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David Fox’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

David Fox’s father, Dr. Marvin Fox, studied physics at Columbia University under Isidor Rabi and Harold Urey. Marvin Fox worked at the Radiation Laboratory at MIT and at Columbia during the Manhattan Project. After the war, he served as Chairman of the Reactor Department at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where he helped build the Graphite Research Reactor, the first reactor dedicated to peaceful uses of atomic energy. In this interview, David Fox describes his father’s work on the Manhattan Project and at Brookhaven, his idealism about technology, and how the onset of the Cold War affected him.

Date of Interview:
June 3, 2015
Location of the Interview:


Reed Srere: Hi, I am Reed Srere – R-e-e-d S-r-e-r-e. I am recording this oral history for the Atomic Heritage Foundation on June 3 [2015] in Washington, DC. Please state your name.

David Fox: I am David Fox. I live in Providence, Rhode Island. My father was a physicist on the Manhattan Project in Manhattan. That is why I am here.

Srere: Please tell us your place and date of birth.

Fox: Mine?

Srere: Yes.

Fox: [Laughter] I was born in New York City, December 26, 1935.

Srere: This is really a chance for you to talk so please tell us about your father. 

Fox: Okay. Well, during World War II, I doubled in age from five to ten. I have some very vague early recollections. One of my earliest memories is Pearl Harbor, when I was not quite five years old. The thing that I remember most is that after the war started, my father was approached by the Army Air Corps. My father at the time was thirty-one years old. He had been a physicist at Columbia [University]. There were no jobs for physicists, so he actually left science in the late 1930s and was managing a shoe factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania.

Srere: Interesting.

Fox: [At] Columbia, his thesis advisor was Isidor Rabi, a Nobel Prize winner, and also Harold Urey – Nobel Prize winners. They were the unofficial recruiters of scientists during the war. They approached my father as one of the younger scientists, and the government gave him, apparently, two alternatives. One is that he could join the Army Air Corps as a captain and go to MIT, and work on what was then the secret of the early war, which was radar. The other alternative is that he could stay a civilian, and go to MIT and work on radar [Laughter]. Those were his choices.

Being basically a pacifist-minded person, he chose the latter. He moved his family: myself, my sister Nancy, and my mother Lillian. We moved from Pennsylvania to Brookline, Massachusetts. Of course, he worked on a secret project, which was very embarrassing for me as his son. Because when the war got started, all my friends’ fathers were in uniform. They had pictures on the mantle; they were overseas. My father was a bum. He came home every night to dinner. He had no job that I knew of. It was a very strange situation: all these other men were defending the country, and my father was doing nothing.

Of course, then the secret of radar came out, and by that time, he had been recruited again for the Manhattan Project, so he continued to work on secret stuff even after I learned about radar [Laughter]. That was one way that scientists were recruited at that time. Of course, there would be thousands of them.

He did not work in Los Alamos. He worked in Manhattan. I am not sure which address he worked at, but of course, again, Columbia was sort of the nexus of the Manhattan part of it, and also the recruiting for the other locations. That is how it began.

One of my early memories was – I was away at camp in 1945. I got a letter from him in July of ’45 saying, “If you watch the newspapers in the next few weeks you will learn what I have been doing.” It was a rare thing for me to get a letter. And sure enough when the bomb was dropped, and it was in the newspapers everywhere, I learned that was what he had been doing. I was kind of a little celebrity in camp. It was really good for me, because once the secrecy was lifted – or largely lifted – he began to open up to me.

I learned of both the science and the politics of the post-war era, which was a very difficult time for him. Because he was one of the scientists that tried to advocate not bombing Japan, and later on, international control of the bomb. Of course, he worshipped [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, and was in total despair when Oppenheimer was persecuted. He hated [Edward] Teller. It was just a very disillusioning time for him.

Srere: Did your family suffer much during the whole Red Scare?

Fox: No, in that sense, he was clean. I do remember that he had two friends who committed suicide. Their lives had been ruined. But I do not have much of a recollection of that. We were spared, and soon as the war was over, he was one of the early employees at Brookhaven National Labs, which was the first lab that was not controlled by the military. He got his wish to pursue peacetime applications of the technology.

He was always an idealist about technology. He thought radar would control cars and airplanes, and prevent accidents. He thought radar was great, and when atomic energy came along he said, “That is going to solve energy problems, burning fossil fuel problems. It’s going to solve sources of water.” He thought that there would be plants that would desalinate water using just nuclear energy. He was just always fascinated by the upsides of these things. You wonder what he would think today. He died fifty years ago this year, in 1965. He never got to see the negative sides of these things.

Srere: Much has changed.

