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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Hugh Taylor’s Interview

Sir Hugh Taylor was a British-born chemist and the first man to create pure, radioactive heavy water. He worked as a consultant for the Kellex Corporation during the Manhattan Project while maintaining his duties as a professor at Princeton University. After working on the heavy water problem in Trail, British Columbia, Taylor helped design the barrier to be used for uranium separation at the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In this interview with author Stephane Groueff, Sir Hugh discusses his early work with heavy water, the difficulties in the Norris-Adler barrier for uranium separation, and the extensive industrial effort required to complete the million square foot barrier.

Date of Interview:
November 4, 1964
Location of the Interview:


Sir Hugh Taylor: I had been requested by the British Government to find out certain things. They wanted, for example, to know whether they could use this thing and the General Electric Company made it available to them on the condition that their affiliate in England was entrusted with the responsibility of supplying it. It was the British Thomson-Houston Company [in] Rugby.

Then another job that I did for them, I got the Shell Oil Company in California to give me—

Stephane Groueff: Shell Oil.

Taylor: Yeah, to give me data that they had on the analysis of gasolines by spectroscopic methods because they thought they could find out what the Germans were using for gasoline supplies if they could analyze some captured gasoline supplies. Then I used to go to Washington [DC]. It was when America was neutral, you see. I used to go to Washington and talk to the people in Washington as a professor of chemistry at Princeton University. And I used to go Ottawa to talk to them on this very subject.

Groueff: But did you have an official quality for the British Governments?

Taylor: I had the letter from the British Government saying the British Ministry of Supply would be very glad if you could do so and so for us. And then, finally, I got a letter from the British Ministry of Supply saying please place yourself at the disposal of Professor [Harold] Urey of Columbia University and carry out any instructions that he gives you. That was signed by the Ministry of Supply man.

So I was really an employee working for the British Government all during the war and all during the time I was in the Manhattan Project. As a matter of fact, I never received any money from the United States Government during the war. I was not paid like most of them were. They were put on the payroll.

Groueff: The salary.

Taylor: But I was not put on the payroll at all. President [Harold Willis] Dodds at Princeton University paid my salary. And that gave me a certain independence and ability to make decisions, which otherwise I would have had to accept from other authorities. When I contacted Urey six months before America came into the war, he asked me would I look into the whole subject of manufacturing heavy water. And so I set up a unit here in Princeton to study the large-scale manufacturing of the heavy water since [Arthur] Compton at Chicago had asked for two tons of it.

And then in December, after Pearl Harbor, I went to the Pacific Coast to do this job with the Shell Oil Company. And from there, I went up to Trail, BC [British Columbia] because I knew they had a big plant.

Groueff: Up in British Columbia.

Taylor: British Columbia, yes, in Trail the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company. I persuaded them during a visit of three days that they would be willing to allow us to take the deuterium and heavy water out of the water on the condition that we did not interfere with the manufacture of ammonia. And so as it says in the history, we convinced them that they could put a loop in their plant and the nitrogen and the hydrogen that we treated we put back again unchanged except that we had taken the deuterium out of the water.

I persuaded them that that was a feasible process. And when I got back to Princeton, my assistant, who was George Joris in Belgium said well it worked, but it is going at a too awfully slow level to be a manufacturing process.

Groueff: How do you spell Joris?

Taylor: J-O-R-I-S, George Joris, J-O-R-I-S. And he was a Belgium Foundation Fellow with me at the time that war broke out. And he became my principle assistant in the work that we carried on here. He was responsible for a good many of the inventions.

When he told me it was too slow, I said, “Well why not instead of having water and hydrogen, why not try steam hydrogen?”

And he came to me the next day and he said, “This goes about ten thousand times faster.”

And so that was the process that finally went in. We mixed water and the hydrogen coming out of the electrolytic plant at Trail. We passed it over to the catalyst. And the catalyst that we used was platinum. And that is in my report. We finally persuaded the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company and the Army to put up this loop in their plans as well. And that was ready in June 1943.

The plant was up and it was beginning to work. And I went out to see I think it was Dodd. And when I got there, there was a telephone message from Urey wanting me to call him there in New York. And I called him in New York. He said, “How is the plant going?”

I said, “Well it is going, but I will not be able to tell you how good it is until a week from now.”

He said, “Well I want you to take on another job.”

I said, “What is it?”

He said, “I cannot tell you over the telephone.”

I said, “I do not take any job unless I am convinced that I can do something. And I will be back in ten days’ time and talk it over with you.”

“Well no,” he said, “I have to make a decision today.”

I said to him, “Who says that I am needed on the job?”

He said, “P.C. [Percival] Keith says that you are needed on the job and that you have the necessary techniques for this particular job.”

And I said, “Oh, well if P.C. Keith says that I can do it, I will accept it.” And so I accepted on long distance telephone.

