Theresa Strottman: We are speaking at MIT with Professor French. And we thank you very much for allowing us to interview you here today. To start off the interview, we wonder if you could briefly tell us where you were born and something about your early education and training?
Anthony French: Okay, well, I was born in the resort town of Brighton on the south coast of England and I went to the elementary and secondary schools of the city. Then I got an entrance scholarship to Cambridge University and went up as an undergraduate in the Fall of 1939 to Sussex College, one of the colleges of the University. And got my bachelor’s degree there in 1942. My Dad-it was really a surprise to me that I had got to Cambridge after the ready to go, because of course the war started on September 1st as far as the British were concerned. And it seemed as though all of our plans would be completely destroyed by that. But no, it went through all right and I completed my full 3 years of normal undergraduate study. That was the end of my education then for the time being.
Strottman: Did you study in mathematics or physics or what was your undergraduate degree in?
French: The tradition at Cambridge was that you, first of all, if you were going to major in physics as I did, you began with a general natural sciences program which involved physics and chemistry and for me, mineralogy and some mathematics. The Mathematical Tripos was a completely separate operation. Of course anybody that was doing physics did study a fair amount of mathematics along the way.
Strottman: But you sat separate exams, you didn’t do the Mathematical Tripos?
French: No, no – some physics majors did that. They began with the so-called first part of the Mathematical Tripos and then transferred to full-time studying physics. Actually, I wanted to do that myself because I always detested chemistry. But my director of studies wouldn’t allow me to do that. He made me follow the general science program. He may well have been right. I had enough mathematics to get by with, for a long time at least.
Strottman: How were you recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos? I mean you were just finishing up an undergraduate degree in England and you hadn’t been drafted into any of the services?
French: No, it was a very interesting business as a matter of fact. Maybe this is more than you are looking for, really, but I was very struck by the way that we science students were handled with respect to war work. In my second year as an undergraduate, I think it was C.P. Snow came up to Cambridge and interviewed all of the science majors. He sat in these college rooms for three days on end, I think, interviewing all of us. And more or less deciding our fates. I think it was pretty much in his hands. Some students were sent off to work on, particularly, radar after two years. Others were allowed to complete their normal degree. And that’s what happened to me. My tutor in physics-I did nothing but physics in the third year.
That was the standard practice. My tutor in physics was Egon Bretscher, who gave lectures in nuclear physics. I was very fascinated by his lectures. He had worked with Rutherford for awhile before the war. After Rutherford had died he stayed on. He was a visitor from Switzerland in the first instance. But he stayed on and became a university lecturer.
Strottman: So that even though Switzerland, he could have gone back, he stayed during the war?
French: Yes, he chose to stay. And quite unknown to me when I was an undergraduate, he was in fact already involved in the British Tube Alloys Project and what happened then was that as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree in ’42, I then joined his research group.
Strottman: Let’s to clarify for the sake of the tape. I have two questions. One, the first, is could you define who C.P. Snow was and then the second is, could you talk a bit about the history of the Tube Alloys Project?
French: Okay, I know something about that. Well, first of all, Snow, of course, he became very famous at least in Britain for his development of the two cultures theme and his book about science and the humanities as being really very separated from one another in their general approach to culture. He was in fact, originally, I think, a chemist or a physicist, but before WWII began he had already gone more into government service, I think, and into novel writing. Then he produced a whole stream of novels. One of which, called The Search, was a really riveting story of the experiences of what doing research was like and some of the shenanigans that were involved sometimes.
Anyway, he worked for the government during the war on this matter of scientific manpower and lived in London. I don’t know whether he did a lot of interviewing at other universities but he certainly did at Cambridge. Now, I came into the British project, of course, at a relatively late stage. I suppose it had begun way back in 1940, very soon after fission was discovered. In particular, Peierls and Frisch were responsible for getting things started in England. All this, of course, is described in great detail in Margaret Gowing’s histories. I think that’s the best place to go, that’s where I, at least, got my information. As a result of the decision to push on this, work was done in Britain several places. And at the universities, I think it was primarily Cambridge, Birmingham and Liverpool. Liverpool was where Chadwick was head of the department at the time, I believe. Then for the industrial production side of things, Imperial Chemicals, I think, were brought in. I don’t know who else. But at Cambridge we saw almost nothing of these other aspects of it. So all I knew about it really was that there was this fantastic idea that maybe fission could be used to make a bomb. I don’t think any of us took it very seriously. But at any rate, we were given a job at Cambridge. There were two small groups.
One was the one I was in, measuring fission cross sections for fast neutrons and then there was a parallel group working on slow neutron physics which led to the development of the nuclear reactors ultimately.
Now I suppose it was in early 1944 or late 1943 that it was decided that it didn’t make sense to continue the effort in Britain with wartime conditions and bombing and so forth. And so the decision was made to move the whole British effort to North America. And then it fragmented. I think some people went to New York, some to Los Alamos, some to Berkeley, I think. And then a sizable group to Canada to the Chalk River or Deep River, I guess it was. I’m not sure which it was called at that time. And though the Canadian effort was devoted to developing nuclear reactors and of course those of us who were in the fast fission, fast neutron work had been measuring fission cross sections and went to Los Alamos to continue, as I thought, to continue that sort of work.