Fox: Yeah. He was very much an idealist about that. He liked all kinds of things. When the turnpikes opened up and cloverleafs came in – he thought that was a fantastic invention, cloverleafs! I remember when Diners Card came in and it was going to replace cash – those were the kinds of things he was enthusiastic about.

Srere: That is fantastic.

Fox: Yeah. The bulk of his career really was after that at Brookhaven. He became the head of the reactor department at Brookhaven, the first peacetime reactor. They were just loaded with stories. By this time, I got to be a teenager, so I could get tours of the reactor and things like that. That is what I used to do.

There are lots of anecdotes. I remember one, for example. At one point, the largest accelerator in the world was at Brookhaven. It was called the Cosmotron, and it had these huge magnets. I think it was about either half a kilometer or a kilometer in diameter underground. He said that when they turned on the magnets, the Long Island Lighting Company – the company that did all of eastern Long Island – its load doubled. [Laughter] That one machine equaled all the households and everything on Long Island. [Laughter] I do not know if it is true, but he said that. 

Somebody had the idea that maybe they could use the electricity and regenerate electricity back to the Long Island Lighting Company. They came up with the idea of a flywheel. This flywheel was twenty-seven feet in diameter, four or five feet thick, boron steel, very heavy. It would start to go around while the Cosmotron was working. Then when the Cosmotron was shut off, it could keep going for about four hours after this, generating electricity back to the utility. This was a great idea and it worked well.

But then somebody asked the question of safety. Now, when I used to give tours of the lab, one of the things I would do is – that flywheel, when it was going, there were these bushings where the axis was. You could take a nickel on its edge, put it right on the bushing and it would not tip over. That is how little vibration there was. It was very well designed, but somebody said, “Suppose something happened. What would happen?”

They looked at it and they said, “Thank God, it would go straight out the side of the building, not where people were. Okay.” So that was the first level of analysis.

Then somebody else said, “Yeah, but where else?” It turned out it would go straight towards New York City at two hundred and fifty miles an hour! [Laughter] You can imagine the Long Island Expressway. So that was a scary thing. Then the third level of analysis was that Long Island is sandy – it is like a sandbar, so it would bury itself. The sand could not support it. So they found it to be safe after all. I remember those three levels of analysis.

Srere: There were never any accidents?

Fox: No, not of that kind. Nothing like that.

Srere: Do you know how your father felt about his work on the project?

Fox: He felt it ended the war. I do not think there was any issue of that. He joined what was called the United World Federalists at the time. Their idea was that the bomb should be controlled internationally. It was a much stronger idea than the United Nations. I think it started around 1947. They wanted to use as a model how the thirteen colonies got together to create the United States, because basically what the thirteen colonies did is cede some of their sovereignty. They wouldn’t have separate currencies, or separate armies, or duties at the borders or things like that. Some of the state sovereignty was then ceded for mutual benefit to the nation. United World Federalism advocated the same thing on an international basis: that each individual nation would cede some of its authority to an enforceable central authority.

Of course, it never went anywhere, but that illustrated his idealism at the time. Both he and my mother worked very hard about that. They felt that the bomb just had to be controlled internationally. It could not be the kind of thing that would pit one nation against another. Basically, they felt the same way as Oppenheimer and others did. Which is, especially when it got to the hydrogen bomb, there is no target on earth that justifies it. They didn’t even think the atomic bomb had a target on earth that justified it. Too many civilians; there is no way to make it be a military thing. There was a lot of disillusion politically, because obviously all those ideas went nowhere and the Cold War set in instead. From my point of view, as the eldest son, it was a great way of growing up among science and politics. I ended up becoming a mathematician, but my lifelong love from science all came from that period, say, the ten or twenty years after the war.

Srere: It does sound like your father really exposed you to his work after the war. How was it growing up with that?

Fox: Yeah. It was great, because I loved the science. He subscribed, for example, to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Scientific American and others. He would always bring the math problems home to me. I would cheat on the math problems and I had great fun with that. Once or twice, I would outperform some of his physicist friends, so he would brag about his fourteen-year-old who solved this or solved that.

He had a hierarchy in science. The mathematicians and theoretical physicists were at the top, and the experimenters were next, then the chemists and the biologists, and finally engineers and technicians. There was a hierarchy, with [Albert] Einstein at the very top. He was an experimenter, so he always made me feel like I could be one level above him, which was true. He did not have the math that I ended up with. That was sort of the hierarchy that was the background for my upbringing.

I thought I was going to be a physicist. In fact, I actually enrolled at Columbia, but I hated it. He helped me get into math, and I got my degree at NYU instead, which has a Courant Institute of Math. He was a tough father, but at the same time, he gave me the assurance that I could do all these difficult things, and be at what he regarded as the top level.

