desk there in the office. She did some paperwork, had me get on a bus in back of the building there. The bus sort of trundled off through this deep arroyo country and canyons. I’d never seen country like that, so it was just fascinating.

We pulled into Los Alamos and parked by the housing office, which was right at the base of the big old water tank, the big wooden water tank. As I think back on that, looking around the water tank and people coming and going, it sort of reminds me of the opening scene of Hollywood movies of a Western, where you open on the town and you see people going around, and there’s a big western water tank. And it certainly looked like a western water tank.

First thing I did was to go into the housing office. This was run by Mrs. Williams. Her husband was John Williams, who was a big physicist from the University of Minnesota. She said they didn’t have any housing on the site at the moment, so I would have to be in a group that carpooled and went over to Frijoles and the Bandelier National Monument and stay in the lodge over there. I stayed about two weeks in the lodge and hiked a lot around the old Indian ruins there.

My first interview with regard to what to do scientifically was with Robert Bacher. I’d been wondering, “How long is it going to be before I know what’s going on here?” It was clear that this was a very large operation. I went into his office at the appointed hour, nine in the morning or something. Now, this is in the middle of July, I think it was July eighteenth of 1944. I sat down in his office, and he just opened up by saying, “Well, what we’re doing is trying to build an atomic bomb using nuclear fission, and we’re”—he named some of the big physicists who were there. This sounded like he was reading from the index in the back of the book on nuclear physics that I’d just studied. He named some of the big equipment that was there, the Van der Graaf machines from Wisconsin and Harvard cyclotron and so on.

I was just overwhelmed. Then, he sent me around to several group leaders to have further interviews, see if I could fit in with their group. One was not a group leader, but it was Robert Thompson. Bob Thompson had been charged with setting up a mass spectrometer to look at the isotopes of plutonium that were coming down from the Hanford reactors. 

There was a big problem because they had made an experimental determination that indicated that plutonium-240, which was a very rare isotope—plutonium-239 was the main-line isotope that they needed for the weapons—that if there was 240 with the 239, it changed the overall nuclear properties in a very serious way, and would likely cause a predetonation of the explosives, that this would cut back on the efficiency.

Those measurements were made—I remember Bob Thompson telling me how amazing it was that somebody in [Emilio] Segrè’s group had some sample of plutonium and had an ionization chamber, looking for fission counts. These are easily distinguished in an ionization chamber from ordinary alpha decay. This was put out at a remote site someplace, as far as possible–from much of the laboratory, simply to get away from the radioactive background that was there with the machines operating and so on.

They had eight counts, if I recall correctly, and Bob said, “Think of it,” he says. “Eight counts. The statistics, what’s the plus or minus that goes with eight counts?” They had to make major changes in the overall program, the weapons program, based on those eight counts. So then the question was, well how much of the stuff is there in there?

They hired Bob Thompson—or he was already there. They got Bob Thompson to look at this, because Bob had worked at the University of Minnesota with Professor Al Nier, and Nier had developed a very versatile type of mass spectrometer. So Bob knew about setting up these spectrometers and operating them. They apparently found one in Washington, I think, the Bureau of Standards maybe or something. The government just appropriated it, packed it off and shipped it to Los Alamos.

It was a week or two after I got there, before this mass spectrometer arrived. Bob was very much like a father to me. He said, “Here are things you’ve got to learn. Here are reprints of articles.” Done, you know, in the old photographic copy thing, which was wet and messy. He said, “Here are books you’ve got to start reading.” He gave me some lessons about the geometrical optics of the ions in the mass spectrometer and so on. He was very, very helpful.

The spectrometer arrived and we unpacked it and set it up. We set it up in the “D” Building. That was the chemistry building, because we were going to be using plutonium, why, this was the building where all the plutonium work went on. Our colleagues in the adjacent labs, and so on, were all chemists. We were there, the lone physicists in the building. But it was a very interesting environment. Well, we got this set up and I learned all sorts of things about techniques in experimental physics, which I found fascinating. We made the measurements.

Just before the end of the war, I was shifted. There was some emergency problem where they were preparing the uranium for the first bomb. They needed to have the uranium pieces coated with evaporative chromium, I think it was, or something. I was assigned to go over there and work with some great big vacuum systems. I was just there a short time, the war was over.