Strottman: In England were they working–we have spoken to people in the States who talked about trying to compress the uranium oxide and various other experiments physically with the material. Was that kind of work going on in Britain? In other words, how did the term tube alloy come about and precisely was it purely theoretical calculations that were going on in all these different places or were people actually trying to process the material?
French: I don’t know much about that side of things. I do know that my boss, Bretscher, was in fact both a chemist and a physicist. He had PhDs, I think, in both. He was doing a lot of radiochemistry. And I think he stopped it when we got seriously into the measurement of fission cross-sections. But he was doing the sort of radiochemistry that led to the production of plutonium. However, we say nothing of any major production work.
There was a major interest, I think, in separating isotopes, uranium isotopes. As far as I know that was the emphasis so far as it went in Britain. I think that the Imperial Chemicals were very active in that. I hope I have the correct firm identified. But it was just hearsay to us at Cambridge, as far as we were concerned, at least anybody as junior as I. There was really no contact on that effort. So our job seemed to me to be incredibly academic. I just couldn’t believe that this was going to lead to anything practical. Because we were working with minute amounts of these individual uranium isotopes deposited on thin metal foils. Working with a nuclear accelerator, a Cockroft-Walton accelerator, to produce fast neutrons. Our job was simply to measure the cross section of the uranium isotopes for neutrons of different energies. That was essentially all that I saw of the project.
Then there was this other slow neutron group, however, that was working with sizable amounts of uranium, uranium oxide, trying to do the studies that would lead to the design of a nuclear reactor, slow neutron system.
Strottman: Do you know who coined the term tube alloys and why or how it came about?
French: As I understand it, it was deliberately chosen to be as meaningless or misleading as possible. I think there was a fellow called Perrin, who was one of the chief people in the early days of the British project who chose this name as something, which would not interest the Germans at all. It sounded like a sort of low-level industrial project that would not attract much attention.
Strottman: When you say that your group was recruited to the States, well, that various British scientists and they were split up because of the threat of bombing and rockets and various things, how did you physically get–how were the arrangements made and how did you physically get from England to Los Alamos?
French: Well, it was a very interesting thing, to me at least. Well, first of all, there was both splitting in the sense that groups were sent from Britain to different places in North America, but also there was a convergence at Los Alamos. There were people from various places in Britain all coming together. So I suppose, basically, it was Chadwick must have decided where people went. He presumably recruited my particular boss to join the Los Alamos effort. In fact, Bretscher went to Los Alamos in February of 1944, leaving the other members of his group behind. So we continued to do our fission cross-section measurements in his absence.
But then we ourselves received the call, at least two of us did, two very junior people, to join him in Los Alamos. So there was a fellow, I guess in London, at the Tube Alloys headquarters who coordinated all of this. And arranged for us to go. I must say that for me, personally, it was an astonishing experience. Because I left in October ’44 and it was my very first flight, was in fact a flying boat from a harbor in the south of England first of all, across to the Chalonest (sp?) area and then a seventeen hour flight across the Atlantic to Gander and then down. I think we landed in Chesapeake Bay. So that was my first sight of the States.
And the contrast was just unbelievable of leaving wartime Britain with blackouts and shortages. I remember that we stopped off briefly at Shannon and even there served with unbelievable food and two eggs at once. Whereas we only had one egg a week back in England and things like that. And then of course arriving in the States blazing with lights and so on. I remember we took a train very promptly, I think up from Chesapeake Bay or wherever it was, to Washington and had a few hours in Washington but then, as I recall, got onto an overnight train to Chicago. Then another train, the California Limited, out to Lamy. So that was the way it went. And Santa Fe was the first American city, really, that I spent any significant time in, other than a couple of hours in Washington.
Strottman: What were your first impressions of Santa Fe?
French: Oh, just marvelous, I think. It was so picturesque. Wonderful sunshine, things I wasn’t used to at all. (Laugh) So I remember we knew pretty well that we were going into a fairly secluded area so I remember sending one or two postcards from Santa Fe before we had to do it through the censors.
Strottman: What were you able to tell your family and friends, the people to whom you would send postcards?
French: Virtually nothing. In fact, as you know, I’m sure the system was that we sent all of our mail unsealed and it was read by the censors and if they didn’t like what you wrote, then they would send it back rather than give any evidence of censorship. But I think we understood very well, you just didn’t talk about what you are doing. So I don’t recall any problem with that. But I know that, so we could just talk about weekend excursions or whatever and daily life, but that was all of course.
Strottman: What were you able to tell your family when you left England? I imagine that was problematical too.
French: Yes, well, merely that I was being sent to the States. Of course, they didn’t know, I guess, what I was working on at all. That would have been quite secret obviously. So I think all they knew was I had been doing research in Cambridge and I was being sent to America. And that was the end of it.