I remember we once made a trip to the Institute of Math Studies [Institute for Advanced Study] at Princeton. Oppenheimer did not happen to be there at that time – he was in Washington – but I got to shake hands with Einstein. Ever since, I have joked that I never washed that hand again. I guess I must have been around sixteen or so, something like that. I was exposed to things that most kids do not know about.

I remember we grew up in a small town near Brookhaven, called Bellport. There was a “haunted house,” a run-down ex-mansion. Of course, us kids were not supposed to go near because it was dangerous. The doors were half off, and it was gross – so of course that is where we went. I remember going upstairs one day with my friends. There was stacks and stacks of newspapers, and sure enough, the top newspaper mentioned Ernest Rutherford. Of course, none of my friends knew, but I knew who he was.

I brought it home and it turned out it was a headline in the New York Times in 1938, debunking the idea that atomic energy would ever happen. I brought that home, and my father brought it to the laboratory and said, “My son found this!” It was a big historic artifact. I have since looked it up and sure enough, it was a headline. It called the idea of getting energy out of the atom “moonshine.” That is what Rutherford said. Those were the kinds of things that I was exposed to, but if I had not been exposed to them by my father, it would have just been a pile of newspapers.

Srere: Do you know if your father ever talked to your mother about his work, or was it—?

Fox: He admitted after the war that he had sometimes, that he had broken the rules. Actually, there was an earlier incident when they were first married. I think they were married in 1934 or 1935, and his first assignment was for Urey, who had invented the first mass spectrometer. I do not know if that means anything to you, but anyway, it was an elaborate device. I do not know if it was part of what got Urey the Nobel Prize, I am not really sure, but the point is it was a big thing, and it was one of a kind.

His first assignment as an assistant, or whatever he was – they had built a second one, and this time they had funding, whereas the first one had no funding. The second one did not work. His assignment was to figure out what went wrong, compare the two, and fix the second one. There was no documentation. There were just lab notes, piles and piles of lab notes. It looked to him like everything was fine, but one day, he gets home and the lab notes are gone, the only lab notes. Somehow, they had gotten thrown out. He was furious at my mother, and it was a terrible way to start their marriage! They were never found.

Now, he could not admit it to Urey or to Rabi, so he did not know what the hell to do. He was a born tinkerer, so he just took the second one apart, screw-by-screw, comparing it. The only real difference he could see is when they got some money to build the second one, they put gold leaf around it so it looked nice. So when he put it back together, he left the gold leaf and all this fancy stuff off, and it worked perfectly. They later figured out that there was some interference going on because of the gold leaf, and that is what had caused the problem. He lucked out, but that was a real problem for the marriage, I am sure [Laughter].

Srere: Do you have any more anecdotes from your father’s time on the Manhattan Project, or on radar, or after the war?

Fox: Let me see. I will tell you about security. While Brookhaven was run by an associated university, not by the military, it did have military security. His first secretary, my father’s first secretary, was very good, but her clearance never came through. You had to have top clearance, which was Q clearance at the time. It never came through, and they could not figure out why. Clearance was really stringent. He always mocked clearance. He said, for example, when they were trying to clear him they interviewed his elderly parents in Ohio about his character. What they were going to find out from his own parents, he could not figure out. Anyway, his clearance was fine.

One day, the secretary comes in his office, shuts the door, sits down opposite him, and bursts into tears, just uncontrolled weeping. She finally blurts out, “They found out that I lied on my security clearance, the FBI.”

He said, “Okay, I am sure we can straighten that out.” By this time, she had been a great secretary for a year. “Let us straighten it out. What did you lie about?”

She said, “Everything.” [Laughter]

It turned out that when she applied for the job, she had had no professional experience, so she made up a background of professional experience. Because she had all the skills, and she knew she could do it – she was very bright. It did get straightened out, but when she blurted out everything, he said, “Oh, my God!” That was one incident I remember.

The other thing I remember – he offered me the chance to go up the Brookhaven stacks, where the exhaust air came out. It was at a certain level, I do not know how many hundreds of feet. The air that comes out is invisible; it’s not like smoke. So they also built a parallel tower, a steel structure that went even higher, and they had a pipe that went up to the same level as the stack, and that released smoke so they could tell which direction. He gave me a chance to learn about that, and I said, “No, thanks.” [Laughter] I remember it was a winter day, it was cold, it was this structure, but I do not think he ever went up either.

He was an athlete, he was a player-manager of their softball team, and so I got to go to the games and that kind of stuff. His ambition was to be on the Atomic Energy Commission, but that never happened. He actually ended up being appointed to the Italian Atomic Energy Commission.