Then people were talking about, “Well, what are we going to do now?” It was not long before they developed the plans to go out to Bikini to have a test of the weapons. I thought, “That sounds like adventure, I want to go.” So I went over and talked to people in the photographic group. I was taken on there by Berlyn Brixner, who was head of the photographic group, where they had high-speed cameras. He was in charge of the group going out, and he and Jack Aeby and Clayton Hooter and Bill Geiger and I were sort of—oh, there’s one other fellow—the group that went out to the Pacific.

We packed up all our stuff and went, flew out to Long Beach, California and got on board and watched the sailors loading our crates. One of the sailors was careless with a big crate-load of our stuff, and it dropped out of the sling. We were standing at the edge of the hatch, and just see those cartons banging down all the way. And Jack hollers over to me, he said, “Al, do you know which box we put the bomb in?” And the sailors were a little more careful after that.

We went out to Bikini. It was a wonderful place. Here was an island largely untouched by the war in the Pacific. Many islands had been subjected to heavy bombardment and so on. This island hadn’t had much. There had been one seaplane that had crashed there, but that I think was all the war that had touched them. 

So, the main island—there was an atoll about twenty miles in diameter, or something like that—and the main island was Bikini proper, and that’s where they immediately set up. The Navy set up the officers’ quarters and all sorts of things. The target fleet was being hauled in there and put off, just sort of off of Bikini Island. And then we had a camera tower there that was like seventy-five feet high, and also had one on the Enyu Island, which is farther down the chain.

We had these two towers and a little cab up on top, and we had maybe six or eight cameras, something like that. We had radio relay links to allow radio signals to trigger the various cameras at the various times that they were supposed to go off with regard to the blast. We set up our cameras. 

We had modified them, many in the shops at Los Alamos before we left, to speed some of them up and to put electronic time markers that would flash little bulbs to put marks on the film, because one set of cameras, you put a hundred feet of film through it in, I don’t know, ten seconds or something. Like they have giant, big motors on them and film was accelerating all the time. It wasn’t as though they were running at a constant speed and you could count frames and tell what the time was, and so we had to put timing marks on them.

We saw the first blast out there. The ships were in the lagoon that morning, and sailed out about twenty miles away. The bomb came at something like ten o’clock in the morning. We were back to the bomb, standing on the decks of the ships, standing back to the bomb and we were aware of this enormously bright light. We turned around, and you could see a sort of a growing hemisphere of fog and it grew into a very bright orange and then it sort of evaporated. From the inside came the great big column of smoke and debris, the big mushroom cloud. It went up and mushroomed.

That afternoon, we were back in the lagoon looking sort of like tourists, looking at all the damage. In the days that followed, I got aboard some of the target ships and the damage on some of them was very impressive. There was one aircraft carrier, the Independence, and the whole island on the carrier deck was just gone. There was a submarine that had been on the surface at the time of the explosion, and all the superstructure of that was pretty well blown away.

I went on a cruiser–it may have been the Salt Lake City. It was stern end to the blast. The decks on the back, the wooden decks, were all charred, but the deck was sort of bowed down. I went below deck and here, you could see these twelve inch eye-beams across, transverse across the deck of the ship, and the blast had just blown these down like a foot or two.

Underneath them was the sheet metal lockers for the crew. These lockers were very grotesquely distorted when this, these eleven-inch beams, twelve inch beams came and bent down. You have to ask yourself, “How big a wind do you have to have to bend twelve inch eye-beams?” It was very impressive.

I got aboard one of the Japanese Navy ships that was there. It was the Nagato, I think. It was quite moving to realize that a year ago this was the scourge of the Pacific, this battleship. The Japanese fleet, up until close to the end of the war, had been largely intact. And here it was, and I was standing on the deck of this ship and looking at some of the damage there.

We had finished all our camera installation, so we weren’t all needed anymore. I left early because I was scheduled to get married and I had to start graduate school. I left early, came home on a troop ship stacked six deep in the hold in hammocks, and got back to San Francisco. At that time, this was August of 1946, I terminated my employment at Los Alamos and went home, got married, and went to graduate school at Harvard. Then I finished there in 1950 and went to the University of Colorado.

Cindy Kelly: That’s great. Let’s see, to go back to the Manhattan Project for a minute:  you obviously knew from your introductory interview what the project was all about. Everybody at Los Alamos pretty much knew what the project was about.

Bartlett: Well, there were two kinds of people at Los Alamos. You had the white badges and the blue badges. I believe the criterion for getting a white badge was, you had a Bachelor’s degree or higher in science. I just barely had it. The custodial people and many of the people who worked in the labs had blue badges, and the blue badge people weren’t supposed to know what was going on. 