Strottman: Were they allowed to tell their neighbors that or was even that supposed to be kept quiet?
French: I don’t know. I suppose all of our mail went from, what was it, P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe, so it was known, I suppose, geographically where we were. That was it. I don’t recall that there was any sort of gossip. My parents weren’t the type probably to talk about it anyway.
Strottman: Did you continue the same type of work you had done at Cambridge here in Los Alamos or rather in Los Alamos?
French: That was the biggest surprise of all. That when I arrived in Los Alamos and made my first renewed contact with Egon Bretscher, the first thing that happened, actually, was to sit us down as newcomers to read the Los Alamos Primer written by Serber. Very shortly after that then Bretscher introduced me to the fact that he was no longer working on the measurement of fission cross-sections but that he had joined in an effort or was beginning an effort to gain information about thermonuclear reactions. He had teamed up with Edward Teller, whose baby it was, in a special projects division run by Enrico Fermi. So to our total surprise we found ourselves faced with the job of building a very small, low energy accelerator to study the reactions of deuterium and deuterium and tritium. The theoretical calculations apparently had suggested that the deuterium/tritium reaction might be expected to have a very high probability, very high cross-section. And this was our job to see if that was really true.
Strottman: How, in layman’s terms, briefly, how did this reactor differ from say the graphite piles?
French: Oh, well, it was a totally different thing. You see, the sorts of experiments that we were doing in Cambridge and then on a different scale and with different materials in Los Alamos, were using nuclear accelerators for the purpose of getting the basic nuclear information. So this didn’t resemble a reactor in the least. It was something where no significant amounts of energy were being involved, released, but where particles accelerated through a very precisely defined voltage were used to bombard a target in vacuum and producing the nuclear reactions. We were studying the products of the nuclear reactions by counting individual particles coming out. So the whole, in terms of numbers of particles or masses of material, this was absolutely minute. But that’s the way that such experiments are done to get the fundamental nuclear information.
Strottman: And Egon Bretscher stayed your boss throughout your British and your American experience?
French: Yes, that’s right, yes, yes. Until he left Los Alamos himself in Summer, I think, of ’45.
Strottman: When did you realize . . . you talked before about having found it difficult to believe that there would a practical or a military application of the kind of cross-section calculations you were doing, but did you know that the effort was to produce a bomb? At what time did anyone ever tell you this specifically?
French: The first information I had of it, as I think I mentioned earlier, was while I was still an undergraduate at Cambridge and at the time, of beginning to think about what to do after my bachelor’s degree. A fellow undergraduate and I went to visit Sir Lawrence Bragg, who was then head of the Cavendish Lab to ask him if there was any possibility of a job at Cambridge after we graduated. He was noncommittal, of course.
But as I mentioned, my boss Bretscher, in fact chose me to stay on and work for him. It was just about the time that this was being negotiated that this other college friend of mine suggested to me that he heard the thing involved was the possible manufacture of a bomb based upon nuclear processes. But that was just a rumor as far as I was concerned. It seemed so improbable. However, on the arrival, at the moment of arrival at Los Alamos, the whole picture was different. Because it was a large body of people with activity in every conceivable area of the bomb program and with a clear belief that it was going to be made to work.
Strottman: When your friend back in England, when you were thinking about these things, that was approximately 1942?
Strottman: And so it’s 1944 when you were actually seeing a laboratory?
French: No, no. I went straight into a lab in 1942, in Cambridge. And doing work then I knew that it was concerned with fission measurements for the possible design of a bomb.
It was merely that it seemed to be such a small-scale effort and so isolated from practicalities that I found it hard to take seriously that anything would really come of it. The big change was getting to Los Alamos with this thriving lab and a major effort all in one place. And all sorts of people with great names in physics that were seriously involved in it. That really altered the picture completely and made me realize that this was something that was very possibly going to happen.
Strottman: Where did you live in Los Alamos?
French: Initially in one of the bachelors’ dormitories down off from the center of the site. For me it was perfectly comfortable. I think for the Americans it seemed very, very bare and perhaps disagreeable. But for me it was just fine. I had a good-sized room with a bed and there were bathrooms down the corridor and everything seemed to be good. Lots of wonderful food such as we hadn’t seen for years. So that was very, very nice. Then, after about a year, I suppose it was, I got married, having met one of the women who was working on the American side in the Theoretical Division. Then we moved into a tiny box of a prefabricated house. Which was perfectly adequate but looking back it was certainly not much of a place. But there were similar little boxes of. . . just a whole crowd of them in one particular area.
Strottman: Could you talk a little bit about your wife’s work?
