Stephane Groueff: Recording of interview with Dr. Lauchlin Currie, C-U-R-R-I-E; New York, May 13, 1965.
Dr. Lauchlin Currie: When the war broke out I was superintendent of the Bakelite Plant at Bound Brook, New Jersey. As a reserve officer then, I got reassigned to work on the proximity fuse program.
Groueff: You were in uniform?
Currie: Oh no.
Groueff: You were just Major of the—
Currie: In the reserve. I had not been called to active duty yet. And all of us, of course, had been in the graphite work a long time before that. It was National Carbon, which was the carbide division which I spent most of my time.
Groueff: What engineer are you—chemical?
Currie: Chemical engineer.
Groueff: Chemical engineer.
Currie: And, I had never heard of atomic energy until about 1942 or 1943.
Groueff: What was your specialty in chemistry?
Currie: I started in dry batteries and then ended up in plastics and carbon. Whatever the company needs at the time—I was sort of a troubleshooter that never stayed on one job long. I seemed to do better on troubleshooting work and that’s what I stayed in.
I got involved in atomic work for the first time in I think it was about December of ’42. We were called down as carbide engineers to discuss with the Kellex and some of the other groups at Columbia, whether or not there was any possibility of the diffusion process working and whether or not Carbide should be interested in taking on responsibility for that phase. We had some meetings and discussions up at Columbia. Mr. Earl Thompson, who was a corporation vice president—was the senior man there, and he reported back to Mr. [James A.] Rafferty later. On one thing and another, Carbide decided to take it over.
Groueff: The first contact I’ve seen was made by Groves through Lyman Bliss or [James A.] Rafferty.
Currie: Yeah, made by General Groves to Mr. Rafferty and Bliss was serving sort of as a staff assistant to Mr. Rafferty. Neither Bliss nor Rafferty were ever full-time on the project.
Groueff: I see.
Currie: They had other jobs. Felbeck and I were put on it full time and others came on later. But, Mr. Rafferty was certainly the senior man. But he was not an engineer, at least he’s not a practicing engineer. So, Mr. Thompson and Mr. Bliss and Felbeck and myself, and the young fellow named McPherson, who was later a graphite expert, attended this meeting. I think it was in December of ’42 at Columbia.
Currie: We heard the presentation of some of the professors including [John] Dunning and also some of the fellows from Kellex.
Groueff: Right. [Percival] Keith?
Currie: Keith and—
Groueff: [Manson] Benedict.
Currie: I don’t know that Benedict was there. I can’t be sure of that.
Groueff: [Richard] Baker was.
Currie: Baker, yes. Baker was certainly there in that group. Carbide, we reported back that it looked like it had a chance and that if Carbide was going to have to take a major part in the war, this would probably be a good place to take it. So, that’s how we got involved in the atomic work. And then, when General Groves asked Mr. Rafferty to recommend a man to take on this special assignment up at Columbia. I was picked.
Groueff: For the barrier?
Currie: For the barrier. For this work, I didn’t even know what it was. And they wanted to give me a title so that I would have some authority. So, they created a title of Associate Director. That’s how it happened.
Groueff: When was that? When did you become that?
Currie: That was in early ’43. I guess ’43.
Groueff: So the crisis for the barrier was already on? I mean, they had big difficulties with the barrier.
Currie: Oh yes. And, the first types of barriers were rejected out of hand.
Groueff: So, when you came there was no ready barrier yet?
Currie: No. And, after I was there, the first one we started on turned out not to be right either. So, we had started to build a plant out in Decatur, Illinois for a barrier that wouldn’t work.
Groueff: That was the Norris-Adler Plant?
Currie: Yeah. And we made a change after plenty of concrete had been poured out at Decatur. By that time, we had gotten a barrier that began to look like it might work. And, turns out it did with modification. I think the work there should be credited pretty much to our Carbide organization in that all the mistakes had been made by other people and we benefited by it. Frazier Groff, working under [Leon K.] Ken Merrill at Bakelite, came up with the first practical idea.
Groueff: He worked with Nix no?
Currie: That’s right. Nix was the powder man. Remember these others had been plated.
Groueff: Yeah. If I understand correctly, Norris-Adler was electroplating. It was very good as far as diffusion quality but very brittle and completely unusable in this form.
Currie: Because you see, there was electroplating and a solution problem—dissolve out the openings and so forth. See what I mean?
Currie: And it was very bad. And Foster Nix, who came up with the powder idea, and the Groff/Merril idea which had arranged and distributed in getting it shaped and formed.
Groueff: Am I correct that Nix worked in the independently for Norris-Adler and he came with his father’s idea, which was less refinement and good separation quality, no? But much stronger.
Currie: Yeah. You could make a tube out of it.
Groueff: His barrier was good, but only on a laboratory sort of scale. And, there was no way that he knew of to make it work on a big scale. The men who translated Nix’s laboratory results to the production scale was Frazier Groff and—
Currie: And Ken Merrill.
Groueff: And Ken Merrill, yes.
Currie: And another fellow named Reed, Marion Reed. At any rate, that was what we started to make the second time.
Groueff: Now, where does Clarence Johnson—didn’t he combine then the two Adler-Norris one side and Bakelite’s Nix on the other?
Currie: No, I think Clarence Johnson’s principle contribution was working out methods for getting uniformity control and measuring what we had. Foster Nix could make his barrier only in terms of square inches. He never had any practical way to make big ones. The Groff-Merril type could be made in square yards and maybe ultimately in square miles for all I know.
Groueff: I mean the mix, the powder thing.
Groueff: But from what I understand, Johnson combined the two—sort of plated one on the other.
Currie: Yeah. He plated nickel on top of the powder. Yes.
Groueff: Yes. The way I was told the story by Keith and Johnson, I understand that Johnson didn’t invent anything, but he took the two inventions—Norris-Adler on one side and Bakelite-Nix on the other and put them together in a workable way.
Currie: In a way, that was true. But, I don’t want to take too much credit from Clarence. But, the whole point was you could have made a plastic powder arrangement that ultimately would have had the properties. But, it was easier to make a strong base and then to plate it—in other words, to plug the big holes and get it down to the point you wanted it. Clarence indicated how much plating was necessary to cover it down.
Now, that was important. But, I don’t think, from that standpoint, considered as his barrier. And I think Nix had the powder of idea. Do you see what I mean?
And Groff and Merrill made the thing that would have worked. It wouldn’t have been very efficient, but it would have worked. Do you see what I mean?
Currie: Without any plating.
Groueff: Without superimposing the Norris-Adler?
Currie: Norris-Adler really didn’t add anything to it.
Groueff: Really? In the final product?
Currie: I beg your pardon. The Norris-Adler was a plated barrier. And Clarence did recommend that we plate on to this barrier.
In other words, they take a mixture and plastic and powder. I don’t think this is classified anymore. If it is, I’m sorry. Plastic and powder and form a sheet, and that was just a normal, rather weak, sheet. But, it could be handled in eight feet by three feet or something like that.
Alright, now then that was burned, furnaced in an atmosphere that wouldn’t cause oxidation and so forth. Then you had a rather weak, porous sheet. That then could be rolled – and increase the strength some – and plated and that controlled the porosity. See what I mean? That is a thing. But that whole idea was powder—plastics was Groff’s business. Groff and Merrill had Bakelite plastics.
Groueff: The basic idea was the mix?
Currie: For the use of powder.
Groueff: For the use of powder and the people made it adaptable for industrial for production were Merrill and Groff. I want to write a book for the general public, I want a kind of easier and more human side of it. In what way, the Bakelite people contributed—in other words, how did they know about all this?
Currie: Oh, good; that’s a perfectly good question. If Foster Nix had tried to make up a paste of powder alone with maybe just a little moisture, or something like that, and tried to feed that on a roll, he would have had a mix which would have had extremely variable porosity. Because, if the roll would catch it, it would be thick and be impervious, and if it didn’t catch it tightly it would be porous and so forth. So, since the boys at Bakelite have been making what we call filled plastic sheets. They can put any sort of fiber they wanted into it. They can put any sort of pigment or filler into it.
Groueff: For what? For what did this use for instance in the market?
Currie: Table tops—anything else you wanted.