I know many of them knew exactly what was going on, but the blue badge people couldn’t go to these secret meetings we mentioned—the colloquia, the weekly colloquia, that was in the Post Theater, the movie theater. You had to have a white badge to get in there, to go and hear the progress reports from Oppenheimer and progress reports from various group leaders and people around who were working on various aspects of the project.

Kelly: Do you think those colloquia were a good idea?

Bartlett: Yes, very much so. It was central to, I think, the timely success of the project. Like many colloquia, people would raise their hands and say, “Well, this here, this problem that you’re having, have you tried such and such, or have you thought of such and such?” If you hadn’t had those colloquia, you wouldn’t have had this widespread interaction with all kinds of people, all kinds of scientists working at the lab, coming in and making suggestions and contributing to the work, to the overall success of the project.

Kelly: Were there ways in which the military’s concern for secrecy, do you think, slowed the development of the bomb? Or do you think the colloquia kind of were the exchange that scientists needed to make progress?

Bartlett: I don’t have any knowledge of what the military was doing on other aspects. They were not obvious around the lab. You’d see uniforms. A lot of the uniforms were on the SED people, and then there were military police there. There were women in uniform in the WAC group. There were lots of uniforms around, but nobody was saying, “Do this; do that,” or anything like that.

Now, I think it was probably true that the SED people were sort of regimented as regular soldiers, by drill sergeants and stuff like that. I never saw them out drilling, but living in barracks of fifty people in barracks or something like this, open bunk beds, no privacy and so on—this was more like military life. There may have been some extent to which that hampered people’s work. You would have to ask some of the people that were in the SED group, but I remember hearing that they had to do some military duties and military training that didn’t have any bearing on their work, and that this may have interfered in a slight way.

Kelly: Did you end up working for Robert Bacher?

Bartlett: No, he was, I think, associate director of the lab or something like this, and at that time at least was handling personnel. I worked with Bob Thompson and a third person joined our group, who was Donald Swinehart. Don had just finished his PhD in physical chemistry at Ohio State. The three of us ran the mass spectrometer. We did the work. I’d see Bacher from time to time, but I was not working for him.

I think administratively, we were put in John Williams’s group. John Williams was the group leader of the group that ran the Van der Graaf machines from the University of Wisconsin. Occasionally we’d have group meetings of the whole group. We were stuck off with the chemists and didn’t interact daily with the rest of the group that we were in administratively. I got to know a few of the people that were on the Van der Graaf machines, but didn’t have a lot of interaction with other people in the lab. I was very low on the totem pole.

But you got to know the names of people who were at the lab, because they had a public address system throughout all the buildings—I don’t know, fifty buildings or whatever—and if I couldn’t get you on the telephone when I dialed, then I could call the operator and say, “Would you please page Cindy Kelly, and ask her to call Al Bartlett?” And so you would hear these names all the time, daily. There’d be dozens of these things: “Will so and so please call so and so?” or “So and so please do this” and “So and so please do that.” You got to know the names of all these “so and so’s” who were around the lab, and it was very interesting.

Every once in a while, and it probably happened a couple or three times, somebody would call the operator, who didn’t know the names, and give her a message. So you’d hear this message come out over the loudspeakers all over the lab and say: “Will Werner Heisenberg please report to the director’s office?” And everyone would chuckle, and then go back to work.

Kelly: What other amusing anecdotes or remembrances do you have of life at Los Alamos?

Bartlett: Well, I spent a lot of my time on days off and the weekend just hiking. I hiked all over the mountains. Got to know a number of people who shared the interest. There was a group that was trying to set up a ski hill at Sawyer’s Hill. They were calling in the summer of 1944 for volunteers to go out on Sundays and cut trees to clean up the slope and so on. I went to several of those parties.

They didn’t have a ski tow, so one of the big-time skiers who was there was George Kistiakowsky, who was very high in the administration. I think he was a chemist from Harvard, and he was a great skier. He was sort of used to having things his way, and he wanted to have a rope tow on Sawyer’s Hill. He called me in once–I’d been with this volunteer group–and he said, “Can you get two or three guys together? And we’ll install a rope tow there.”

Let me back up. I think two GIs had jerry-rigged some kind of a rope tow. They had an automobile motor, and it wasn’t very satisfactory. George wanted something better. So I went to his office and he said, “I’ll have Major Ackerman design a concrete base for the tow. He’s a concrete expert.”

So I went to Major Ackerman’s office and told him what I thought we wanted. He designed the base and he got the cement truck to go out there and put the cement in place. Then we mounted the motor on it and they got the rope restrung. The rope wasn’t very good, and I think Kistiakowsky was able to get a rope some place for the rope tow.