I got back ten days afterwards or nine days afterwards. And I said to Joris—in the meantime, the levers had been set. And they were working on something that I did not know anything about. And I said to Joris, I said, “We have got a new job.”

He said, “Yes.”

I said, “What is it?”

He said, “Do you not know what it is?”

I said, “No. What is it?”

He said, “It is a hell of a job.” That was, of course, the work on the barrier.

Groueff: But up to that time you did not know anything about atomic bomb or you knew during the heavy water work.

Taylor: Yes, I knew what it was for, yes.

Groueff: Yes.

Taylor: Because I had written all about it in a book that was published a short time before. I pointed out that this thing could yield a chain reaction. And it yielded a chain reaction.

Groueff: So you knew that this heavy water for a reactor.

Taylor: Yeah. So then, we started to work here on barrier. And barrier was in very bad way at that time. The old form of barrier was not really giving any results that looked in any way promising. There was argument as to whether a powder-nickel barrier would be better than the one that they were working with. And we became here the statistical analyses of the product.

Groueff: What is statistical analysis?

Taylor: Well I will tell you. They were producing square feet of barrier material. And I said, “Well how do you test it?”

They said, “Oh, we take three points on the barrier.” And each point required an hour to do to determine its separation efficiency.

I said, “Well, what about the other 90 percent of the barrier?”

And they said, “Oh, we cannot do any more than those three.” So I came home here to Joris.

I said, “It takes an hour to test for the efficiency of a barrier. I want to test for the efficiency of the barrier that can be done in fifteen seconds. That is my objective.” And they went to work. They devised a system whereby they could determine the efficiency of a barrier in fifteen seconds.

Groueff: Fifteen seconds.

Taylor: Yeah. And I then brought home a square foot of barrier material. And I divided it up into 144 square inches. And I said, “Would you please tell me what the efficiency of each square inch is?”

Now having a rapid method of determining its separating efficiency, they presented me with a piece of cardboard, one square foot in size divided into 144 and quality named as anything from one to ten. If it was very poor, it was one. If it was very good, it was ten. And the specification was that it had to average nine. And so they would give me colored sheets of paper with different colors for one, two, three, four so that you could look at the thing and see what the general thing was.

Groueff: Efficiency, yeah.

Taylor: And that was a great help too. And so for a long time, they were doing that here. Then nothing looked very promising. And then I joined the Kellex outfit as an assistant to Keith in charge of barrier production. And Clarence Johnson had picked up wrinkles from here, there, and everywhere about it and was starting out on his own. He was making barrier material in the form of a large envelope—this size. We used to keep them in the large envelopes. One barrier would go into another—

Groueff: Like a long MA envelope.

Taylor: Yeah, a long MA envelope. And one guy would go in there. And I would bring them down here. And I would tell them what each—

Groueff: You bring it from where? From New York, from the Nash building?

Taylor: The Nash building, yeah.

Groueff: Yeah.

Taylor: And brought it down here. And we would analyze it. We were the troubleshooters for the Manhattan Project in Schermerhorn [Hall] and in the Nash building. When something was not going well, we would bring it down here and ask them to find out why it was not going well. When they introduced a new wrinkle, we would bring it down here and find out why they had introduced it and whether it was any good to introduce it.

And finally, they asked me to go full-time to New York. And I refused to go full-time to New York because I was still teaching here. I had this very good group of fellows, thirty or forty of them, as opposed to the thousands that were in the Nash building in the other place. And I said, “No, I will not. I will continue to give my lectures at Princeton and go to New York.”

Groueff: And you were teaching at the same time and working on the barrier?

Taylor: Yeah.

Groueff: Well how did you find time?

Taylor: Well, as my wife said, I might have married her, but chemistry was my mistress. And it was a bit of heavy time. Then, of course, the decisions—

Groueff: You were commuting then every day?

Taylor: Every day, yeah.

Groueff: By train?

Taylor: Well if I lectured at 7:40, I caught the 8:40 train to New York. If I lectured at 8:40, I caught the 9:40 train to New York. And I came home on the six o’clock train to have dinner. And then I went to the laboratory at half past seven and stayed there until midnight watching what these people were doing. Then get up the next morning and give a seven o’clock lecture. And this went on for a year and a half.

Groueff: Where really was your laboratory here—in what building?

Taylor: In the Frick Chemical Laboratory.

Groueff: Frick.

Taylor: Frick Chemical Laboratory.

Groueff: And your home?

Taylor: My home at that time was on the outskirts of Princeton in Broadmead. I was in the University House on Broadmead. That was before I became—

Groueff: How do you spell Broad—?

Taylor: Broadmead, B-R-O-A-D-M-E-A-D. That was the name of the street. And I had a wife and two children.

Groueff: Small children at that time?

Taylor: No, Joan was in college and Sylvia in high school.

Groueff: You had one son and one daughter.