Srere: Interesting.

Fox: What I remember about that was he could not stand the Italian inefficiency. He said they would lose electricity in their apartment. There would be no word of whether you were going to get it back in ten minutes or ten days or ten months. There was no information at all.

The other thing is, mind you, this is probably late 1950s or early 1960s, maybe ten or fifteen years after the war. My father was Jewish – a great deal of anti-Semitism in the Italian government. A lot did not know he was Jewish, but he had been a witness to all kinds of leftover fascism. I do remember that. He was very unhappy, and he finally took a lesser job at the Hughes [Aircraft Company] in Los Angeles.

Srere: Do you have any idea how he got the position with the Italian Atomic Energy Commission?

Fox: I do not. He wanted to leave Brookhaven. My parents got divorced. It was a very bitter time, so I think he just wanted to get out. I do not know. I know that he really wanted to be on the Atomic Energy Commission. He felt that he had the wisdom and the knowledge to do it, but I do not think that was ever seriously considered.

The problem is during the war – a) I was too young and b) he was not the kind of guy that talked about his own contributions much. When he ran the department at Brookhaven, I always heard stories about the younger scientists he was in charge of. He was so proud of them. I really do not know what his scientific achievements were. As I say, he put himself down as just an experimenter, so I do not know. I would love to know even which of the sites in Manhattan he worked at.

The younger scientists loved him. Since they were closer to my age, we were chatting. He really liked to nurture their careers, and he bragged about that. I know one of the things that he did take credit for was designing the Brookhaven pile [Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor], putting the control rods through the corners. I do not know if it was his idea, but somehow he was instrumental in that. The idea of that was that they could have more experimental holes in the sides, because the corners would be for the control rods, and then they could have all these positions on the sides that were available for experimenting. I know he really liked that.

I also remember when I was giving tours and you could walk on top of the reactor, and there was one particular block of graphite, which must have had the Bunsen removed to put a human person’s head directly exposed to neutrons. This was somebody that was going to die in a matter of hours, and they were going to see what the effect on that which was a massive tumor. He apparently lived for a few extra days, so they felt that they had learned something from this poor guy. I can point out exactly where a human head was exposed that kind of thing.

Srere: How much did you show when you were giving these tours?

Fox: Actually, by that time I was in my fifties. It was pretty open and they already were starting the second reactor. It was a peacetime reactor so it was not a problem. I remember that one of the things they did very early was just randomly take things, both animal, vegetable and mineral, and expose it to radiation just to see what radiation did to things. He had contact with Harry Winston, the jeweler in New York, Winston Jeweler, and they decided to expose diamonds to radiation.

So what they did was they had a series of diamonds, and they picked for diamonds, diamonds that were flawless but whose color was not great, a little bit yellowish. The least valuable diamonds, they used because nobody likes the color. They exposed them to a little bit, and then a little bit more, and wanted to compare them. They had this whole sequence of diamonds and when they came out of the radiation, they came out a gorgeous green. Everything from a very white green to almost an onyx black green.

Harry Winston immediately got scared because apparently the rarest diamonds on earth are green diamonds, so they were collector’s items. Now you can make them in a reactor [Laughter], so it upset the whole business. They put an end to that experiment. I wish I still had those diamonds. I do not know what happened to them, but they were gorgeous, lined up like that. Of course after that happened, then they realized that the reason that green diamonds are so scarce in nature is that they are the resources of diamonds that happen to be near uranium by accident. I remember he said they put live goats underneath, just everything you can imagine. That is how random the experimentation was in the beginning. He loved it. He just exploded with stories about the place. Different, unexpected results, and just the whole idea of using the radiation for pure intellectual joy – that was his stock and trade.

Srere: That’s fantastic.

Fox: Yes.

Srere: Do you have any last stories or memories you want to share?

Fox: No. I think his career overall had kind of an arc. He was younger, enthusiastic, and during the war it was a fantastic opportunity, both radar and the Manhattan Project. Then Brookhaven was sort of the peak, because now he could nurture dozens of other scientists and work on peacetime things, which he loved. But then, I think, with the divorce and not getting the position on the Atomic Energy Commission, I think disillusion really set in. He actually died quite young. He was fifty-five when he died, and died of a sudden heart attack so he never really had a chance after that. It was a curve like that.

As I say, he was a tough father on me but I am glad we had a chance to at least recall some of the things. I always like the story of how he was recruited. I am sure there are other methods how people were recruited, just listening to this conference [on the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project]. How many came from the military and stuff like that. He was this 31-year-old who was remembered at Columbia and they said, “Here is your choice, you are moving to Boston.” [Laughter]

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