Groueff: Oh, made of Bakelite, yeah—
Currie: Not made of Bakelite, made of vinyl or something of the sort, yeah.
Groueff: I see. They were specialist in the vinyl.
Currie: And, making plastic film and plastic sheets and all that sort of stuff.
Groueff: For what? For tables?
Currie: Tables—anything that you want to do. They hadn’t gotten to furniture, yet. They mix with plastic with any sort of filler—talcum powder, asbestos, lyceum—anything of that sort. They were making plastic articles.
Groueff: So they had the know-how of what particular side of everything?
Currie: Of control of the ratio of the plastic to filler, size of the filler particles, how much you could get in to control the right amount of strength, and they had equipment all ready to run that would make it six feet wide.
Groueff: Just industrial equipment for making plastic?
Currie: Plastic sheets.
Groueff: Nothing to do with nickel, nothing to do with atomic things?
Groueff: Now at this time people like Groff and Merrill had no idea about Manhattan Project or people trying to build the bomb?
Currie: Never heard of it.
Groueff: Now how did they come to [hear about the Manhattan Project]?
Currie: All right, Merrill was superintendent of the vinyl division succeeding the owner of Bakelite. Groff was one of his engineers and they were invited into help to do anything they could to get some ideas to help this film business.
Groueff: By whom, by Carbide?
Currie: By Carbide. It may have been I, it may have been [George] Felbeck. I don’t know. It was someone in Carbide. We all worked together.
Groueff: Yeah. Felbeck, you, this group.
Groueff: So, you knew that Nix had difficulty and you were looking for help and one of the people you contacted was the Bakelite’s?
Currie: The Bakelite’s. My old buddy.
Groueff: And they used to work in New Jersey?
Currie: In Cleveland, Bakelite, Bound Brook—two places, first in Cleveland.
Groueff: In Cleveland, Ohio?
Currie: Yeah, that’s where we all started.
Groueff: And then Groff and Merrill were working in—?
Currie: Bound Brook.
Groueff: In New Jersey. So, you told them that you need help with solving a problem and they started working on that. Did they work with Nix or?
Currie: Yeah. Or, somebody told them. I’m not sure it was I; everybody was doing everything they could, you see what I mean? It may have been I, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember how Merrill and Groff were first invited in. But, I’d been in the habit of discussion my problems for many years with Merrill. If I get a problem I always—
Groueff: Merrill deserves credit for that, yes.
Currie: He deserves a lot of credit. He was a man in the back of the whole thing.
Groueff: I see.
Currie: Old king Merrill.
Groueff: He was the boss of—
Currie: The vinyl work at Bakelite.
Groueff: Frazier Groff.
Currie: Yes, sir.
Groueff: What kind of man was he? Engineer or chemist?
Currie: He’s a tough little son of a bitch.
Currie: If you know what I mean. But a peach of a fellow. He’s a great big, temperamental genius.
Groueff: Who, Merrill?
Currie: No, Groff.
Groueff: Groff, yeah.
Groueff: I heard that he didn’t get along very well with anybody.
Currie: With anybody, no.
Groueff: But, when he had a purpose he would go there.
Currie: One of the things you had to learn was to work with Groff and let him work because, he was a genius. He has since died by the way.
Groueff: Genius in what?
Currie: Yes, he had a lot inventive ideas.
Groueff: And great work probably.
Currie: Oh, yeah.
Groueff: And dynamic.
Currie: But, an individualist; a complete solo artist.
Groueff: I see. Didn’t fit very well within the organization, no?
Currie: But, Merrill was an organization man. And, when this work got further along and we began to get the plant built and operating out at Decatur, Illinois, Merrill went out as a superintendent of that—left Bakelite for the Houdaille-Hershey Garfield Plant.
And, when they got in a jam later, the General sent me out to work with Merrill and we’d worked together as team before and we did.
Our main contribution out there was to keep things rolling, but also, to get the organization defined so we knew who was doing what. Because, Merrill was out there first and he didn’t know whether he was working for the Army, Houdaille-Hershey, or for Kellex—
Groueff: Or, Union Carbide?
Currie: Or for Union Carbide or who. It was a terrible mix-up. And, when Groves sent me out there, I said, “I did not want to go out and smack Merrill on the wrist.” I didn’t believe it was Merrill’s fault, didn’t believe he had a chance. So, he insisted that I go out there, and I said, “I don’t care who I report to—who am I going to report to?”
Groves says, “Me, that’s who.”
You see what I mean? So, after that it cleared things up and they really did a job. We were three weeks late getting our real first production out, but we finished ahead of schedule by better than three weeks, once we got going. We were late getting started because everybody had something to say about it. You had to check Columbia. You had to check Kellex. You had to check Carbide. You had to check the Army, whenever we could find Groves or Nichols to come by. It was a pretty bad mix-up until we got it straightened out.
Groueff: So, you were the one responsible?
Currie: Yeah, I had charge of that work out there.
Groueff: And, you were responsible only directly to Groves?
Groueff: So, you didn’t have to go through Keith or through Felbeck?
Currie: Nope. The only thing we had to go through was Keith, Keith’s men. Kellex?
Groueff: I mean, Kellex.
Currie: We never had much doings with Kellex.
Groueff: I see.
Currie: If it met the specifications we shipped it to [inaudible]. Kellex had a part in there, and Clarence Johnson right along, had a part all through in that they had the quality control people out there and things of that sort. Making sure that the stuff was right.
Groueff: Was that Hugh Taylor for Princeton also?
Groueff: That was different?
Currie: That was different. Hugh did a lot of other work, but he had nothing to do with actual manufacture.
Groueff: He was only in the laboratory. Clarence Johnson and his group were the—
Currie: Clarence Johnson and his group, some were up at Columbia and others were over here in Jersey and some of the others were still out at Decatur. It was a growing concern and it worked out pretty well. But, that is actually how the thing got going. Now, I don’t want to take this too long, but let’s skip graphite for the time being, for now.
Groueff: Okay. Yeah. Who appointed you actually to this job to be the associate director for barrier?
Currie: Groves or Rafferty, I don’t know which.
Groueff: Did you know Groves by that time?
Currie: No. He took me on Rafferty and Felbeck’s recommendation.
Groueff: What kind of man was Rafferty as a boss?
Currie: Oh, absolutely tops.
Currie: Indefatigable driver. He had been good engineer, but a great man with men.
Groueff: You all liked him?
Currie: Respected him most highly. He was absolutely tops. He did a major job in adding some prestige, both personal and company-wide. We knew that Carbide would back this 100%.
Groueff: And, in Carbide what Rafferty said—
Groueff: Right. I mean, with you all there was no discussion who the boss was. And, you all respected him and liked him.
Currie: And, we knew that if he said anything, to go ahead and do it, that Carbide would back it up.
Groueff: So, he was a great man?
Currie: Absolutely, absolutely.
Groueff: Rafferty recommended you or appointed you?
Groueff: Groves asked him to give him a man with this and this qualifications.
Currie: Yeah, and Felbeck and Bliss and Rafferty said, “Why don’t you get Urey?”
Groueff: And, then when you got the job did you go to see [Harold] Urey or did you know Urey by that time?
Currie: I can’t be sure that I have ever met Urey before. Of course I knew him by reputation. But I think, and I simply went up there and told him I had known Dunning before and he understood. He’d been told that I was coming up and so forth. He never put any—
Groueff: He wasn’t upset or jealous or?
Currie: I don’t think so.
Currie: No, because he was always the magnitude out of my class as a scientist. He knew that and I did, too. He told me once that I saved his life simply because he said he’d have worried himself to death. I think he still feels kindly towards me.
Groueff: He didn’t oppose your assignment. He didn’t say I don’t need him?
Currie: Huh uh. Not to my knowledge.
Groueff: So, it was pleasant between you and him—never a big fight or squabble?
Currie: Never a big fight.
Groueff: And Dunning?
Currie: Dunning, the same way.
Groueff: He accepted you?
Currie: He accepted me and I think that’s the mark of a big man. He had something good going and he stepped aside and became one of my right-hand men and one of five division heads reporting to me. And, it takes a big man to do that.