Taylor: No.

Groueff: John and—?

Taylor: Joan is a girl.

Groueff: Joan and Sylvia. Sylvia, I see.

Taylor: Sylvia was in high school and Joan was in college. And during the summer, Joan helped me on the Manhattan Project. She was cleared like Ms. Dorothy. And we all had to be cleared. And then she came and helped me during the summer. What was Joan doing in the Manhattan project?

Unidentified Female: Well it was in the summer, in August. I would not have been there.

Taylor: She was here June, July, and August. She did it as soon as she got out of college. Oh no, I think she was taking care of clearances and that sort of thing, doing all the paperwork in connection with the clearances. And Sylvia was helping at home as well doing house cleaning.

Groueff: But your main work then became the barrier problem?

Taylor: My main work became the barrier because the other thing was working like clockwork. I mean we almost spent five million dollars on putting up the plant. And it was to make one-half ton a month and made one-half ton a month from the very first month down to January or February of 1953.

Groueff: Right.

Taylor: We made all the catalysts. The catalyst was met. The platinum catalyst was made at Baker and Company in Newark, New Jersey in 100 pound or 200 pound batches. We would take a sample at four o’clock in the afternoon of the day’s product. And then get down here to Princeton, put into the works here, and test it for efficiency.

It was never as good as the stuff we made ourselves. But we made fifteen tons of it. And then the government thought—they only thought we ought to have a reserve of fifteen tons.

And we said, “No. There is no need. It is going to have a long life.”

And they said, “Well we would like to have another fifteen tons of it.”

So the next fifteen tons that we made, we made it on water, which we’d removed all the salt from. And that was as good as our stuff. But that never went into use until years after the war was over.

Groueff: So the barrier was made then by Bell [Telephone] and Bakelite [Corporation]?

Taylor: Yes, they did the original thing. But you see Clarence Johnson knew all the work that was going on in various places. [Foster] Nix at the Bell Telephone Laboratory. [Frazier] Groff at Bakelite and Schermerhorn [Hall] had the Norris-Adler barrier. And then he hit upon a method—he appeared to yield a barrier. And he was making them in this size. And Keith said if you could make them in this size—

Groueff: Like an envelope.

Taylor: I can make it seven feet by one foot, which is what they wanted. And so my job was to take any kind of barrier that came in, bring it down to Princeton and tell them whether it was any good or any bad.

Groueff: Is there a man that you could credit more than the others with the invention of the barrier?

Taylor: No, I think this is a perfect statement. If the new barrier proves successful, Fleck, Norris, Adler, Groff, Nix, Johnson, and many others would deserve the credit.

Groueff: Because Mr. Keith said that the main credit he would say would be Clarence Johnson, Groff, and you.

Taylor: That was the team that finally put it across.

Groueff: He is even slightly irritated by this book giving credit to many other people and especially the Columbia scientists. He saw that they—

Taylor: The thing was that I was assistant director in the Columbia laboratories and also in the Kellex laboratories. And I was the only man who could speak to both sides. I mean there was friction. They were each fighting for their own product. And the only way finally to get a solution was to give them a cold, stark analysis of the product that they were making and saying which is the better.

Groueff: I see. So you were the mediator between the—

Taylor: Yeah.

Groueff: And I understand that even among the people in Columbia, they were on bad terms, Urey and [John] Dunning, and those people. They were all—

Taylor: I do not think there was anything more than could be explained with people who were working at very high pressure under terrible harassment doing a job, which should have taken twenty years instead of two years. It was that sort of difficulty that was there all the time. Now I kept out of that because I could always retire to my little laboratory out in Princeton with thirty good men, and find things out that it would have taken a month to do over there. For example, I can remember one thing; they added a certain thing to the bath in which Norris-Adler barrier.

And I said, “Why did you add that?”

They said, “Because the time that we added that, we got a good result the next day.” And so we’ve continued ever since.

Now I came down to Princeton with some of that material. And I said, “Will you find out what happens to this material as it goes into the next bath.”

And they showed quite definitely that as it went into the next bath, it was no longer there. It had been left behind in the old bath. There was no reason to add this. And it did not add to the quality of the product at all. So that was cut out.

And finally, [Edward] Mack got all the bugs out of that thing. And he got it down to its simplest condition.

Groueff: Mack?

Taylor: Ed Mack, he is now dead.

Groueff: But Clarence Johnson was one of the most instrumental.

Taylor: Oh yes, I mean it was Clarence Johnson/Groff combination. Clarence Johnson in the laboratory making it on this scale and finally making it on the seven by one scale.

Groueff: Yes.

Taylor: Because they put up a pilot plant.

Groueff: But Mr. Keith and then Clarence Johnson told me some amazing story about this fellow, Groff. Unfortunately, Groff is dead and I cannot find very much about him. But do you remember him? Keith remembers him as a kind of a member of some smaller religious sect. He was telling everybody not to smoke, not to drink, etcetera. It was original. And he was not a scientist in the sense of chemist or nothing.