So we got it out there and got the tow running, and I think it was running for the second season I was there. So, let’s see, we did the first work in the summer of ’44, so it must have been the summer of ’45, we put up this new, improved rope tow. It was ready to go in the winter of ’45. There was a ski club, and I’ve seen there is presently an enormous chairlift and everything out there, and at different sites. Sawyer’s Hill is no longer the ski site.

But they have a museum and they have a list of, sort of the people who signed up as members of the ski club. My name is on there, where I signed up, and there are a lot of big-time names on there that were all members of the ski club.

Where the present ski slope is, is up on the slope of Pajarito Mountain. That’s where we used to go in. There were sort of dirt tracks that you could follow. Vehicles had been up there at some time, and there had been built by the Los Alamos school a big, good-sized cabin that the boys in the school had gone to for winter outings or summer outings, whatever. It was called Camp May. So we would ski in this long trail, two or three miles from the road, and then stay in the cabin. Then the next day, we could go up and walk up the slopes, ski down and so on.

I remember one time, we went up there on maybe a Friday afternoon or something, Friday after work. We tramped all the way in. Next morning, we were getting ready to go up and start skiing. We heard a motor coming up; it was George Kistiakowsky with a GI driver and two or three of his friends. The GI was driving a little track weasel, which had tracks under it, so it could sort of maneuver through the snow. 

Of course, in doing so, it chewed up the trail all the way up. We were looking forward to sort of skiing down this trail. He just tore it all up, so it was terribly difficult getting down afterwards. Then he would have the driver drive them up to the top of the slope and they’d ski down, and his driver would drive down and then the driver would go and get them and then come down.

This was at the time, ironically, of the Battle of the Bulge, following D-Day and Normandy. It was toward the end the war, that winter of ’45, January of ’45, something like that. At that time, there was a shortage of gasoline in this country because everything they could get their hands on was shipped over to the military fighting in France. There was a genuine shortage, and here, here was George—he had his vehicle going up and skiing up and down. That was sort of an interesting thing.

I remember one lecture, and whenever any of the big people were lecturing, most of the lab people would drop what they were doing and go hear him. If [Richard] Feynman was lecturing, the lab would come to a stop. If [Enrico] Fermi was lecturing, the same thing. Well, Fermi, I remember. Once, I was sort of sitting in the back row. He’s talking, he’s up at the board, and he wants to talk about the nuclear cross-section and the way it varies with energy for some element, and he draws a vertical axis and a horizontal axis. He said, “Now this cross-section rises like this and when some criterion is met, it’s going to level off like this.” He now had three chalk marks on the board: a vertical line, a horizontal line, and a line that went up and bent. He looked at the line, he stepped back from the board, took a six-inch calculator, a slide-ruler, out of his pocket, did a quick—and he went up and he erased that horizontal part of the line. He said, “It isn’t quite that high, it’s more like this.”

I thought, “This is hilarious, because he hasn’t made a quantitative mark on the board.” Well, I wasn’t going to laugh at Fermi. All of the sudden, somebody else laughed and then the whole room broke out in laughter. He sort of saw what he had done, and he smiled and went back to work. He was a great skier. Skiing at Sawyer’s Hill there, very often you’d see him out there. He would crouch low to the ground and he would ski sort of at high speed, but he was a good skier.

One Sunday at the ski hill, Niels Bohr was there. He didn’t wait for the rope tow because the rope tow was very unreliable. It would break down, and when it broke down, there were a lot of sort of fancy skiers there from Los Alamos. They would go sit down in the sun and sun themselves and wait and complain that the ski tow wasn’t running. Niels Bohr would just get on with his poles and he would pole up to the top of the hill by himself, and then he would ski down. He didn’t need the tow.

I took some pictures of him there. They didn’t come out very well, but there is a famous picture of him on the hill at that day, and he’s facing to the left in the picture, and he’s on his skis with his ski poles at a slight incline going up. That picture’s been widely reproduced. I think it’s now in the Emilio Segrè collection at Los Alamos. I know I saw the picture on some cards that the American Institute of Physics had printed, notecards.

I wrote to the librarian who I know and I told him, I said, “I’m 99.9% sure that that picture was taken by John Miller.” John was working in the lab next door to where I worked. He was a chemist. He and I were together that day taking pictures on the ski slope when Niels Bohr was there. I’m sure he took that. Apparently in the Segrè record, they had no idea of who had taken it. So I wrote to Spencer Weart and told him, and he thanked me.