Groueff: So, in fact, from what I understand of Groves, they gave you the title of associate, but you were the real chief because they tried to send Urey and different people on some fishing trip in the West. So, Urey was out, but they tried to do it in a nice way.
Currie: He was back and forth trying to help in a nice way. But, I would say his contribution was minimal except, through him we got men on the project that we could’ve gotten otherwise.
Groueff: Because of his prestige?
Currie: Prestige, as a scientist. That’s right. But, I think there was a minimum, and sometimes I’d like to know if Harold would reject this, but I think there was a minimum of hard feelings there and I refuse to take sides in any dispute between him and Dunning. I still stuck to the facts, things we had to do. And, their arguments were off to one side and I didn’t interject.
Groueff: Your mission was to produce a barrier and just try to keep all the conflicts down and use the qualities of all those conflicting people without anyone quitting.
Currie: Yeah, we had very few quit. Hugh was particularly sentimental, and I think wrong, in his attitude toward security. If a man was a professor, he could do no wrong. And, that doesn’t follow.
Groueff: Even on security?
Currie: Even on security.
Groueff: I mean, espionage.
Currie: I don’t think there was ever any of that. But, at least, if a fellow couldn’t keep his mouth shut, if he was a professor he was still alright—and the things of that sort. But, that’s one of the things that Urey had difficulty in forgetting—that a man was a full professor from a recognized university, therefore he rated very high. In my book, he rated only if he produced.
Groueff: And in General Groves’s book, too.
Groueff: Now, how often do you come into contact with Groves directly during this period being the boss of the barrier program?
Currie: I would say once a month, once every two weeks. But I had frequent contacts with and through General [Kenneth] Nichols. See, General Nichols was his chief of staff, and I had more to do with Nichols.
Groueff: But Nichols was in Oak Ridge, no?
Currie: Nichols was everywhere.
Groueff: Oh, and he was easier to get along with, no?
Currie: Yeah, Nichols of course.
Groueff: Yeah, I met him. He’s also very strong man, but he has more tact.
Currie: Yeah. Then there was another colonel, young like lieutenant colonel, I’ve forgotten his name.
Groueff: [James C.] Stowers?
Currie: Stowers, yeah. I had trouble with Stowers for a while, but he worked out. We ended up being good friends. He was rather young and inexperienced and over his head at the start. But, so were all the rest of us; I was over my head, too.
Groueff: But did you have trouble with Groves? I mean, Groves was pushing everybody to the extreme, no?
Currie: Yeah, I got fed up, of course, sometimes. But, who didn’t.
Groueff: But was it because of his manner or talking to people in a bossy way?
Currie: No, I just got tired. Everybody got tired, except him. But, he worked as hard as or harder than anybody else so you couldn’t fault him for that.
Groueff: But weren’t there moments when all of you lost faith in the barrier?
Currie: No, I don’t think—different times, different individuals probably did. But, I don’t think any great mass of them did at the same time. See what I mean?
Groueff: Well like Urey for instance.
Currie: Well Urey, he lost it early, and one thing we had to was to keep that from becoming a policy of resentment.
Groueff: But generally it was always very optimistic.
Currie: Always. Well, he was an incurable optimist all the time.
Groueff: Even when he had left.
Currie: But, he’s good and he made a real contribution. He helped keep it alive—Dunning and some of his men.
Groueff: Keith was also on the optimistic side, no?
Currie: Yeah, but Keith was more mercurial than Dunning.
Groueff: But Dunning was always, good or bad news, he was always the same.
Currie: All the same. Manson Benedict was the best brain in the Kellex. He was very factual and he never stampeded and he never got depressed. He got worried when things were wrong, but, I mean, he kept on an even keel and did a lot for Kellex on that basis. And Baker the same way. Baker didn’t have the same mental ability that Benedict had but—
Groueff: More of an organizer, huh?
Currie: He was an organizer and a worker. As I said, Keith is more mercurial. Benedict’s solid. Johnson’s solid, but not as brilliant as Benedict. And, I think that’s a fair size up of those people.
Currie: At Columbia, [Willard] Libby was up there and he was brilliant, a bit erratic but a brilliant guy.
Groueff: But he was mostly on the corrosion than this.
Currie: He was on the corrosion of mostly nickel-alloys.
Groueff: Did he make any barrier himself?
Currie: No, always testing and safety. The possibility of explosions were always with him. Corrosion of action of the fluorine compounds and he got to be quite an authority on the handling of fluorine and things of that sort. And, the same way with Paul Emmitt, who was Libby’s superior. Emmitt was one of five leaders.
Groueff: But who were the people of Columbia directly contributing to the barrier?
Currie: Dunning and [Ray] Crist and [Eger] Murphree and then there was this fellow from Vanderbilt whose name has slipped me.
Groueff: [Francis G.] Slack?
Currie: Slack, yeah, Slack and Emmitt. Those were the five.
Groueff: And they worked on the barrier, but they worked mostly on the Norris-Adler side?
Currie: They worked on all of these at different times. You had to measure diffusion. And of course, a lot of Dunning’s work was on the other mechanics and machinery, likes the pumps and the valves and the corrosion problems and things of that sort.
Groueff: The whole process?
Currie: The whole process, the whole cascade. Dunning was the man that bickered with the English first. They came over about, I don’t know. There were two men in that group that I respected very highly and neither one of them are great scientists. One was Akers, Richard Akers, and the other’s a young fellow and I mean he was then quite young, I guess he was in his twenties. He and Akers are the only two that took the position that a cascade or cascades might work. The English said it wouldn’t work. [Rudolf] Peierls and all the others—it wouldn’t work. And Urey listened to them. You see what I mean?
Currie: Akers says, “I don’t know.”
And Groves said, “We’ve gone this far, we don’t know if will work or not but we’re going to prove it and not always wonder.” That was Groves’ decision. He made it.
Groueff: It was a great decision.
Currie: But Dunning was right with him.
Groueff: Yeah. And, Keith and Felbeck were also on the optimistic side?
Currie: Well, they played it, what else have we got? Let’s try it. You know what I mean?
Groueff: Now when you mention Slack, Nix is particularly irritated by the mention of Slack, Slack’s contribution in the book The New World. He said that Slack worked on some ideas for barrier, but none of his ideas, good or bad, were ever used in the actual barrier. He says that it’s completely wrong to give him some credit for contribution because he had nothing to do with it. As I understand it, he probably disliked Slack.
Currie: Well, Slack was awfully easy to dislike. Slack was not very appealing.
Groueff: Not a very likeable fellow?
Currie: Well, he wasn’t disliked, but I mean he wasn’t very politic, wasn’t very careful. It was easy to dislike Slack. I didn’t dislike him, but I say and I believe I’m being honest about this: Slack’s contribution was minimal to the whole deal. You had to do what he was doing, but just turned out none of it was worth a damn. But it wasn’t his fault.
Currie: He did a job and someone had to do it.
Groueff: And, did you work directly with Norris and Adler?
Currie: Yes, not so much because they were in the early days and they were already over the barrel before I really got in there.
Groueff: I see. So, when you got into this the barrier existed?
Currie: It existed and it was failing and the question is what in the hell do we do?
Groueff: I see. So, you got more involved with Nix and—
Currie: Yeah. Yeah. We were involved towards the end of the Norris-Adler to try and see what can we do about it? What can we do to make it good, and we never did come up with an answer. Now, the situation in Columbia, I think I’ve been fair. But Columbia University people were fine to work with. Joe Campbell, who’s now in Washington. What is he? In GM, heads the General Accounting Office. Joe Campbell was the assistant treasurer there. And it made it possible to do a decent job.
The difficulties with Urey I don’t want to emphasize, but on the other hand, Urey’s contribution to the diffusion program was certainly minimal. Relations with Kellex and Keith are, I would say, in general were good. They had a job to do and their engineering work was fine. Their contribution to the barrier was really at the cleaning up stage. Up until that time, no. Now I would like to add in here, fellows like [Edward] Mack and some of the fellows, they did a magnificent job when it came to treating the finished barrier. They made still fine improvements. That’s Ed Mack, who was hired from Ohio State, Columbia.
