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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Mound Laboratory Panel Discussion

Manhattan Project Locations:

In this panel discussion, former Mound Laboratory employees discuss their experience working for Monsanto on the highly classified initiator program for nuclear weapons.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


[Many thanks to Bill Curtis for recording and donating this interview to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.]

Gustave Alfred Essig: My name is Gustave Alfred Essig. Everybody calls me Gus. I started working on this particular project in May of 1946 after being discharged from the Army as a Captain during the World War II. I was a radar officer, spent most of my time out in Fresno, California. And after I was discharged, I sent out requests. I was looking for a job and I got a notice from the Monsanto Company to come to Dayton and be interviewed. I was interviewed, immediately got a job, and I started to work immediately.

I worked for a Dr. Harold P. Knouse, who was the head of the physics area at that time on West 1st Street, and I was there until the Mound was built. In the meantime, Dr. Knouse left the Project about the time that the Mound was built and went to the University of Connecticut, where he became the head of the Physics Department there.

After going through the Mound laboratory, I was recommended by Dr. Knouse to start in the highly classified initiator program. I was sent to Los Alamos where I spent a couple months working with the technical people out there on the design and construction of initiators. At that time, all this was highly classified. And I never mentioned my work to anyone, not even my wife, because of the high classification. And that was what impressed me, was how the people there kept secrets secret; I knew very little of people getting into trouble by giving information out. This was very impressive.

I became a supervisor of the initiator organization and remained in that position until 1962, when I was transferred to the administration building to work directly for administrator David Scott. And I remained doing administrative work until 1982, at which time I decided to retire. So I will turn this over to this gentleman.

Martin R. Hertz: Okay, I am Martin R. Hertz, H-E-R-T-Z, and nicknamed Ray. And I got out of the military in the fall of 1947 and came to work at Mound in January 1948. And I was put in the source group. That had nothing to do with Gus’ bailiwick, but we were making neutron sources using the polonium-alpha-beryllium reaction. And I worked there until 1954 when I left for Goodyear Atomic Corporation. We were having a big riff there, and they offered me a job there. I could have stayed and I probably should have.

But I came back in 1960 and worked for thirty years at Mound and still back in the source business, working for John Richmond, who died later. And finally ended up taking over the source group and then moving to Dayton Laboratory, where Richmond had started the source group. And I came back to Mound again in 1965 and worked there until ’82, when I retired. I could not afford to work there anymore, it was costing me too much money to come and work for free [laugh]. And that is about it.

Claude Hudgens: I am Claude Hudgens. I came to Mound in June-July of ’52 from five years at University of Illinois. There is a little story in my coming here. Like any job, it is an accident where one ends up. 

I was in my office one day at Illinois. A short, stubby character showed up who was—turned out his name was George Pish. He had the same office I did at Illinois when he was there about seven or eight years before. And he mentioned that he was on an interview team from some laboratory whose name I did not catch over in Ohio at a town whose name I did not catch either. So we talked a while and I said, well—because jobs were sort of scarce at the time and I was actually a post doctorate because I could not get a job—“Remember me if something comes up.”

About thirty days later, I got a call from the personnel department here at Mound, and they invited me out for an interview. And since my previous interview had been with a drug outfit over in Indianapolis who offered me half of what I was offered here, it was a hands-down decision for coming to Mound. I have not regretted it. I just regretted the destruction that has been done to the laboratory the last few years.

Just as a little aside, I was here for forty-one years, which my boys, both chemists, enjoy mentioning to friends, that some odd times their father took early retirement at the age of seventy-one.

So I will turn this over to Ken Foster.

Ken Foster: Hi, I am Ken Foster and I joined this project at the Runnymede Playhouse in Oakwood in July 1948. Worked in an assay group, where we did studies on the radiation properties of the polonium that was being manufactured by the Project then. We did not know what it was. All we knew was it was involving something with the weapons department and it was kind of secret. That project moved down here to Mound in January 1949, and we actually went hot down in T building with polonium in February 1949.

I worked for a while in the production department, then moved up to Research and kicked around various alternate alpha-emitting materials, including actinium, which is a miserable material. Then got into some of the computer business, and actually ended up retired from Monsanto in 1948 [misspoke: 1988] and then actually worked an then came back as a computer consultant for another ten years. So I spent fifty years of my life in and out of this place in one thing or another.

So it has been a good place to work when I was here.

Dr. E. J. Reagan: I am Dr. E. J. Reagan. I started practice in Miamisburg, a family practice, in June of 1948 and heard that there was a position at Mound. They were looking for a full-time position, and since I was starting and had nothing to do, I applied and said I could give them a half a day’s work all morning. And I started then August 5, when they started to move everything from the Dayton operations down here. And I stayed here until I retired from Monsanto in 1988 and then kept on with EG&G for another nine years. So have been here basically forty-nine years. I have not gotten in on any of the cleanup. It seemed that the new people coming in were not too interested in a medical program and I was not interested in doing the little bit that they wanted done. So I retired finally at the age of seventy-seven.

It was quite a start, you know. I did not know anything about the products we had and I became a world expert in them simply because no one else knew anything about them. So that was kind of an exciting job for me. I had a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry so I could understand some of the things going on. That is about the history of my association with Mound.

I will turn this over to George Mahfouz.