Taylor: No, he was a plant manager.

Groueff: A plant manager?

Taylor: I mean he had the art of the thing.

Groueff: And what was his contribution? Was it just a new process or a gadget or—?

Taylor: I think it was the mixing of the nickel powder with the Bakelite material that was then fired and left holes behind it. You see it was a plastic nickel powder product, which was then fired.

He knew all about the plastic end of the business. I mean that was his business. He knew how to mix nickel powder in with this and roll it—I mean get a sheet of it, roll it, and—

Groueff: So he gave this idea to Johnson?

Taylor: No, Johnson was working on it himself. I mean Johnson was wandering around and seeing what everybody was doing. And he knew what Nix had done at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. He finally got himself some nickel powder and some plastic and started making stuff. Then he got it to this size—

Groueff: So it was the result of the work of several men working independently, often, in different laboratories?

Taylor: Then pooling their effort in the final product.

Groueff: And this centralization of all the efforts was done where physically, in Jersey City or in Nash building?

Taylor: No, it was done in Mr. Keith’s office downtown in New York.

Groueff: New York, in Woolworth.

Taylor: Yes, the Woolworth building.

Groueff: And the people who were in charge of that were you, Keith, and Johnson?

Taylor: I was assistant director to Keith. And I was also assistant director to Urey.

Groueff: But at that time, Urey was pulling out of—

Taylor: Well he was pessimistic. He was more pessimistic than we were. We shared Keith’s optimism. Keith said, “If you can do it on a postcard size, I can do it on a plant scale. I can do anything in the plant that you can do in the laboratory.”

Groueff: And Urey said it was impossible?

Taylor: Urey was very, very discouraged with the slow progress that was being made on the Norris-Adler barrier. And Clarence Johnson and I were optimists and so was Keith.

Groueff: And how was Dunning? He was optimistic too I think. No?

Taylor: I think Dunning was inherently optimistic, yes.

Groueff: Now what was the contribution the purely laboratory people in Columbia like Dunning and Urey to the barrier or [Eugene] Booth or those people? Were they producing a barrier?

Taylor: Well they were producing the Norris-Adler barrier, which never got into production.

Groueff: Never.

Taylor: It got into a pilot plant. But it never got into production.

Groueff: So the one that went to production was the Clarence Johnson, Groff, and—

Taylor: The pilot plant was in the Nash building. And there, the original seven by one barriers were made.

Groueff: And shipped to?

Taylor: It was there that we showed General [Leslie] Groves that it was possible to make a barrier. And he said, “Well how soon can I get a million square feet?”

Groueff: A million square feet!

Taylor: And they were making it in seven by one—seven square feet at a time. And I think I can remember Keith saying, “The Japanese had to produce one million square feet of this material. And they knew how to make seven square feet, what would they do? Well. They would make seven. And then they would make seven more, and seven more until they got a million. So that was what we were going to do.”

The alternative philosophy was this is like an automobile factory. It is such a large business that unless you automate it, unless you make it in the assembly line, you’ll never get the material. And that was more or less what we were trying to do. We were trying to get an assembly line.

And the philosophy was certainly changed I think it was because of Keith who said, “How would the Japanese do it? The Japanese would—

Groueff: That was Keith not Groves who said that? Keith says that about the Japanese.

Taylor: I think it was Keith, yeah.

Groueff: So you did it in sort of artisanal way, one by one? One by one in the millions?

Taylor: One million square feet.

Groueff: And each one was produced separately?

Taylor: Seven feet at a time, yeah.

Groueff: I see. The other idea of Norris-Adler was to do it like an assembly line. And why would that not work, because of the quality?

Taylor: Because it never got up to quality.

Groueff: I see.

Taylor: You see, the original million square feet were to be of a quality five on a scale of one to ten. They had to average five. It could have three and nine. But they had to average five on our statistical analysis business. And Norris-Adler never got up to that. And therefore, in desperation, one January [1944] I think it was General Groves ran out to Decatur and told them to start stripping the assembly line down and start all over again on the batch process. And so it became a batch process.

During the interval in February, before the end of the war, they had upped the order to another 250 thousand square feet, which was to be of quality 7 or better. They had so much confidence in what they were getting because they could see these eights and nines appearing in our statistical analysis. They said, “Well why can’t it all be like this?”

And I had, in the meantime, detached myself from the Manhattan Project because President Dodds said you better come back to Princeton in February and learn your job as dean, which you are going to be next September. So I had to come back.

In April, the Army got on my tail again and said, “We want you to go to Decatur because Decatur is in a tailspin because they will not accept an order for 250 thousand more feet because the quality is more than they think they can deliver. Will you please go and give them a shot in the arm?”