Groueff: After it was already made, the improvements—
Currie: He and [Joseph C.] Joe Elgin are at Princeton, who’s now I guess dean of the graduate school over there, at Princeton. Joe Elgin. He and Mack made finally the best barrier that had been up to that time. They improved it.
Groueff: Where did they have work?
Currie: At Schermerhorn [Hall]. Schermerhorn Hall laboratories up there.
Groueff: And Dunning was working there too?
Currie: Yeah. Oh yeah. Dunning was there.
Groueff: Nash building and everywhere.
Currie: Nash building and everywhere we could find a hole there.
Groueff: Where did you work? Where were you?
Currie: I had an office at Havemeyer [Hall] and I had an office up at Nash building. And I went back and forth on the shuttle.
Groueff: And also a lot bit in Decatur?
Currie: Well that was later on, I was out in Decatur most of the time. Now contribution by Norris and Adler: I would say their contribution to the final barrier was very minimal. But they had to make those original mistakes and start on the idea of the diffusion barrier. It’s just one of the ways—and therefore they deserve a lot of credit because they were very definitely pioneers in the field but their contributions to the final barrier was minimal.
Groueff: It was much more of Nix.
Currie: Foster Nix: yes. Frazier Groff: yes. Ken Merrill: yes. He’s very quiet and he’s a fellow that—
Groueff: Probably it’s a good idea if I saw him, no?
Currie: Yeah, it might be. I can give you his address. Clarence Johnson, his contribution was good. And I told you on the base, but that was after the basic skeleton was fixed. He helped put the flesh on it. Slack, I must admit, I consider it minimal. Libby, he was largely testing. Slack was standardizing and working out methods for testing.
So now the December ‘43 meeting with the British delegation’s review of barrier work—British pessimism. I don’t think I attended that meeting. I know about it. But I know that British were quite pessimistic. And at that time we didn’t have the Merrill-Groff thing to work with.
Groueff: That was just at the moment where you had to switch between the first and the second?
Currie: It was the low point of the curve. That’s about when I stepped in.
Groueff: What was the British main criticism of the American project?
Currie: Well, three things. They thought the barrier we had was too fragile. That was right. They thought it wouldn’t work very efficiently. That was right. They thought we had to cure both of those. And they also thought that the cascade of cascades was a mistaken idea. They were wrong on that.
Groueff: I see. But what was their idea—it should be just separate cascades in independence?
Currie: Yeah. Separate cascades.
Groueff: And not just continuing?
Currie: You see we had one cascade going this way and another cascade going that way. See the light [U235 atoms] goes one way and the heavy [U238 atoms] goes the other. See, in effect there were two. And they didn’t even know it.
Groueff: Now when I talk to Dunning—and he gave me some press releases and things here he wrote—when he talks about the K-25 and the cascade and even generally gas diffusion, he simply calls it the Dunning-Booth Cascade. Now when I talk to Kellex people, Keith and the other people, they say that the actual cascade developed and the one that works at K-25 at Oak Ridge is the works of Manson Benedict and his group. Now I don’t want to take sides but probably its combination?
Currie: I don’t take sides in that. But my guess is that it’s a combination of the two.
Groueff: There were scientific laboratories where things were developed by Dunning, but the practical thing, the one that we have today was probably—
Currie: Well, so it is. A patent requires a reduction to practice. And one way to do that is a, what we call in American slang, a breadboard operation. So we just put it together on the breadboard and it works.
Well I think the Dunning-Booth idea was the breadboard. But when you turn a job over like that to be engineered for production, you always make changes and improve it. But basically, I still think it was essentially the same.
Now the idea of separating gases by diffusion is nice; that goes back to somebody back there I forgot who he was. But the secret of this whole thing—and I don’t know who did this, but it was decided before I got in the picture—was to find a material containing uranium that could be made gaseous. And then they found the UF6 which would be gaseous, but also corrosive as hell. See what I mean?
And the whole thing is in that. And it’s quite possible that—and I would certainly not take sides in that. I know the final thing that was engineered was done by Kellex. But I also know that whatever patents there are on that early stages are the Booth and Dunning.
Groueff: Dunning, yeah. The one without the other wouldn’t be possible.
Currie: Absolutely. So I’m not being politic, I’m just being honest.
Groueff: I think that’s the logical thing because they’re two different things that—I mean, Kellex took it from where Columbia left it. And Columbia couldn’t build it. I mean, because they wouldn’t know how to make the nickel plate thing, or pipes, or the pumps, or the barrier.
Currie: Yeah. But neither did Kellex know at the start until we went out and got a fellow like Hobbs and these fellows who were expert on valves and piping and things of that sort. And they got together a wonderful team. But the basic idea would have been useless without them, but they didn’t have the idea.
Groueff: The principle was developed by Columbia people—Dunning people—but the actual making of the thing was done by the Kellex people.
Currie: I don’t know this for a fact—but I doubt if Columbia ever had anything more than a few cubic inches a person. I don’t know that.
Groueff: Actually even the barrier, the only barrier they produced was the size of a dime.
Currie: What can I say? Cubic inches, square inches, that’s all the barrier.
Groueff: It didn’t work very well, eh?
Currie: What do you expect at first? They did get separation on some of their little setups in the laboratory.
Groueff: The pumps, for instance, was a major thing for their the seal—that was entirely on the Kellex side?
Currie: No. Some of that, the pumps and seals were done by—oh, is it Boorse? Henry [A.] Boorse. That’s exactly.
Currie: A lot of that, but then again, he was on the little things. But getting the things in production, that was the engineering job.
Groueff: It was a different problem, yeah?
Currie: That’s right. But Henry Boorse deserves some real credit on that. Don’t let anybody kid you. I’m trying to be honest about this.
Groueff: I think the honest and the objective truth is that like in most human affairs, nobody alone deserves the full credit.
Currie: If I were going to have a text, you know like a preacher has a text, if I would have text, that was it. This was a wonderful job done by a wonderful, big group of men. Not all of whom were perfect, I assure you. Now the British pessimism, I must admit, that I didn’t rate the British mission very highly for two counts. In the first place, most of their science was over my head. And the next place, they talked such lousy English. You know, [Rudolf] Peierls and [Franz] Simon, that group, you know they were Jewish. They were Jewish scientists, but they’re English, I couldn’t understand them when they were speaking English.
Groueff: All of them?
Currie: Not all of them, but a lot of them.
Groueff: Some of them were refugees.
Currie: Refugees, oh yes. Refugee Jews.
Groueff: They were not English, they were just British subjects.
Currie: I doubt if they were even British subjects.
Groueff: I see.
Currie: It was a standing joke that the British Mission couldn’t speak English.
Groueff: Peierls and Simon also weren’t Englishmen?
Currie: I think their language was terrible. And there is several others whose names have slipped me.
Groueff: And Fuchs?
Currie: Fuchs would fool you. If I had had to pick a traitor out of the group—and I was in several groups with him—I would never pick Klaus Fuchs.
Currie: Yep. He struck me as being very brilliant, very quiet sort of fellow. And I just can’t understand what—
Groueff: You were surprised when you learned?
Currie: Absolutely. I can’t understand it yet.
Now to switch to new barrier—that’s in January ‘44. Well yes and a little bit later; this was when we thought about it, but it may have been later than that.
Groueff: That was the decision because the Decatur factory was already started but on the basis of the old batch.
Currie: That’s right.
Groueff: Now some equipment was being put in?
Currie: No, I don’t believe they got that far. Some concrete was poured.
Currie: They poured some concrete.
Groueff: And then the decision had to be taken by Groves whether to continue, even if it’s not perfect, or to change completely to the new thing?
Currie: I think the decision in January of ‘44 was to stop on the Norris-Adler and they didn’t know what they were going to do. I don’t think they had a solution; they knew that wasn’t going to work. And the fellow—you may know his name—from Philadelphia, a plating expert, electroplating.
Groueff: Was that Bob Gordon?
Currie: No. Anyway, there was a consulting firm in Philadelphia that had a lot to do with that and they decided to cut it out. Now Houdaille-Hershey and Chrysler—well of course you know Chrysler had nothing to do out there.
Groueff: When you finished your project?
Currie: We shipped tubes.
Groueff: Not a thing for the barrier?