French: Sure, she had been recruited from the University of Illinois, I think, where she had been teaching mathematics. And then she went into the Theoretical Division and I think her immediate supervisor was Richard Feynman. And the program was doing the blast wave calculations on the fission bomb. So this was a combination of hand calculation with the old-fashioned mechanical calculators and the first use of calculating in industrial commercial calculating machines as used for business and finance. So these machines were being converted. I can’t believe they were very efficient. But they were much ahead of any hand calculations that could be done. So it was a matter of running the initial stages of a calculation with the machine calculators, desktop. Then arranging electrical circuits for controlling the IBM cards, I suppose it was, that were being put through the business machine calculators. To turn out the tabulations of the progress of this blast wave through successive intervals of time.
Strottman: How successful were those calculations in the event of the empirical data you gathered after the Trinity Test?
French: That I don’t know much about. But I think they were pretty good because, in the sense that I think the bomb, in every respect, did very much what it was expected to do by the terms of the total yield of tons of TNT equivalent. And also the detailed effects of the blast wave itself and all the rest of the aerodynamic effects that went along with it, the mushroom cloud and all that. I think most of this was foreseen. Although that wasn’t something that I was privy to myself. Didn’t know much about.
Strottman: What do you remember about relationships between the military and the civilians in Los Alamos?
French: Not a great deal. About the only very direct contact I had was that there was a GI working as a technical assistant with our little group. Our group was only about six people, I think, or five. There was a large group, of course, of technically qualified American students, I suppose they were mostly, who had been drafted and were working for different groups in Los Alamos. And one of these fellows was assigned to us. I don’t think he had completed a college degree at that point. I think he went back after the war and did that. As I said, he was working as a technical assistant for us for a year or so.
Apart from that, I didn’t really have much contact with the military, except, of course, going through the guard gates when we went back and forth between Los Alamos and Santa Fe, which for me, I guess, was only once a month. On the bus trip that was provided by the Army for shopping purposes. Of course, the buses were traveling all the time, but we only had one day a month for that, individually. There was, of course, a general, I think, hostility, if that’s not too strong a word, for the fact that this was a military-managed operation and General Groves obviously was not a particularly popular person with many of the scientists. But apart from that, the contacts were very slight, I would say.
There were one or two other people among the officers who used to take their meals at the Fuller Lodge where I did and many others did. So we would converse occasionally and quite pleasantly on that basis. But the contacts were relatively small.
Strottman: Did you ever have any problems with your papers with the MPs or any incidents that you remember as being held up?
French: No, nothing at all that I recall.
Strottman: Did you ever go to parties where there were a lot of military or . . .?
French: No, in fact, I was not doing any partying to speak of, I think at all. I only remember two or three in the whole time I was there. So my social life was very limited. Of course, as experimentalists, I think we particularly, we spent most of our time just working on our job. Our main recreational, my main recreation, was at the weekends and hiking up into the mountains, which was very, very delightful.
Strottman: You mentioned that General Groves wasn’t necessarily all that popular. Did he ever have anything directly to do with the British Mission or were you pretty much insulated within yourselves?
French: We didn’t, well certainly, I didn’t. I think probably Oppenheimer and Chadwick must have had dealings with him on the exact status of the British Mission there. All I heard was that Groves really would rather not have had us there at all. But there we were. So I think he had to lump it.
Strottman: Did you ever borrow MP horses or . . .?
French: Nothing like that. Must think that some people did. I didn’t know anything about that.
Strottman: Various people did do that and I wondered if . . . because a lot of people formed contacts with the MPs.
French: I see. I think those who perhaps worked more closely with a larger number of them, if it was a real sizable group, I imagine the situation could have been different, but here we were with just this one young man and I imagine that he just chose to go his own way when, as soon as he was off duty.
Strottman: Did you have any other impressions about what it was like to live and work on a military base, I imagine coming from, you know, you’re talking about one of the most prestigious and a very ancient university of England, to all of a sudden finding yourself in a clapboard and hastily constructed military base, just even physical impressions as well as impressions of human interaction.
French: Well, physically of course, it couldn’t have been more different. I didn’t find it disagreeable, though. I think one of the main things was all of the feeling of energy that was in Los Alamos. Certainly there were more prestigious physicists collected together there than I would ever have seen if I had stayed in Cambridge. It was unique in that sense. So on the intellectual plane, there was nothing that I could possibly criticize. As far as the physical environment goes, yes, I suppose it was simple by American standards but I think for somebody coming from Britain, and out of years of really fairly limited resources, almost everything seemed to be pretty exciting and satisfying. That was true at least for people like me and the other young bachelors. I think some of the married people had a different view of it. I think being asked to live in the Army housing was pretty hard, especially if they had children. I have read about the heater, the stoves and so on not working properly. I think some of the wives had a pretty hard time with that. But for those of us who just went to the cafeteria for meals, everything was very good.
Strottman: You mentioned that you didn’t have much time for socializing but you mentioned a few parties and I guess the next question is, what do you remember about social relations during the Manhattan Project? Who interacted with whom, what kinds of things did you do for each other?
French: Again, I don’t recall anything very much. The chief contact, I would say, were probably at meals and particularly lunch times at Fuller Lodge where a number of the staff did go regularly. That was very enjoyable. I don’t remember, and I suppose for dinners also. That was most of the social life that I recall. I’m sorry I can’t help you. (Laugh)
Strottman: That’s quite all right. How and with whom did you spend your free time?