So I went back to Columbia and saw the latest results. And I went out to Decatur. What I did not know when I was on my way out to Decatur was that I was to be arbitrator between the Army and Decatur. I was the arbitrator.

In the meantime, I had looked at the results at Columbia University and I had asked the Harshaw Chemical Company to send a batch of one hundred pounds of nickel powder—the material that was used—to Decatur and have them do a pilot plant experiment on this small batch.

The meeting started at nine o’clock. And it did not look well at all. The Army was itching and Decatur was itching. It looked as though it was going to be a long session. And I was sitting in the middle.

Groueff: That was in Decatur?

Taylor: Yes, this was in Decatur. And about half past nine, somebody brought in through the door a yellow chit and handed it to me, which were the results of the pilot point scale tile on new nickel that had come from the Harshaw Chemical Company. And I saw such a liberal selection of eights and nines I said somewhere before ten o’clock in the morning, I said, “Well Major so and so, if I were you, I would get on a long distance telephone to the Harshaw Chemical Company in Cleveland and I would ask them to start delivering as from tomorrow one thousand pounds of the nickel powder per day. Ship it by truck each day down here. And you people start making your 250 million. And I should be surprised if you do not get a quality of eight. You have been asked for the quality of 7.5.”

“I think you will get a quality of eight if you will use the new nickel powder made into the thing that you have now tried out in your plant, here are the results.” And the major lifted up the telephone and got Harshaw Chemical Company—

Groueff: What is the company?

Taylor: Harshaw, H-A-R-S-H-A-W, who were supplying the raw material with which Decatur were fabricating. And they ordered one thousand pounds a day to be delivered daily by truck to Decatur from Cleveland. And they started to use that. And the last of the 250 thousand square feet went out on the V-J Day.

Groueff: So, the bomb was already—

Taylor: Oh, yes, because the plant was working with the million that they had already made.

Groueff: I see. That was the last—

Taylor: There was a couple million more.

Groueff: I see.

Taylor: Which was going to be better and better and it was.

Groueff: But the plant was already working.

Taylor: The plant was already working because it originally sent the poorer stuff to Chrysler to learn how to make it into tubes. When they learned on the poorer stuff how to make it into tubes, they had enough good stuff. So they started making them. As fast as they were made, they were shipped down to Oak Ridge and put into the plant.

Groueff: Because the final barrier was produced at Chrysler. I mean put in tubes.

Taylor: In tube form and shipped.

Groueff: I read that the British were very pessimistic about the barrier and thought that it was practically foolish and reckless.

Taylor: Well, that was at the meeting three days before Christmas [1943], I think.

Groueff: Yes, he describes some—if you could describe this meeting, I would be very happy for me.

Taylor: [Sir] Wallace Akers was the business leader and he had a powerful team of British at this meeting. And then they said in no unmeasured terms that the thing couldn’t go though, I mean, that it wasn’t good enough.

Groueff: That was in Keith’s office?

Taylor: That was in Keith’s office and the people who were present were Akers—it’s here. Akers and fifteen of his experts appeared at the Woolworth Building for full dress review. On hand to greet them were Groves and his two scientific advisors [James B.] Conan and [Richard C.] Tolman. George Felbeck, Clark Center, and Lyman Bliss represented Carbide. Keith, Baker, Arnold, and [Manson] Benedict led the Kellex delegation.

Groueff: And you were present too?

Taylor: I was present and the meeting started at 8:30 in the morning and I said that I was leaving at 11:40am because I was catching the 11:40 train back to Princeton because I was presenting some [inaudible] to a meeting of the Women’s Club here. And I had been in Sweden and I knew some [inaudible] and I presented it that day. So that I remember the day very vividly.

And at 11:00, I hadn’t spoken. The British had spread all their pessimism around and their thing was, “It’s not ready and you’ll have to do a lot more work before you can go into production.” And I got up, I said, “This is one occasion when I as a British subject wish to disagree very profoundly with my British brethren. In my judgment, you ought to decide to go ahead and take courage in your hands and push for the barrier as it has been developed by Johnson and Groff and so on. That it is feasible.”

And at about 11:20, I came out of the room and Jim Conant followed me out and he said, “Taylor there is much more heat than light in that particular room and I want you to tell me what you want to do. And I will arrange to tell General Groves that that’s what he should do.”

And I said, “Jim, you don’t need to ask me that question. You have a fellow in the hall who has transcribed everything that I said in there and I don’t change my opinion in private from what it was in public. There it is.”

That was the turning point because I think we convinced the General that he had to go ahead and in January he went to Decatur and stripped it down to the concrete floors.

Groueff: It was a tremendous decision and a very risky one, no? But you were sure that—

Taylor: I had a million square feet on my mind for a good many months. And I remember saying to my wife much, much later that I had vowed and declared that having taken the risk with a million square feet, I would never take a similar risk again. And here I was taking a similar risk with another 250,000 square feet. And they both won, fortunately.