Currie: Nope. Not a thing. No, I think they designed the nipples at the end. See what I mean? The nipples into which these barrier tubes were threaded; I think they did that. I’m not even sure of that. We put them on.
Groueff: But the barrier itself?
Currie: Was a finished tube that shipped. That’s right. Now, the Houdaille-Hershey people all had to get straightened out there in that they had a shell loading plant right next door. And they tried first to run that by Mack—I’ve forgotten what his name is—fellow with a Scottish name. He tried to run both and he didn’t know beans about it. He admitted it. And he was overloaded anyway. So one of the jobs that Merrill and I wanted to do was to get a local man and put him in there as superintendent to run the factory—and that was a fellow named Frank Fisher. He was really a leader. He wasn’t an engineer or something.
Groueff: Sounds like he was an important man, then.
Currie: Fisher was very important, key man. We had to have someone, when Merrill wasn’t there and I wasn’t there and so forth, that he was Mr. Houdaille-Hershey.
Groueff: I see. Who was Pena?
Currie: Pena was a quality control man. He was an electrochemist and he had followed up on quality for Houdaille-Hershey. He was a Houdaille-Hershey man.
Groueff: But Fisher was the general?
Currie: No, just superintendent.
Currie: He was the head Houdaille-Hershey man full-time. Now what do you mean what method? Assembly line or one by one? Well, they didn’t have an assembly line.
Groueff: Yeah, because somebody mentioned that this big production practically worked for the batch method.
Currie: It was definitely a batch method.
Groueff: It was?
Currie: Yes. Well actually check up, it’s been so long. What they did, they took these plastic sheets about eight feet by thirty inches in diameter and just packed them in boxes so thick because they’ve got nickel in them they’re very heavy. And they were just plastic sheets. Then they took those and put them in the oven furnace and heated them to decompose all the plastic and get a rather weak nickel residue. That was treated, that was the basis. Each individual plate was individually plated and then finished.
Groueff: So each sheet of barrier was produced individually? There was not assembly line?
Currie: There was no assembly. Assembly line no. But the plastic sheets would run out continuously and then get chopped off. That was an impervious plastic—all loused up with plastic resins. See what I mean? That had to be burned out.
Groueff: So the nickel was put in plastic?
Currie: Nickel with mud, go out of there, mixed with plastic.
Groueff: Mixed with plastic and rolled out.
Groueff: As it would be advertised.
Currie: Then rolled out.
Groueff: I see. But what did it look like to the worker in the factory who doesn’t know what he’s doing? They had no idea they were working for atomic bomb? And they didn’t know what they were producing. But what would they see?
Currie: All right. They’d see a sheet. It was a sort of greenish tan. That was the plastic. When it came out it was a bright nickel, sort of like a nickel sponge although it wasn’t very spongy looking—the pores were quite small. And then after it had been plated, it was now nickel-colored, you see. Then it was sliced and lowered into tubes, soldered and lip was put on and shipped.
Groueff: All this was done at Houdaille?
Currie: Every bit of it.
Groueff: What is in a big enormous room—like in a big factory?
Currie: Oh no. It was a brand new, great big factory.
Groueff: All the operations were in the same big room?
Currie: Building—not the same room.
Groueff: I know—same building.
Currie: In other words, you had the receiving room. And then of course you had storage and so forth. Then you had the furnaces. Since those were dangerous and explosive, they were in a separate room.
Groueff: That was used to separate the plastic.
Currie: To cook the plastic out. Then, they had the plating room—a large with these baths in which it was plated. I don’t remember if there was another heating treatment or not. I don’t believe so. Then they had a light rolling, maybe another plating, then slicing, rolling into the tubes, putting the nipples on, and testing them and shipping them.
Groueff: So in other words, the workmen who was on the electroplating side, he just sees—
Currie: Sheets coming in that had been plated.
Groueff: He doesn’t know and doesn’t care why or what, he doesn’t know where it goes to?
Currie: No. I don’t remember what story we had to tell them; it was reasonably plausible I guess. Maybe it was insulting their intelligence.
Groueff: Did they know or you didn’t tell everybody?
Currie: No, most of the engineers did not know.
Groueff: Only the top people. The secret was quite well kept.
Currie: Quite well kept. One of the biggest problems we had at Houdaille-Hershey was with the trucking people.
Currie: Because of the different unions. It damn near shut down the project, because if I remember correctly, we had the truckers union that came in to pick them up, but they had the auto union in each room and they couldn’t go in there. Because security couldn’t let the auto people come into the plant. The whole thing was shipped under armed guard. We had to end up by getting men in uniform to run these trucks—shuttle back and forth from Houdaille.
Groueff: Where was it sent? To a factory?
Currie: To Detroit.
Groueff: I see. By truck?
Currie: Shuttled back and forth—these great big coffins that could not be transferred.
Groueff: And the production lasted for several months or for a year?
Currie: Oh yeah. Yeah. I guess the best part of the year.
Groueff: Well that was ‘44 or ‘45?
Currie: ‘44 to ‘45.
Groueff: And even the first product was usable, or it wasn’t too good?
Currie: Oh I’m sure it wasn’t too good, but it passed specifications. And it was used. In the meantime, Chrysler had been lining and treating the diffuser bodies you know in which the tubes were being mounted. And then they were all sent down to Oak Ridge and then treated there to take down the corrosion and then put on the line.
Groueff: Did you have problems with Houdaille workers doing a good job or were they slow and afraid?
Currie: No, we had union problems all the time. They were about, I don’t know how many dozen or more unions in there. And if the wrong fellow did the wrong job, you had a strike or shut down or something of the sort.
Groueff: And you couldn’t explain the importance.
Currie: No, I saw 3,000 pounds of steel plate held up in the air because the wrong fellow wasn’t going put the stuff down. We had a furnace that couldn’t get a load and things of that sort. Plates that we’re going to run through.
Groueff: Did Groves come often there?
Currie: Not too often. He was there a number of times. And when he was there, things really started spinning.
Groueff: And Keith, did he play a role there in these parts or not?
Currie: No, his men were out there. I don’t remember Keith being out there more than once or twice.
Groueff: I see. Once the barrier was made, his main job was actually down in Oak Ridge?
Currie: Oh yes. And they had plenty of engineering layout and design problems.
Groueff: The Decatur operation was mostly Union Carbide?
Currie: And Houdaille-Hershey.
Groueff: And Houdaille.
Currie: Well, they were not alone. Merrill was out there on the Houdaille-Hershey job. See, the whole point was, Dobie [Keith] had plenty of jobs, plenty to do. But there was nothing he could do until he got the tubes. That was not his responsibility. When we chipped in the diffusers that were meeting specifications, then he still had problems. But, every one of those tubes, for the first instillation, the K-25 and I think maybe the next building –I’ve forgotten the number, K-27 maybe—were all out of Houdaille-Hershey.
Currie: Every dang tube. The war was over.
Groueff: Why were they chosen? What company was Houdaille-Hershey before?
Currie: Well, they had the shell loading plant there next to it. But the Houdaille plant there was all new—built fresh, completely new.
Groueff: Built for the Manhattan Project.
Currie: I don’t know how they were picked. Maybe some contact through the automobile people. See, Houdaille-Hershey had very strong connections with automobile.
Groueff: Probably some plating or something like that.
Currie: Well, they would have been used to plating. That’s right—plating bumpers.
Groueff: Plating was the main popular operation there, or one of them, important.
Currie: Furnishing and plating, yes. Now and then we had mechanics; we had problems in welding and things of that sort. So, I was just an overall general industrial job. But, plating was certainly an important thing. Pena, by the way, was the plating expert.
Currie: He was good.
Groueff: I’m in touch with him by letters. I wrote to him and I’ve received letters from him. He seems to remember that there was never a question of producing the Norris-Adler thing. Since the beginning, they knew that that wouldn’t work.
Currie: Well, by the time they got Houdaille-Hershey they did know pretty much. Although, they had started building; there was some concrete poured out there for the Norris-Adler deal.
Groueff: But they didn’t know what was going on before?
Currie: No. Now, I told you about the importance of General Groves.