French: Almost entirely, I would say, until I was married anyway, with these few other young British people that went to Los Alamos either at the same time as I did or at about the same time. I don’t know really. I think we did a lot of talking. I know I played a great deal of table tennis. And I’m sure we did some reading, but not a great deal. I think we walked about a lot. That was about the size of it.
Strottman: How many of you were there who had come from Britain to Los Alamos?
French: About thirty, I think. Maybe it was twenty, less than thirty, twenty or so, yes.
Strottman: And if you broke that down, how many of them were married with families therefore otherwise absorbed?
French: Yes, I see. I would think it was about fifty/fifty probably. Maybe there were more bachelors than married people at the time. And there were, I suppose, four or five of us that were really very junior. I mentioned my flight to the States from England. That was in company with two other people. One from the Cambridge group that I had been with. Another young man who came from Liverpool and so we met for the first time for this flight. And we became members of the same group and worked together then for most of the time that we were there.
Strottman: Did you ever feel isolated?
French: I suppose so. I mean, we certainly were isolated. The one trip down to Santa Fe per month was certainly a very enjoyable experience. On the other hand, once again, I think the fact of being from a foreign country and in such a totally new and interesting environment was . . . meant for me. . . that I didn’t feel particularly isolated at all. The community as such was a very thriving one. So there was lots of personal contacts, new friends to be made. Mostly professionally as far as I was concerned.
Strottman: Did you go to Trinity Site?
French: No. My boss did as a group leader or even though he wasn’t involved in the fission bomb at the time. But no, I was not one of those that was entitled to go down and observe it. Some of my British colleagues of course were deeply involved in the Trinity Test. In particular, Earnest Titterton, I suppose who was responsible for most of the electronics of actually detonating the bombing. There were others who had been directly involved, I suppose, in the bomb as such and the blast measurements and so forth. But of course the work I was doing had no relation as I said to the fission bomb at all, so that there was no justification really for my going.
Strottman: Do you remember when you heard about the Trinity Test and perhaps where you were?
French: Oh, yes, well, we knew it was coming, I suppose, a day or two in advance. We knew which night it was going to happen. And then of course the people who had been there came back and talked about it. And some of them brought samples. I don’t know whether they brought it at the time – they probably didn’t. But at some time later there were these specimens of green glass that the sand had been turned into by the heat of the explosion. So it became a very widely know thing as soon as it had happened.
Strottman: Do you remember having any particular reaction to that news?
French: Curiously not, I suppose, except that a scientific experiment had been a success. I think that was the prevailing reaction probably of most of the scientists there. That yes, it really had performed according to plan. It was kept somewhat under wraps, I suppose, until the first bomb had been dropped on Japan. But that was an interval of only a couple of weeks or so, as I recall.
Strottman: Do you recall where you were when you heard of the bombing of Hiroshima and do you recall if you had any immediate reaction to that event?
French: Well, yes. First of all I was definitely at Los Alamos at the time. I couldn’t pinpoint it. I’m not quite sure how we got to know about it. I think probably over the radio. Then immediately afterwards the newspapers, I suppose, or probably a special issue of the Los Alamos Bulletin about it. And Truman’s announcement. And reactions, well, I suppose astonishment that the thing had been used and had worked in the way it did. Not horror at that time, I don’t think so much, but because everybody was caught up, I think, in the matter of seeing the war come to an end and seeing this as a very important agent in bringing that about. And of course, in some respects, it was, this sounds callous perhaps, but it was not that much more horrible than some of the things that had gone on in the fire bombing of Dresden and of Tokyo already.
I think the thing that clearly made it different was the fact that a single bomb from a single aircraft had done as much as a thousand bombers in one of the raids over Germany, and all at once and within seconds. And I think that was the thing that, as far as one’s own impressions were concerned, was the outstanding thing. But I knew people, of course, who celebrated the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima with a major party that night. I must say I couldn’t myself feel that was something for people to feel joyful about.
Strottman: Do you remember the bombing of Nagasaki as a distinct event and did you have any different reactions that that?
French: Not really, not at the time anyway. In retrospect, I think, first of all, it was, at that point, it was another bomb on Japan. Since, again, I wasn’t directly involved in the making and design of the bombs, I didn’t even know at the time that the Hiroshima bomb was the one that was reckoned to be an absolutely sure-fire device and that the Nagasaki bomb was the first testing of the implosion system which was much more complicated and difficult. So, I think it was only later that people began talking a lot about especially the justification of the second bomb.
Strottman: After WWII when you told people where you’d been during the war and what you had done, do you remember their reactions to you? I’m not talking about ’60s or 70s, I’m talking late ’40s.
French: I think, clearly, people were very impressed at the existence of the whole project and the fact that people like me had actually been involved in it. I think one automatically acquires sort of spurious kudos from that. (Laugh) And in the same way perhaps as the people who had done the pioneering work in radar achieved a lot of recognition. Those years immediately after the war clearly were the time when it was first recognized how significant the work of pure scientists might be. I guess it certainly helped me to get a job after the war.