Groueff: Yeah, it’s like gambling.

Taylor: Yeah. Sheer gambling. But it was a gamble with enough encouraging information to see that having done four, one could do five in quality. And when you’d done five in quality, you could do six.

Groueff: And your statistical chart showed the colors were very good.

Taylor: Yeah.

Groueff: But did the British contribute to the creation of the barrier because they started early work on diffusion, no?

Taylor: Well, they were working on the barrier themselves and they had a diffusion plan finally at Capenhurst in England.

Groueff: But after the war?

Taylor: After the war.

Groueff: But they didn’t help considerably build the diffusion plant, the K25?

Taylor: No, I would say that was Kellex.

Groueff: That was Kellex. Now would you agree that the job couldn’t be done in such short time without the personality of P.C. Keith?

Taylor: Well, I would say that P.C. Keith was the motive power of the whole enterprise. He was the most confirmed optimist of the crowd. And he always said, “You do it in the laboratory and then leave it to me. We’ll put it into the plant.” He always said, “I can do on a plant scale what you can do in a laboratory.” And that was very encouraging. We could do it in the plant scale, in the pilot plant.

Groueff: Like in envelope size. And he was doing it in the seven feet.

Taylor: And he said, “If you can do it in that size, I can do it in seven by one.”

Groueff: What kind of a man was he as a head of Kalex at that time? What was his manner in work? Dynamic?

Taylor: Dynamic, tremendous drive, endless energy, driving everybody to the maximum of his ability.

Groueff: Calling everybody at home and demanding very much, but working himself as much too. You knew him very well?

Taylor: My first acquaintance with Keith dates from 1935. I was in Philadelphia at a meeting and a telephone came. It said, “Long distance for Hugh Taylor.”

I went on the telephone and a voice said, “This is P.C. Keith. I want you to come in and talk to me.”

I said, “Who are you?”

He said, “I’m in the M.W. Kellogg Company.”

I said, “I’m too busy. I’m not doing any consulting work or anything of that kind. I’ve got too much work to do at Princeton as a professor and I don’t want to come.” This was a Friday.

Finally, he said, “Well, at least you’ll do me the favor of coming in to see me and talk to me face-to-face rather over the telephone.”

I said, “Well, I can come next Wednesday afternoon.”

And he said, “Well, why can’t you come on Monday?”

I said, “My classes are on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. And I don’t do anything else for anybody else until Wednesday afternoon.”

On Wednesday afternoon, I went in to see him and he made me a very strange proposition.

He said, “I notice that you have done a lot of work on catalysis and you have never brought a hydrocarbon in contact with a catalyst. I will contribute $5,000 to the research funds in Princeton University if you’ll pass a hydrocarbon over a catalyst.”

And I said, “What do you want to do?”

He said, “I don’t want to do anything. I want you to pass a hydrocarbon over a catalyst.”

I said, “What hydrocarbon?”

He said, “That’s your decision, not mine.” And we went backwards and forwards arguing. We could always slander one another with it and still be good friends.

And I came back to Princeton.

I said, “I met a curious man yesterday,” to John Turkevich who was my assistant then.

I said, “He’s offered me $5,000 if we’ll pass a hydrocarbon over a catalyst.”

He said, “Well, when do we get busy?” John Turkevich said.

And I said, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it in the meantime. I think this fellow is interested in petroleum oil. And I will play a joke on him. I know of a hydrocarbon, which the petroleum industry is not at all interested. It’s from the Jeffrey Pine Oil in California and it’s pure, normal heptane.”

Groueff: Normal what?

Taylor: Heptane, H-E-P-T-A-N-E.

I said, “There is a catalyst which I know from my experience in the DuPont Company and that’s chromium oxide gel. I suggest that we buy ourselves a gallon of Jeffrey Pine Oil and pass it over a chromium oxide gel and collect $5,000.”

And so Turkevich immediately got business. We ordered the normal heptanes. We set up the catalyst. We passed it over. And the first thing we knew, we were getting lots of hydrogen and a product, which we couldn’t understand. Well, it turned that we had converted heptane into toluene in the very first experiment that we had done on this thing. And that became the origin of the toluene plant during the war.

Groueff: I’d say it was a very important discovery actually.

Taylor: US Oil Products in Chicago were doing the same thing. We didn’t know anything about it. And the Russians were doing the same thing. We didn’t know anything about that. But John Turkevich and I got out a patent on this thing and we gave it to Keith.

Groueff: Because of Keith’s joke.

Taylor: He was that kind—

Groueff: Insistent and what was your first impression of him?

Taylor: Oh, a dynamic person for whom you could have tremendous respect for his energy, his ability. I think he’s one of the best chemical engineers in the country.