Groueff: Yeah. Do you remember some anecdotes, or what he looked like to all of you there? What was the general opinion of him?
Currie: Well, I’m reminded about General Groves like the man who was talking about the requirements for the president of a small church school, church college. But of course, if it was big state university, you had to be a politician. If you were going to be at MIT, you had to be a great scientist and so on and so forth. Someone said, “Yeah, but what do you have to be to be president of a small church college?”
Someone thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess the best description I can get of that, you ought to be a cross between Jesus Christ and a steam engine.” [Laughing]
That damn near describes Groves. He was a damn near cross between Jesus Christ and a steam engine. [Laughing] I don’t know that he’d appreciate that, but nevertheless, that’s about the way I felt about him. No, but everybody looked upon him as a terrific driver. He worked hard. There’s no use, if you had made a mistake, there was no use giving an excuse. He didn’t want an excuse.
Groueff: He wouldn’t accept any excuses. All that counted was the results.
Currie: Results, absolutely. He didn’t care who did it.
Groueff: He was completely ruthless if the results were bad.
Currie: He could be completely fair and complementary if you did a good job, no matter if he hated your guts.
Groueff: I see. So, personal feelings didn’t count at all?
Currie: Well, I won’t say it didn’t count at all, but it was certainly minimal because he wanted to succeed. His national pride and pride in the Army, but he also has enough ego that he did not want to have his record clouded with the failure. See, he was used to doing big things and doing them right. Does that give you any picture?
Groueff: But people feared him, no? Or, were scared of him or annoyed by him?
Currie: Well, some of us were annoyed and a lot of us, I think the best thing that could’ve happened to me, if I wouldn’t been fired out of there and given a Battalion, which I wanted anyway. There were some people who were scared of him. He’s brusque, but actually he’s a kind hearted guy.
Groueff: But what was his way of giving orders? Was he too blunt or too tactless or rude?
Currie: Yes, I think it was, if you didn’t know the Army manner. In other words, the professors always would say please, maybe. And, Groves seldom said please and he almost never said maybe.
Groueff: So everything was definite—black and white?
Currie: As long as you could realize that there was nothing personal about that. Do you know what I mean? He would have said that same way to his father or his brother.
Groueff: But he was a man of complete integrity?
Currie: Absolutely, as far as I know.
Groueff: Devoted to the job, a fanatic.
Currie: Yeah. I thought at the time he was crazy about it. Yeah, I did. But, I say I have an unbounded respect for him. It took me a while to get there, I’ll admit. And same way with him; I think he felt the same way about me.
Groueff: It was difficult to work for him, no?
Currie: Until you recognize that excuses were not in the book. He’d back you up. He might chew you out for mistakes, but he’d back you up if he possibly could. I think that they had to have a man like Groves. A fellow that was too kind, too easy going, maybe too polite would have never have gotten it done in time. So, I think we were lucky that we had Groves.
Groueff: They all say so. To begin with, Nichols said, “You know, he was the most difficult man that I crossed, but if I had to choose again, I’ll take Groves.”
Currie: Put my name on that same statement. I would say the same way.
Groueff: He didn’t like him very much.
Currie: You don’t have to like the man to win a war.
Groueff: Yeah, you have to win a war.
Groueff: Tell me a few words about yourself.
Currie: Excuse me. Is that a fair picture?
Groueff: Yeah, yeah.
Currie: I’ve tried to be fair. I have no axe to grind.
Groueff: But what I intend, when I sit down and write in a couple of months, I’ll call you once or twice to ask some particular precisions.
Currie: Without too many words, I’ve tried to be fair but not be too didactive because there wasn’t much black and white in this.
Groueff: No, but you’re giving me a very good picture. So tell me, you said in there where you come from and where you were educated.
Currie: Alright, well you can find that in the book. I was raised down in Southwest Virginia. And, I went to a Presbyterian college down in North Carolina called Davidson, where Mr. Woodrow Wilson went and Mr. Dean Rusk and a few other people. And then I went to Cornell and got a Ph.D.
Groueff: What kind of family do you come from?
Currie: Scottish. Did you ever seen my full name written out?
Groueff: Oh, the “M” stands for MacLaurin.
Groueff: You came from a family of teachers or something like that or of scientists?
Currie: Well, one of my grandfathers was a doctor, one was a lawyer. My father was a preacher.
Groueff: Your father was a preacher?
Currie: A preacher, yeah.
Groueff: That’s why I ask this question. I ask this question about fathers of people and by far, by far the biggest percentage of Manhattan Project people are sons of ministers and preachers.
Currie: Well Groves is the son of a preacher.
Groueff: Vannevar Bush, Groves, Norman Hilberry, you. Your father was what denomination?
Currie: Presbyterian. Practically all Scottish are Presbyterians, don’t you think?
Groueff: Your father was a Presbyterian preacher? I am trying to draw some conclusions. It wouldn’t be important if there were just a small percentage, but it begins to be striking.
Currie: I’ll tell you another thing that might interest you, and I don’t have any of the figures—all of my ancestors, with one generation in the War of 1812, have all been soldiers. There had not been a professional soldier in my family that I know of until I have a nephew who is a Lt. Colonel out at West Point now. But, we’ve never been professional soldiers. We’ve always been civilians. But when the time comes, you go.
Groueff: Yeah, like you were a major. Urey’s father was also a preacher. But in his case, it turned the other way because he became atheist.
Currie: Well, I think Urey is more of an agnostic. I think Libby’s father was a preacher.
Currie: I’m not sure about that. It seemed like it.
Groueff: I don’t know, dozens and dozens of people I interview that are sons of ministers.
Currie: Well incidentally, I tell you, talking about anecdotes—you know, we had a V-E Day.
Currie: V-E Day. Victory in Europe.
Currie: Then we had a V-J day.
Groueff: Victory in Japan.
Currie: Yeah. And one of the fellows up at the Columbia group said well what he was looking for was V-B day.
Groueff: What’s that?
Currie: It’s the day we can tell Van Bush to go to hell. [Laughing] But everybody loved him. We called him “Old Gravel Voice.” You know, he used to come around and pat you on the back and give you a kick in the pants and all that to encourage you. He had a remarkable influence up at Columbia. But that was a joke, complimentary kind of thing. But the day we could tell Van Bush to go to hell was V-B day, we were going to call that.
Groueff: I’ve tried to see him now and I talked to him and hopefully I’ll go to see him next week at MIT. But when the project started actually, he wasn’t directly, day-by-day concerned?
Currie: No, most of his good work was done at the start, way back in the days with Einstein and the special committee with Mr. Roosevelt. But he had little to do with this. He was off on other things—I don’t know what. But nevertheless, he was very much interested. He used to come back and forth through fairly, regular intervals.
Groueff: He was sort of supervising the work of Groves and [James B.] Conant. Conant was more directly.
Currie: Yes, and Conant was most cordially disliked.
Groueff: He was a cold man?
Currie: Not only that. He’s a carper. His critics may have been justified, but he could have done it in a different way. I had two men tell me, “If that son of a bitch comes through here again I’m going to quit.” He’d come in there and criticize and never make any suggestions to help anything of the sort.
Groueff: Not constructive.
Currie: Sort of destructive when people were tired and tense. I can’t think of his name, and I should apologize—gentleman from Cal Tech—this long, tall, and slender man who has since died. He was on Groves’ advisory board. He used to come through.
Groueff: [Richard] Tolman?
Currie: Yeah. Dick Tolman. Dr. Tolman used to come through and smooth down the feathers as after Conant had been through.
Groueff: They were the two advisors of Groves.
Currie: Yes, and Tolman was just the opposite. Everybody loved Dick Tolman.
Groueff: But Conant was the kind of—
Currie: Nobody liked him.
Groueff: Bush also a cold man, or no?
Currie: No, he’s like an old farmer. He’d bawl you out, but he’d tell you a story and kid you along. But, you got the point. You see what I mean?
Groueff: He physically looks like Uncle Sam.
Currie: Yeah. That’s right. We called him “Old Gravel Voice.” But, everybody liked him. Everybody thought Tolman was fine.
Currie: But Conant, no.
Groueff: Conant, no.