John had a tragic situation later. He had a blue badge, so he wasn’t supposed to know what was going on, but he surely did. After Los Alamos, he finished up his undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri, and then went to graduate school at Harvard and very quickly got a PhD in geology. He became quite an authority on geology.

He was an associate professor at Harvard in geology and he came out to New Mexico. He was studying land formations. He spent a summer in the field in New Mexico, came back to Cambridge, was not feeling well, and went to see a doctor. The doctor sort of looked at him and told him you know, something nominal like, “Drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.” And he died of bubonic plague. There hadn’t been a case of bubonic plague in the Boston area in several generations of doctors, so they didn’t know what was going on. 

The doctor didn’t think to say, “Well, have you been away from Boston? Have you been somewhere?” If he had known that he’d been in New Mexico, recently, why, chances are the doctor would have called the public health people in New Mexico, where they had records of several cases of bubonic plague, and he could have been treated and saved. But we got to know him; I was lecturing back at Harvard in summer school for several years and we rented the Miller house, before he died.

 I’ll tell you another story about Los Alamos. When I first got there and for a couple of weeks commuted in a car pool to Bandelier National Monument, where we lived in the lodge. When the dormitory was finished, and you know, I think the dorm was numbered 132—I’m not sure. It’s standing today and it’s backed up to the north fence. 

Today I think it’s a church, belongs to a church or something. I’ve been there a couple times. I haven’t really been in the building since I left there, but there was a standard design. They built several of them there on the site. It had forty rooms, two floors, and it was just long, rectangular, nothing architectural about it. It had a lounge on one end of the lower floor, bathrooms for everybody—just sort of communal bathrooms in the center of each floor. Each of them had forty rooms.

In room forty in our dorm—go up the east staircase, turn right and it’s the first door on your right—was Harry Daghlian. I got to know Harry; he had his undergraduate degree, I think from Purdue University. He was working out at the Gamma Site, I think it was, where they were doing the criticality experiments. I’d see him—we ate in a military-style dining hall and so we’d talk over lunch. I asked him once, “I’d really like to go and see what you’re doing out there.”

He took me out one night, had to go past a bunch of guards and go into the rooms where they were doing these experiments. One of the experiments involved having—there was a wooden table and they had sort of cubes of the enriched uranium, that were sort of the size of sugar cubes. They would arrange these in an approximately spherical configuration with a neutron source that just gave a few neutrons per second in the center. This would trigger fission in some of the uranium-235, and then you would see the counters go off. You would hear them audibly; there was a counter and clicks would come over a loudspeaker.

Then they would bring in more cubes to see how close to criticality they could get and make measurements of the multiplication factors and so on. The standard instruction was that if you’re up near, very near critical, bringing another cube in, you’re supposed to bring it from underneath this assembly so that if you sense that anything’s wrong, your act of getting out of there is an act of reducing the criticality.

So he showed me this experiment, and he showed me the “dragon tail” experiment where they had a sort of roughly spherical configuration of this enriched uranium with a vertical hole through the assembly. You’d drop another little piece through and it would go through and for a moment, you’d be up near critical or at criticality, just for a very brief moment. They call that something like “tickling the dragon’s tail,” or something like that was the name of that experiment. He showed me that; he didn’t perform the experiment.

 But some days later, we heard over dinner or something that he’d been injured in an accident. I went to see him in the hospital, and I think it was his right hand was all bandaged up, very heavy bandages all over it. He told me that he had brought in sort of one cube and accidentally dropped it. He said the entire assembly, the air around it, was just blue with ionization. He said he reached in and just knocked this apart, and that stopped the reaction. 

He thought at the time I talked to him that he might lose some fingers on his right hand. He lived for, I think, three weeks before he died. And the medical people apparently photographed him and his condition. I’ve only heard about the photographs, that it was a very gruesome set of photographs as he died.

 In room thirty-nine—there was a turnover in these rooms, not a great deal—but, for a while in room thirty-nine, Louis Slotin lived there. I didn’t talk to him very much. He wasn’t there a lot. But one time I talked to him and he said he’d fought in the Spanish Civil War. He’d been a volunteer—was it the Lincoln Brigade or something like this?—of people from outside Spain who’d gone there to fight against General Franco. I thought, “Boy, that takes a, a lot of determination and concern, in order to do something like that.” I had great respect for him in that regard.