Strottman: Did working in Los Alamos alter the direction of your life in any particular way?
French: Well, I think it clearly did. Because there I was, I had been working in nuclear physics . . . it actually dates back prior probably to the Los Alamos days, but from the moment when I joined Egon Bretscher’s group on measuring nuclear fission. That more or less determined that I would become a nuclear physicist. And so immediately after leaving Los Alamos, I actually went back to England to work for two years at Harwell. Cockroft was recruiting people who had been working as members of the British Mission in different places. And he got a number of us to go to Harwell in its early days. Some people stayed there then for a long, long time. But I, after the two years at Harwell, I was invited to go back to Cambridge University on the faculty. So I don’t think that would have happened if I had not had the benefit of the wartime experience and the sort of visibility that that gave me.
Strottman: And at what point did you, in other words, Cambridge accepted life experience in lieu of a PhD or an MA at this point or did you ever have to formally work through those?
French: Oh, yes, I did indeed. I was actually appointed before I got my PhD. And I was writing a thesis on the basis of some of the work I had been doing at Los Alamos. Some of it was declassified so promptly that I was able to submit it as a thesis in Fall of 1948 at which point I was already on the faculty. Then I got my PhD formally at the end of that first term at Cambridge. Then I became part of the Cambridge University academic system.
Strottman: This is probably backtracking, but it occurs to me that when you were talking about Egon Bretscher’s group in Los Alamos working with the Cockroft-Walton, were you in the central tech area or were you out in a canyon?
French: Oh no, we were certainly in the central tech area. Because there was no danger of any explosions or anything like that with what we were doing so we were in fact in an area next door to the accelerators that were measuring fission cross-sections. I became well acquainted then with some of the people I then had contacts with in later years as a nuclear physicist.
Strottman: Given similar circumstances, wartime, would you work on a secret government project again?
French: Not willingly, I would say. But it’s very hard to tell. I mean when one thinks about the fact that here we were in Britain in the middle of a desperate war, and young people coming up through the system were ready to do whatever they were asked to do. And so it wasn’t as though we were presented, at least I didn’t see it that way, with a choice. We were being drafted into whatever job the government thought best. Now that may have not been so true of some of the senior people and particularly perhaps of some of the Americans, but for the British, it was a sort of automatic thing. There we were and we were available. So it’s hard to say would that sort of situation arise again. If now, in this country, America was fighting for its life, I think chances are, I’d tend to say, ‘Well, yes, sure, I’ll do whatever I can to be of use.’ I don’t know whether one indulges much in moral scruples under conditions like that. Who is to judge what is moral and what’s not?
Strottman: I’d like, before we terminate the interview. . . .you have known so many legendary figures. . . if we could speak a little bit about them from your point of view and from the point of view of the British Mission at the time during Los Alamos. For instance, Chadwick – we don’t know very much about him. Well, I mean we know what we can read, but if you have any personal memories of Chadwick?
French: Some, yes. I didn’t have much dealing with him. In fact, not much at all after I went to Los Alamos, but as I recall he interviewed me and, I think, one other of the young people about to go to Los Alamos, to give us some advice. He was a very taciturn man. One had to just sit and wait while he potted his pipe until he came out with another sentence. We didn’t have much basis . . . it wasn’t really a conversation, I would say. But he was telling us something about what we might expect. I remember one piece of advice he gave; it was really quite absurd in retrospect. He said, ‘Be sure to get yourself a good overcoat because it can be cold at Los Alamos.’ So I bought myself the most expensive tweed overcoat I’d ever bought. I don’t think I ever wore it. (Laugh) But he was a very impressive man obviously. And a very concerned man. I think he did interest himself in the well-being of the people in the British Mission. And spent a good deal of time at Los Alamos himself.
Strottman: And another person in the British Mission was Klaus Fuchs. Do you have any memories of Klaus Fuchs?
French: Yes, indeed. I always found him, well, again, another very reserved person, perhaps even more than Chadwick. And, I thought, a very gentle and nice man fundamentally. Interestingly, my wife and I bought his car when he left Los Alamos. In fact we drove him down to Albuquerque on his final departure. So we’ve often speculated did we help him carry away a lot of documents at the time. (Laugh) I was interested that the security people never did follow up on the fact that we had bought his car and had known him in this way. Which I found very surprising.
Strottman: They never came to disassemble your car?
French: By that time we had sold it to another American friend. We simply used it to tour the West for a while immediately after leaving Los Alamos. Then to drive to New York and then we turned it over to a friend of my wife’s.
Strottman: You never had any inkling that he never, in a sense, did he ever speak about his political opinions or . . .?