Currie: Conant was quite imperious, quite cold. But, I don’t know any other particular things. Groves, I said, was a manic driver. You never knew where he was going to be. His secretary, Ms. [Jean] O’Leary, she was really quite a lady.
Groueff: She played an important part.
Currie: She really did. She really played an important part.
Groueff: She was much more than a secretary.
Currie: Now, you’ll notice, Mr. Groueff, that I have stuck to the diffusion end of it for a very good reason. That’s all I know anything about.
Groueff: Well, we forgot to talk about the graphite.
Currie: Yeah, I’m coming to that. But I mean, so far as this was concerned, and my work with Groves, it was entirely on the diffusion and the gaseous diffusion system. I don’t know anything about the bomb.
Groueff: Los Alamos?
Currie: Los Alamos, anything of the sort. I didn’t know anything about. I know more now that I did during the war about the preparation of the raw materials because I was not on it at the time. Other divisions of Carbide were and I knew nothing about that. Later, I was at the nuclear division so I knew about the extractions of ore and so forth. So, I knew nothing about the bombs. I knew nothing about anything, except just the diffusion part.
Groueff: On the graphite.
Currie: My dates are going to be hazy here because I’ve been on it so long and in and out on various things. But the graphite, the first thing we heard about it was that Mr. [Arthur V.] Wilker, who incidentally played a very important part in this whole project, not for the gaseous diffusion, but for the Hanford work—Mr. Wilker was an engineer who was also I guess at that time Vice President, he used to be general manager, of National Carbon Company. We were the world’s greatest.
Groueff: Is National Carbon Company part of Union Carbide?
It was the – it used to be Union Carbide and Carbon. And it was National Carbon where the name carbon came in. It was one of the founding companies. And Mr. Wilker was a great engineer and scientist and a great handler of men. He went somewhere, I think maybe he was called to Washington on a secret job and was told they had to have graphite in certain specifications. And he brought it back, some of us looked at it and I said, “Oh, impossible. Can’t be done.”
And I think maybe he took it back to Washington again, it couldn’t be done. Anyway, second time we heard about it, it’s got to be done, whether it can be or not.
Groueff: I think that was when Norman Hilberry came here, and he gave the specification, and people say that he was joking.
Currie: I didn’t know him at this point. But when we heard it, it was an impossible specification, but we started to work. See I had been acting director of research for National Carbon. When I left Bakelite I went out there on this job because the director, Mr. Bachelor, my old friend and advisor was in what was going to be his final illness. So I didn’t have the title for a long time, but had the job, just like up at Columbia.
Anyway, we started out to make this and we had a bunch of fine men in the production end. I can’t name all them, but we had two men who deserve a tremendous amount of credit besides Mr. Wilker. And that is a fellow named Victor Hamister, [V.C. Hamister] who was an old time, run-a-mine graphite man, knew about making graphite. Hamister. H-A-M-I-S-T-E-R. And another was a much younger fellow, named Herb—Dr. MacPherson [H.G. MacPherson].
And incidentally those two fellows wrote the first book that was declassified on reactor graphite, which I presented at the Geneva Conference in 1955. The book had all three of our names on it. [The Production and Properties of Graphite for Reactors, by H.G. MacPherson, V.C. Hamister and L.M. Currie (National Carbon, 1955]. Actually, those fellas wrote the book. I just happened to be Vice President at that time and they wanted me to present it so I did. But Hamister and MacPherson wrote it. That was the first book explaining the preparation of properties in nuclear graphite.
And we started out to make it to a specification, which was impossible. And we tried to make it one of our plants, which was so badly contaminated with some poison material that we had to move the work to another plant entirely.
Groueff: What was the poison material?
Currie: It was Boron.
Groueff: It has nothing to do with graphite?
Currie: No. It had nothing to do with graphite. So we took it out and started building it at another plant. Then we needed more production. So we built the DPC, Defense Plant Corporation, down at Morganton, North Carolina, the most modern and up-to-date graphite plant in the world. And copper was hard to get so the current was carried by silver bus bars, which we got out of Fort Knox and the Treasury Department, just on a loan. And down there we began to make material that was approaching the specifications that they wanted. And each time they wanted better and better stuff, we managed to get up to it. Finally, we were making material above the initial specifications. And we made it in thousand ton lots.
Groueff: That was for the Hanford pile?
Currie: That was for Hanford, yes. The first stuff we made was at the second plant, not the first plant. We never could make any good stuff there. But this was in Clarksburg, West Virginia and we made that for Stagg Field and we made it also for the so-called X-10 DuPont reactor down at Oak Ridge and the Clinton labs. We made all of that. And at that time, when you needed a larger amount, we moved to Morganton and began shipping everything from Morganton. It was a complete DPC plant with no commercial stuff in it. And security was much better.
And afterwards, this was after the war, we worked out a method for making still more superior graphite. I think of all the stuff at the total Hanford operation we probably produced I would guess 85%, and maybe one of our competitors could produce ten or twelve, and the other competitor produce three to five, something like that. That is all there was to it. It was just simply a careful holding to size and holding to delivery rate, which were important because they were practically taking them from the car, machining them and putting them in their pile. That was a very important phase and it was a question of extreme care, lots of ingenuity and scheduling and quality of the graphite.
Groueff: The very first time they asked you, Hilberry and the other people, that was for the Stagg Field?
Currie: No the first time was for Fermi up at Columbia.
Groueff: For Columbia.
Currie: Columbia. It was either 5,000 pounds or five tons I forgot.
Groueff: Where was that produced? Where was that?
Currie: Clarksburg, West Virginia. One of our big graphite plants
Groueff: And all of you—MacPherson and the other fellow—you didn’t think at the beginning it was possible, but little by little you produced it. You were given a sort of incredible priority.
Currie: Oh yes. But in fairness to my friends at National Carbon, if they ever hear about this—I am speaking now from the engineering and the technical end. The fellows in production did a magnificent job too. They had to. We didn’t produce this stuff. The plants produced it but it was under us. And another fellow who has since died, Dr. Dexter, was quite important.
Groueff: Where does the silver come into graphite production?
Currie: Well, you have to carry immense loads of current to the furnaces. All they were were just simple conductors. Copper would have done just as well, but you couldn’t get copper as easily as you could get silver.
Groueff: I know the silver story and I always thought it was only for the electromagnetic thing with Lawrence that they used it. So you also used it for—
Currie: Any way you carry current silver is better than copper.
Groueff: You also use that for the graphite?
Currie: We had I don’t know how many millions of dollars worth of silver at the plant.
Groueff: That was also very courageous decision.
Currie: Well it was easy at Morgantown, North Carolina because it was completely a government plant. The whole thing was on guard, lock and key and all that. So the security was perfect there.
Groueff: General [Kenneth] Nichols arranged for the silver?
Currie: I assume so; somebody pretty high up.
Groueff: One of those courageous decisions without asking the Congress and the Senate.
Currie: That was for years the world’s finest graphite plant. Built without regard to anything but get the stuff fast, get it right. It was magnificent. That production board for it deserved all that credit, International Carbide Group.
Groueff: Now one thing that Dobie Keith told me, and I’ve heard this from other people and don’t know if it’s him or someone else, describing Frazier Groff, described him as kind of a religious sort of nut. That he was always telling people not to drink or not to smoke and—
Currie: That is not Frazier Groff. I don’t know who else would say it, but it is not me.
Groueff: Sorry. Because he described him as some kind of a nut that was always pestering, talking about God and you shouldn’t do this and shouldn’t do that, and oh, go away.
Currie: He overlooked one sinner I will say that.
Groueff: A couple of people about Groff, they described him as rather sort of big, tough, rough, gruff, difficult to get along with man.
Currie: Very difficult to get along with.
Groueff: But nothing particular about—
Currie: I think he has got that confused with somebody else. It wasn’t [Ken] Merrill and it wasn’t [Frank] Fisher and it wasn’t I. I don’t’ know who else—I don’t think it was Slack. Slack was a little bit that way.
Groueff: I don’t know. And certainly not Nix.
Groueff: Certainly not Frazier Groff.
Currie: No. That’s for sure. And mind you I didn’t mind to like him. He was just hard to admire or like as a man. You know what I mean?
Groueff: But very efficient at his job.