I had no connection with him in terms of the physics labs. That was room thirty-nine in the dorm, and I lived in room in thirty-eight. Then across the hall from me in room thirty-seven, for a while, was Roy Glauber, who was one of the very young physicists—very, very outstanding—and he received a Nobel Prize last year in physics.

Every once in a while in the dorms, the single people would get together and throw a dorm party. You’d invite married friends to come in because you’d been invited out to dinner at their place, and so this was a way of sort of returning the favor.

Bartlett: Well, the basic ingredient of the punch in the dorm parties was ethyl alcohol from the laboratory stock. Now, I suppose it’s still true that if you’re running a university chemistry laboratory, you have to keep very careful inventory records of your ethyl alcohol stock. But here, you could just go and get whatever you needed. For punch, apparently, somebody knew how to pull the strings to get it, and there weren’t any federal inspectors around checking on it. And so a lot of times, the punch was pretty strong.

The word got around, and then sort of the inevitable happened. Some of the custodial people apparently went in to the chemical supplies to get something for some punch they were going to have, and they got ethylene, ethyl glycol—ethylene glycol instead of ethanol. Three of them died.

Another story about this was, Kleenex was a common ingredient in many laboratories, where you need it for cleaning surfaces and so on, and experimental equipment. Kleenex was something that was stocked in the stockrooms. But everyone needed Kleenex for sniffles. And so the consumption of Kleenex from the stocks was very high. At some point, an order went out that in order to get Kleenex from the stockroom, you had to have a group leader’s signature, because so many people were taking out so much.

Kelly: That’s great. Do have any sort of reflection on the use of the bomb?

Bartlett: Well, we knew it would be big-time news when it was used. A group of us, I know, subscribed by mail to the New York Times, so we would have copies of the issues when it was first announced and succeeding issues. There were some groups that had discussions about, maybe they should have a test on a remote island and invite observers from Japan. 

But you know, we were way down in the hierarchy and these decisions were made higher up. I don’t think anyone followed up on that. I do remember some of the early meetings that lead to the formation of the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS). And a great concern after the war was educating the public too.

I think Leonard Jossem showed some very nice slide transparencies of a cover of a booklet that was prepared. This was an educational booklet about sort of at the level of a comic book, but a little bit better than that, that could be widely distributed and sent out to people to try to educate people to say, “The world has changed and we’ve got to do things differently now.” There was a great, great concern of getting this out. Some of the scientists there were I know, very, very concerned about this, and devoted a great deal of effort to getting this book published and, and getting information out.

I have the impression—I don’t know this for sure, but I think this group, whatever happened to it, it sort of lead to the Association of Atomic Scientists now that publishes the journal in Chicago. There may be a connection there, but I’m not quite sure. But the present association is continuing what was started at Los Alamos.

Then there was the Congressional bill, that I guess may have started in the United States Senate, as to who controls the future of atomic energy in the United States. Should it be the military? And that was in a bill that was presented by Senator [Edwin C.] Johnson of Colorado. Or should it be civilian? That was presented in a bill by Senator [Brien] McMahon of Connecticut. Everyone had sort of a dim view of the military. There was a lot of making fun of General Groves and so on. He was a very outstanding administrator, but he had distinctly different opinions about things like security from those of the scientists. We felt that it would be a disaster to have the military control atomic energy after the war.

And so we were lobbying, and lobbying meant we put money on the table to send Willy Higinbotham down—he was very concerned and he was very active—and send him down to Washington to lobby members of Congress to support the McMahon Bill. Ultimately, the Congress passed the McMahon Bill and this lead to the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission in Washington.

Robert Bacher, who was the first person to interview me down there for a job, he was later an Atomic Energy Commissioner. So there was a lot of discussion, but I don’t know what was going on among the high-level scientists at Los Alamos. We were, you know, we were the workers, and we did what we could.

Kelly: Well, you’ve been terrific. Is there anything that I haven’t asked or you haven’t touched on that we should record for the record?

Bartlett: Well, I spent a lot of time hiking around there and enjoyed the country. I made the decision at that time that when I finished graduate school, I was going to look for a job in the Rocky Mountains. I remember right after the war, the annual intertribal Indian ceremonial was held at Gallup, New Mexico.

A friend of mine had a car, and we pooled gas coupons or something, or maybe the gas rationing was off by that time, but we drove over to Gallup to see this wonderful Indian festival. I remember we saw Enrico Fermi and he was having a great time with viewing the things on display and so on, and the various exhibits and everything. There were quite a number of other physicists that we saw that we had known were all over at this festival. That was something special to see.

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