Groueff: So after this first meeting, you became friends?

Taylor: Well, I said to Urey, “Well, if P.C. Keith—”

I became a consultant to Kellogg. And I was that from 1935 to ’39. I did not do another thing for them after 1939, but they kept paying me my salary although I did nothing for them.

Groueff: So you trusted his judgment?

Taylor: I trusted his judgment and I had had contact with him during the war before the Manhattan Project. See synthetic rubber had become important. And how you could make butadiene from cracked gases. And I had helped him with that.

Groueff: In Kellogg.

Taylor: In Kellogg, yeah.

Groueff: And what was your relationship with Urey? Was he a difficult man? Is he a difficult man?

Taylor: Urey was never difficult with me. Urey always used to think that I was some kind of strange animal who could pull rabbits out of hats. Because when he asked me to make heavy water, I said, “Oh, that’s easy.”

And I went back to Princeton and we did a few experiments on the Fourth of July, George Joris and I, because we thought that was a good way that a Belgian and an Englishman could celebrate the Fourth of July. And we got enough experiments that day to know that we could do this thing. And Urey, of course, had very considerable respect for my organizing abilities. That was why he pulled me into New York.

He pulled me into New York and I said, “I’m not coming to New York. I’ve got a job in Princeton.”

And the Army Major who was present, he said, “Mr. Taylor. We’ve gone by that. The only question is how are you coming to New York? A letter to your President from myself or from General Groves or from President Roosevelt requesting your services at Columbia University.”

And I said, “Is that the game?”

And I said, “Well, if you let me go now, I can catch the 3:00 train home.”

And I called up Harold Dodds.

I said, “You’re going to get a letter either from Urey or Groves or President Roosevelt asking for my services at Columbia.”

I said, “I don’t want to go, but what should I do?”

He said, “Well, I think you’re caught.”

So he said, “If I were you, I’d go quietly.”

And so I took the next train to New York the next day at 12:40 and I appeared at 2:00 at Columbia University.

I said, “Where do I start? There doesn’t need to be any letter.”

Groueff: So the conflict actually was not between Urey and you, but Urey and the Army and Urey and Keith?

Taylor: Urey was an extremely harassed man. He was carrying a great burden of responsibility. It was the toughest job. The barrier job was the toughest job in the whole Manhattan Project. It looked hopeless. It really looked hopeless. You had to have sublime faith to be encouraged to go on. And Urey was so nervous and excited about the whole thing.

But the Army shipped him out to Trail [British Columbia] at a time that they knew I was there and said, “Will you please keep hold of Urey for the next week. He’s on the ragged edge. Take him out into the woods and let him have a holiday.”

And so we took him out into the woods on a Saturday afternoon. And we stayed for two days. And at the end of two days, he was itching to get back and we had to bring him out of the woods and put him on a plane and send him back. He was tense and he had a good deal of responsibility. I think what irritation there was rose out of that tense situation.

Groueff: But was he hurt when the job was in a way taken from him and given to you?

Taylor: No, because he invited me into the job—I mean, he invited me on the 11th of November in ’43 to come and be his Assistant Director. My relations with Urey were always cordial. My relations with Keith were excellent.

Groueff: And how were they with Groves, General Groves?

Taylor: Oh, General Groves didn’t like an Englishman on the job.

Groueff: So he was purely the military kind of man.

Taylor: Yeah. And he believed in compartmentalization and he wanted it to be an all-American product.

Groueff: I see. And doesn’t trust the English very much?

Taylor: Didn’t trust the English very much. However, he got his money’s worth.

Groueff: Did you know about Los Alamos and Oppenheimer that existed, a big lab?

Taylor: Oh, well, I knew that Los Alamos existed and I knew what the object of Los Alamos was because my former student, the man that I brought to this country, [George] Kistiakowsky, was Oppenheimer’s assistant. And Kistiakowsky wrote to me shortly before the bomb was first set off at Almogordo, asking me for the services of Joe Elgin, who is now Dean of the School of Engineering here.

And President Dodd said, “No, he’s not going. He’s got to stay on the job right here.”

And so on the morning of the Almogordo experiment, George Kistiakowsky rang me up long distance on the telephone here and said, “Can Prof. Elgin come out to Los Alamos?”

I said, “The answer is no. The President has decided that he can’t come out, President Dodd.”

And I said, “How are things out there?”

He said, “On top of the world.”

I said, “Thank you. Good-bye.” That was all I wanted to know.

Groueff: So you knew about what was going on there, but you didn’t know any detail or any—you didn’t know Oppenheimer or those people.

Taylor: Well, I knew that Oppenheimer was in charge.

Groueff: In charge, yeah. But you had no contact with him.

Taylor: I didn’t go to Los Alamos until a year after the war or sometime after the war.

Groueff: And the plutonium project, [Arthur H.] Compton, and the Hanford people—you had no contact either?