Currie: Not efficient. Very inefficient, but very creative and very productive. There is a difference between being efficient and productive.
Groueff: In what sense, do you mean?
Currie: Well, he wasted a lot of effort, time and everything else. But he came up with the goods. So his overall results were excellent. So I rate him highly.
Groueff: But in an inefficient way.
Currie: I mean he could have come to the same thing half way if he had a different personality, but maybe he wouldn’t have been creative in that case.
Groueff: What was Merrill’s personality?
Currie: Merrill was very small and he is kind of getting fat now, but very down to earth, realist, no fancy stuff and if he felt something stunk he said it stinks. Period. And he didn’t care who heard it or what happened. But he was a great man to get things done. He was one of my very close, personal friends. And in lots of ways, one of the best things that could have happened to me. If I had had a “yes” man around it could have been very bad.
He said you are nuts more than 100 times. He would tend to keep you on track. In a friendly way. See what I mean? Nonetheless, if he thought I was wrong he would say you are nuts or you are crazy as hell or something like that. And he meant it.
Groueff: So they were not yes men, him or Groff?
Currie: No, but Merrill was reasonable. If he thought you were wrong, he would express himself, but if you insisted he would go ahead and do it. Insist it was your responsibility. You know what I mean? But they were entirely different types of men. I am sure I would rather have Merrill than a “yes” man around, by no stretch of the imagination. It’s nice to work with a “yes” man, but not if you’d like to get anything done.
I am pretty loyal to my friends and I feel just that way about him, you see what I mean? Groff, I recognize his productivity, same way as Dunning. I think you had to be a big man to take what Dunning did to accept me coming in there. I am older than Dunning I think, not by a lot, but he had made his reputation as a scientist. Who ever had heard of to me? He let me come in there and then backed me up; he could have knifed me in the back and made things very rough.
Groueff: You worked together well. He was loyal.
Currie: Absolutely. Loyal. And I always regarded him in a friendly way. We are friends until this day. Got to have men like that.
Groueff: They all served their purpose, being so different in a different way. I see the Kellex branch, they are also not “yes” men. I saw Mr. [J. C.] Hobbs, he is quite a character.
Currie: He’s just as nice as a buzz saw. He was usually right, almost always right. Hobbs was a damn good man. Something I wanted to say about that connection. When the war was over, I didn’t know whether I was coming back to Carbide or not and Ed Jones and [Richard] Baker and I talked about going into business together, setting up a separate firm.
Currie: Ed Jones and Baker and I were going to set up an organization, an engineering firm. Then Baker took sick and died, and that was it.
Groueff: Baker, he didn’t get along very well with Keith, no? They were different personalities. Very organized, good organization man, solid and the other one brilliant, but emotional and very disorganized.
Currie: In lots of ways you just described Groff and Merrill. Fortunately for Merrill, he was ranking to Groff. Now unfortunately in lots of ways, Keith was senior. And now Keith got on alright with Manson [Benedict] because Manson just knew so damn much, Keith couldn’t talk him down. But in lots of ways Keith and Baker—Baker was a whipping boy. And I resented that. See what I mean?
Groueff: Whipping boy for Keith?
Currie: For Keith. If something went wrong, it was always Baker’s fault. And if anything was right and had been good, Keith had done a good job.
Groueff: Also I understand Keith was so impatient and impulsive that he would go above head of Baker, contact directly every service talk directly to him. And the recommendation would work so Baker wouldn’t be informed.
Currie: That’s right. Then Baker got the blame when something went wrong.
Groueff: But I think they needed also a kind of man that was like Keith, because all those people some of them had very important positions.
Currie: He was just young. I don’t know I just sort of feel that maybe through some sort of a plan, divine or otherwise, you just find the job to which you fit in.
Groueff: And when the Kellex people discussed Keith there are a lot of criticisms, but they all say more of what you say about Groff, that they needed him. They needed this kind of man who was all the time pushing everybody and driving them nuts.
Currie: It is awfully hard to dispute with success. Now if the thing had been a failure, Groves and Keith and a lot of other people would have gotten one hell of a lot of criticism.
Groueff: Oh yeah. It would be very easy to make the criticism because they are so spectacular in their risks.
Currie: And they have followers to call attention to it. See?
Groueff: It’s funny, I’m fascinated with the whole project, because I see different, as you say, temperaments and talents and they found their places. There are other people whose personal contribution wasn’t so big but they played other roles. Like, I was impressed by Norman Hilberry, a very modest, quiet man. He is not a great scientist but he was so objective in coordinating other people.
Currie: All right. Let’s look this over. Here is Scientist A and Scientist B—working separately or together—they can’t produce anything. You bring in C now. He is the one that acts as a catalyst. He smoothes them out and takes their work and makes it go. Now, if out of these two men you get nothing and out of three you get two, I say maybe this man is worth two. And Hilberry—
Groueff: He is a really great man. He knows that A and B are particularly sensitive about credit and glory, and so on, and the last thing he would do is say, “I did it.” And then I saw that from people like Hilberry.
Currie: He’s a good example. On the other hand Groves was the other direction. Groves claims too much credit. He should claim credit for helping assemble a good team and then driving the hell out of them.
Groueff: Every day, go ahead, this forward motion was him. But not the making of the bomb.
Currie: Absolutely. That’s the way I feel about it.
Groueff: [J. Robert] Oppenheimer was another one of those catalysts. And very often I would say that A and B not only they wouldn’t produce anything together, but they wouldn’t teach the other because they would say, “This one, he is a horrible man!” They are very temperamental prima donnas, some of them.
Currie: Exactly the point. Now Fermi on the other hand was one of the greatest brains I ever saw. The ratio of genius to temperament was enormous in his case. Some of these other people have just as much temperament as they have genius. But his genius was way up here and his temperament way down there.
Groueff: In other cases, I understand [Leo] Szilard had a tremendous temperament and also a tremendous genius, which made him impossible to live with and at the same time stimulating the minds.
Currie: That is a fair statement.
Groueff: All those people without catalysts they wouldn’t stand each other for twenty-four hours.
Currie: Dunning bought 100 vacuum pumps. And I said, “I thought you meant the small laboratory type pumps.”
“How much do they cost?”
I go, “How many do you need?”
He said, “100.” We were definitely short of money.
I said, “For what?”
He couldn’t say. So he finally checked up and he came back I think he had forty uses for forty-two.
And I said, “Well fifty-eight is fair, sounds like a lot for forty-two so let’s just order fifty.”
So I changed it to fifty. You know what the joke was? I almost just signed it automatically, but I just wasn’t feeling that well that day. They were $1250.00 apiece and he is putting in an order for 100 of them!
Groueff: I thought it was $12. That is hilarious.
Currie: I don’t remember what I could sign to. I think I could sign up to a couple of million dollars.
Groueff: Without giving an explanation to anyone?
Currie: Oh no, I had to give plenty of explanation. I had to justify it at least.
Groueff: Sign it then after that you have to explain.
Currie: Certainly it was a high amount. Certainly more than Carbide had given me, I will say that.
Groueff: That is also amazing and very unusual because most of you were not used to this kind of spending.
Currie: When I came back to work for National Carbon, Mr. Wilker, my boss and proctor I might say, he said, “Now first thing you got to do is get it out of your head spending money at that rate.”
That was my welcome back to Carbide—to get that idea out of your head. We are not going to spend money like that.
Groueff: Money was absolutely no problem, no?
Currie: No. As long as you stayed within the money that was available.
Groueff: It was a lot?
Currie: Yeah, but there were times when it got tight; it wasn’t all a lump sum. We were never really held up. Nichols could sign for almost anything.
Groueff: Millions, hundreds of millions. Which takes a lot of responsibility.
Currie: He was taking responsibility, a lot more. Even at that, for the same amount of money, he was taking more responsibility than I for this reason: all I could do was get kicked out and go back to work at Carbide or even Kellex, provided there was nothing crooked. He could ruin his whole career because he was military.
Groueff: The military could court-martial.
Currie: Even without that, he would be marked down and his direct history would be ruined. Industry would never judge a man unless he did something crooked. What do you expect, that’s the way the government runs. I was just the middle of nothing.