French: Never, no, he was unbelievably silent. I know my wife vividly remembers one occasion when we had him over to dinner along with some visitors, I forget who they were. He more or less sat speechless throughout the evening. Now, I think the visitor may have been the official liaison, a British man from Washington. And perhaps that was an additional reason for Fuchs to be quiet. But he was amazingly silent. The one that people remember about him was that, despite that, he enjoyed parties and particularly dancing. I expect you’ve heard that from other people.
Strottman: I’ve seen pictures of him dancing and I wondered if it was possibly Mitzy Teller he was dancing with.
French: Yes, I think it probably was. I think I’ve seen a photograph of Mitzy with a very vivid-looking dress. I think there was no doubt that Fuchs was quite good in that line and quite debonair. But otherwise, he was really, as far as I could judge, a very colorless person. Obviously there was a lot going on inside that we didn’t realize.
Strottman: Were you ever particularly. . . you didn’t have children right then?
Strottman: Were you ever aware that he was particularly fond of children?
French: No. I had no insight into that end of things at all. I suppose my wife probably knew him slightly as a fellow member of the Theoretical Division. But even she didn’t know him at all well.
Strottman: Another person who I would like to get your memories about is Sir Rudolph Peierls and his wife, Genia.
French: We didn’t know them particularly well at Los Alamos. In fact, not at any time, really, I suppose. They were clearly visible around the place. But my own social life didn’t interact with theirs to any extent.
Strottman: And he wasn’t doing the kind of work that you were doing?
French: No, again, I mean, because he was one of the senior theorists and here I was in a small experimental group. So we worked in physically different buildings. All I knew of him was that there he was as one of the most respected senior people. We did see a little bit more of Otto Frisch, however, because he was an experimentalist. We would see him quite a bit. I’m sure you’ve heard tales of him. One thing I remember particularly about him was, of course, he was a very good pianist and he would, after breakfast in the Fuller Lodge, he would tend to sit and play the piano for quite a long time. I sometimes wondered when he got his work done. (Laugh) But he was very, very bright obviously and very creative. I’m sure made some important contributions. Well, I know he did.
Strottman: A number of people who were on the British Mission were people who had circumstances; they were in a sense refugees. And this . . . how would you say the percentages broke down among the British Mission?
French: Very interesting. I should think probably about a quarter of them. That represented some of the most senior people were in fact refugees or foreigners. My boss Bretscher, I suppose, was a foreigner, not a refugee, because he had come from Switzerland to England in 1937, I think it was. So he could have gone back. But then there were the others like Frisch and Peierls and Fuchs, I suppose, that were refugees.
Strottman: We keep hearing stories that Genia Peierls was in the Russian Army. Was this a very–?
French: (Laugh) I don’t know. No, I don’t know anything about that.
Strottman: So if someone had mentioned that–
French: You would have to ask Cyril Smith, he would possibly know. Or Alice Smith.
Strottman: Do you have any other memories of people who perhaps you think should be immortalized who maybe aren’t so famous, aren’t among the ones I asked you about but who were your colleagues?
French: Well, I’m not sure, because probably most of them that I could think of were famous sooner or later. There were two people that I remember with a lot of respect. One was Herbert Anderson, who lived in the same dorm as I did and borrowed my carpet one day for a New Year’s Eve party or something like that. Which I did not attend myself. And then John Manley, who I thought was a very nice man. But who else? Well, there was David Frisch. The other Frisch who joined the faculty here at MIT after the war. Indeed I remember him as a very colorful character, very — looked more like a prize fighter than a physicist. Very large man. At that time with a shock of black hair and a lot of profanity, which I wasn’t used to. (Laugh) But not bad profanity. Oh yes, actually, one of the other people that I particularly remember was
Hans Staub because he was a Swiss colleague and friend of Bretscher. He was a very impressive person, I thought. Again very outspoken and I think he probably wasn’t too popular with the authorities because he was very much his own man.
Strottman: When you mentioned that your wife had worked for Feynman, did you ever meet Feynman? Feynman was known to be somewhat eccentric. Do you have any memories?
French: Well, one or two memories, but nothing very remarkable. Well, perhaps one is remarkable. And that was, we knew, of course, his wife was dying of TB down in Albuquerque. That he would make these regular weekend visits to her. And that he got up to all sorts of tricks, I guess he describes or are described in his autobiography, to keep her cheerful. I think the most amazing thing was that we saw. . . my wife and I had been on some sort of day trip at the weekend and came back then in the evening. We were driving along and we saw Feynman riding with Fuchs in Fuchs’ car. Feynman was waving cheerily to everybody he saw as he met them. We didn’t know until later that his wife had died that very day. He put up an amazing front. So that was quite an amazing thing for me. About Feynman, there’s probably not much else except that he had quite a reputation, of course, as a jokester and again that is to be found in his book; there’s no particular point in repeating it, as he’s much more correct in detail.
Strottman: Did you ever hear him playing his drums?
French: No, but that does remind me of one thing. We have his original drum. He sold it to my wife when he left Los Alamos to go to Cornell.
Strottman: That’s quite a memento, isn’t it? Wonderful. Was this one of the drums, an Indian drum or . . .?