Taylor: Well, no, I never went to them. But I’ve never been to Hanford.

Groueff: I see.

Taylor: I’d written about plutonium and that sort of thing in my textbook before the war started.

Groueff: Before? It was the time that it was discovered—that [Glenn] Seaborg—

Taylor: But one knew that it was fissionable.

Groueff: I see. General Groves was in a rather distant relationship with the British?

Taylor: Yeah. You see, the relations between the British and the Americans were signed, sealed, and delivered at the Quebec meeting of Winston Churchill and Roosevelt.

Groueff: But Groves disapproved deeply of this agreement.

Taylor: He disapproved deeply of this and when he got the order from his Commander in Chief, he said, “The only thing that is missing on the order is the timescale to put it into effect.”

Groueff: So he’s an obedient officer, but his feelings were very much against [it]?

Taylor: Well, he wanted it to be an American effort.

Groueff: Yes. I wanted to ask you some things about your career, Dr. Taylor. I have here a vita. But could you tell me something less formal. I mean, where you came from, from what place?

Taylor: I came from St. Helens, Lancashire, England. It’s in there. It’s on the next page. Liverpool University.

Groueff: And so you come from family of scientists?

Taylor: No, my father was a chemist. But I’m a chemist in spite of that. He had no formal training in chemistry. He was like Groff. He had learned the art of glass manufacturing because he had gone in as a boy at fourteen and he came out as a Chief Chemist of the whole enterprise. And then when I got out of college, they wanted me to carry on, but I said I didn’t think I was ready and I wanted to go into university.

Groueff: So you lived with chemistry ever since you were born?

Taylor: I was born in a glass pot.

Groueff: And when did you come here and why?

Taylor: I came here in 1914 because I had been with a man in Stockholm in 1912 who was going out to Columbia University, James Kendall. And I had argued with him that after he’d been trained in England, he should not go to America and remain in England. And a year later, Hewlett, the man here, offered him a job in Princeton and he said, “No, I’m not leaving Columbia. Alexander Smith is my boss. But I’ll find you a man with exactly the same training.”

And he wrote me a letter saying, “You’re going to get an offer to go to Princeton as an instructor and you’ll be a damn fool if you don’t accept it. If you don’t believe me, ask Heinroldt [PH] who’s in your laboratory in Hanover.” I was then working with [Max] Bodenstein in Hanover. And I tried hard to get a job in England for about six weeks and they told me there was no job vacant. And so I sent a cable saying that I would come here for one year.

Groueff: And ever since in 1914, you lived in Princeton?

Taylor: I went back during World War I. I was in British Munitions Department, making hydrogen for ammonia synthesis in World War I. And came back here after the—

Groueff: Are you knighted?

Taylor: I was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1953 for services to the American government on the Manhattan Project.

Groueff: By Queen Elizabeth?

Taylor: Because there were certain people—I think Keith was one of them—who felt that I hadn’t been properly treated by the Americans. And so he told his friend that it was up to the British to pay the Americans. So I was actually knighted for services to the British government—

Groueff: To the American?

Taylor: The American government on the Manhattan Project, at the request of the British government on the Manhattan Project.

Groueff: On the Manhattan Project. And is your wife also British?

Taylor: She was British. She died in 1958.

Groueff: I see. So you’re a British family living in Princeton. You never became an American citizen?

Taylor: Well, who is the man that I did the broadcast for with Woodrow Wilson? Dave Garroway. Dave Garroway said that he would never ask you any awkward questions and the first question that he asked me was, “How is it you’re still a British subject?”

 And I thought that was awkward enough to start with.

I said, “Well,” I said, “there’s one possible explanation. And that is that you kept me too busy so that I never had time to think about it.” And he laughed and went onto something else.

Groueff: Do you have any particular hobby? Did you do some sports or some music?

Taylor: No, no. I played tennis.

Unidentified Female: Your violin.

Groueff: Oh, you play violin?

Taylor: Until after World War I and then I was too busy.

Groueff: And during the war, your usual day was work and work between here and New York.

Taylor: 6:30 to midnight.

Groueff: So no hobbies and no sort of frivolous—

Taylor: No, actually, I used to commute to Trail BC on the railroad. No planes for me. I went on the railway. I went on the Empire Builder, because I could have two or three whole days to myself without anybody on the telephone or anything like that. And I did that once a month.

Groueff: I see.

Taylor: I went to Trail once a month in order to see that the plant was going properly but really to get a good rest going out and coming back.

Groueff: But you’re mostly a man of the laboratory and a teacher.

Taylor: Yes.

Groueff: And ever since 1914 you were teaching?

Taylor: I gave two courses for forty years.

Groueff: In chemistry. What is your specialty?

Taylor: Physical Chemistry. Catalysis is what I got to during World War I and I’ve been there every since.

Copyright 1964 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.