French: Yes, it was an Indian drum, a little squat thing about this diameter and this high. With both ends, with skin over, tuned to different pitches.
Strottman: Did your children torture you with it?
French: No, surprisingly. It just sat there and became a sort of coffee table. And that’s what it is at the moment.
Strottman: What is your most vivid memory of the Manhattan Project? It could be something continuous, like the taste of coffee in Fuller Lodge, or it could be a particular person or a smell or it could be an event or an individual. What is the strongest thing that comes to mind?
French: It is actually a purely professional memory. As I mentioned, we were working on these measurements of the thermonuclear reactions before there was any possibility of a super bomb being taken seriously. Our initial experiments, I’ll be a little bit technical here, were to study the reactions at very low energy of deuterium with deuterium nuclei and we used that reaction as the basis of getting our whole apparatus into working order. But one of the major purposes was then to study the reaction of deuterium with tritium. Tritium, of course, didn’t exist in nature, it had to be made. And so our experiments were to be done with the first cubic centimeter of tritium gas ever made.
They were made at the Hanford pile and, as somebody pointed out, tritium is more expensive than plutonium by a factor of 80 weight for weight because it’s so much lighter. And it takes as much of a neutron to make a tritium atom as it does to make a plutonium atom. So anyway, we were all set up to do these fundamental experiments. And nobody knew, despite what the theorists predicted, nobody knew what the tritium/deuterium reaction was going to be like. Then came the day when we, for the first time, put the tritium into the source of our accelerator in place of deuterium. And saw an absolute rain of pulses on the oscilloscope and we thought at first that something must be breaking down electrically because there were so many pulses. But we checked and it was for real and the implications of that were monstrous. It meant that the deuterium/tritium reaction was about 50 times more probable than the deuterium/deuterium reaction and that really made it, for the first time, seem that a super bomb might become a possibility. So that was an amazing thing.
I know we turned off the machine and, in fact, my boss brought in, went and called for Hans Staub, who I just mentioned, to come and look at it with us. And, I know, we then turned on the machine again and Staub was there. And he was saying, ‘Jesus Christ’. (Laugh) We realized that something very momentous had happened.
Strottman: And this was before the explosion of even the atom bomb. You already had the inkling of the H-bomb?
French: Yes, that’s right. Yes, it was amazing to me that this whole thing had been launched before even the feasibility of the fission bomb had been proved.
Strottman: Before I ask the last question, I have one. . . we keep hearing so much about the British Mission party and yet, I wonder, since you attended and you were involved in the preparations, if you could talk a little bit about that party and in particular, whatever you remember of the skit. There is great interest in the skit and there is no written record of the skit as far as we know.
French: I know, and it’s a very strange business, that. I’m not in a good position to help you. It’s funny how memories fade or maybe never really existed particularly. What I mostly remember about the party, I think, is that it began as a very decorous and dignified affair with people dressed up for the purpose. And I think there was probably a drinking of the toast to the King, loyal toast during the dinner at some point. I may be wrong about that, I may be inventing this, but I don’t think so. Then came this famous party and it was, I suppose, a sort of indication of some of the highlights of the experience. But what it was, for heaven’s sake, I don’t know. I think that Frisch in his What Little I Remember has as much to say about it as anybody. It would be worth checking on that anyhow.
I do remember James Tuck as the devil, I think, with a long tail. And a sign, Bottom Secret, which I think we prepared (Laugh) for him. But which I think in the excitement of the moment, we never did pin on him. And also I seem to remember some very tall scissors ladder steps which my colleague Michael Poole, one of my Cambridge contemporaries, climbed up on, I think, for doing the lighting. And I think [he] got a bit too festive towards the end and started throwing light bulbs down at the audience (Laugh). But as for the skit itself, no. I think there was something about a safe, to parody the security arrangements. But what else? I wouldn’t venture to say.
Strottman: I’ve heard Jim Tuck was quite an eccentric. And somebody said something about he wanted to train a gorilla to do housework.
French: I wouldn’t be surprised, no. He was really an interesting man. Although, once again, you know, we were attached to our individual groups and we didn’t really see all that much of each other if we weren’t in the same group. So I knew him by sight, but I never did really talk to him much.
Strottman: Well, finally, is there anything that I haven’t asked that you feel is crucial? If there’s anything you would like to add to the interview as a final word or an insight. The end of the tape is yours.
French: Well, I think we seemed to have talked about many, many different things. I would say, overall, it was the experience of being in this particular place at the time when it was the greatest concentration, I think, of physics talent that probably has ever been. And for unfortunate purposes, but none-the-less, there they all were. And the other interesting thing, of course, was that once the project had succeeded, then people could hardly wait to get back to their normal lives and academic activities again. But it was a very thrilling thing to have been there, there’s no doubt at all, and I think on balance, I count myself incredibly lucky to have become part of it. And so that’s really the main message, I think, that I would give and all the main thought that I have looking back over those years.
Strottman: Well, thank you very, very much for taking the time to speak with us this morning.
French: Well, thank you.