George Mahfouz: Thank you. My name is George Mahfouz. I started here at Mound in May of 1946. Prior to that, I had worked for Houdaille-Hershey in Decatur, Illinois. Houdaille-Hershey was a company that was producing the nickel barriers that went down in the gaseous diffusion plants down in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They closed that plant and not too long after that, I had heard about Monsanto and Mound Lab. It was not Mound then, it was just Monsanto. And I knew somebody here, Ed McCarthy, who was a group leader in the Process Engineering group and he and I had been friends prior to that. So I told him I was looking for a job and he said, “We need people.” And so I came in and joined the Process Engineering group in May. I was interviewed on Friday and I started on Monday. What made that possible was I had already had a clearance working in Decatur, Illinois.

So anyway, I started with the Process Engineering group over at Runnymede Playhouse. Little did I know that from ’46 to ’48, or the end of ’48 starting in January of ’49, I would be given the assignment to tear down—clean up first—Unit III, which is where the other gentlemen here worked, except for Dr. Reagan. So we decontaminated that place and turned it back over to the Department of Education. We had twenty-seven people over there who were all pretty well dedicated to getting that place cleaned up and accepted back by the school system and the City of Dayton.

Then we moved over with a crew over Runnymede Playhouse in Oakwood, which is where I started, and we began cleaning that place up, and we got that place really clean. We boxed everything, painted everything, and drummed everything, whatever it was. But when it left the site, it was not available to be a contaminant to the general environment. Most everything went down to Oak Ridge. We got that place to the point where it was clean enough that we could turn it over then to a contractor and they finished the dismantling of what we would call Unit IV.

Then I came down here in the Process Engineering group after that. I spent forty years here at Mound with the exception of three years when I was transferred out and transferred back. But it was a great thirty-seven years. We had a wonderful organization here, I thought. I was very happy, and I am going to have to see Dr. Reagan and get something to kind of calm my nerves down because when I come up here on the hill and see what the hell they are doing to this place, it really tears my liver up. [laughter]

Warren Sheehan: My name is Warren Sheehan. I really do not belong at this table because these gentlemen are a lot older than I am and so I am sort of Phase II of the Mound story. And the one reason I am here is I replaced your mother, Bill, once she retired. So I know a little about her history.

My story begins with really my wife being recruited to come to work here out of high school. A gentlemen by the name of Bernie Bond, an older gentleman, this would be Bernard L. Bond rather than “Short Bernie,” “Tall Bernie.” And so she came here out of high school and worked here a couple years until the initiator program went down the tubes. And I believe the place went from about 900 employment to less than 300. And that was in the fall of ’53 that that occurred, and my wife left the place and went downtown and got a job with what was then E.F. McDonald.

So for two years, never heard much about the place and I was in school at the time, college. And in December of ’55, we had gone to a church—Christmas doings at the [inaudible], which is a church that Bernie pastured at the time. In fact, Bernie married my wife and I.

And so Bernie hit my wife up, tried to recruit her a second time to come back to the Mound. And so I said, “Well, are they going to hire any technical people?”

And he said, “Well, yeah.” So I was working at NCR at the time, so that is how I ended up at Mound.

I have to go back and say one thing prior to that. In April of ’55, I went out to see Bernie. I had not heard anything about the place. And I said, “What is going on over there, Bernie?”

He said, “Not much.” He says, “I am not sure I will have a job when I go back tomorrow morning.” He says, “That is just how things are right now.”

So things turned around in December of ’55. That is when they got the DEP job and by the spring of ’56 they were hiring, and that is when I came aboard, in April of ’56.

My supervisor at NCR said, “Well, you are going in on the bulge.”

And I said, “Well, maybe so,” but I went in on the bulge and stayed for thirty-three years.

So the first sixteen years, about half of my career, was spent in health physics. For those who are unfamiliar with the terminology, that is radiation safety. And my first assignment was to develop a methodology for the determination of plutonium in urine. We were just getting into the plutonium beryllium source work, which Ray talked about over there, and we did not have a program for plutonium in urine. So that was my first assignment, as well as run the continuation of the old actinium project. People who were assigned to that that were still around.

After that, I spent five years there. I moved up to the SM building, which was a 238-plutonium processing facility. Spent a couple horrible years up there and [laughter] if anybody was up there, they know of which I speak. And then I returned to the T building to supervise the dosimetry group and I stayed there until about ’72, when I requested a transfer and went over to Nuclear Operations and that is when I got involved with the lady whom we know as the Madame Curie of Mound Lab, Mary Lou Curtis [laughter]. And that is my story. I retired in ’89.

Curtis: Well, can any of you give me kind of a history of any of the original Mound program, the original World War II Manhattan Project, just as to what the importance perhaps of the polonium was and that sort of thing?

George Mahfouz: Phew. [Laughter] I did not realize I am going to have to do this today. Well, in early ’43, Dr. [Charles] Thomas has attended a scientific meeting where he met James Bryant Conant, or perhaps he had known him before that. James Bryant Conant had been the President of Harvard University. They had a lot in common, and they left after that. Dr. Thomas came back here to Dayton because he and Dr. [Carroll] Hockwalt were co-owners of what was then Central Research for Monsanto, and they were both co-directors at the time. Well, not too many months after that, mainly in the latter part of the winter of ’43, Dr. Thomas received the call from Dr. Conant asking him to come to Washington.

So he went to Washington and there he met with General Groves, who was the Project Director for the Manhattan Project, sworn to secrecy, then he was told all about the atomic bomb project and what Monsanto could do. And the basic requirement in Dr. Thomas’ case was to have Monsanto take over the chemistry and the development of being able to process polonium. The knowledge of the polonium chemistry at that time was next to nothing. Obviously, this was wartime and anything that would help the American government win the war obviously was high on the priority of every American. Dr. Thomas accepted that assignment.

And then they wanted Dr. Thomas—“they” meaning General Groves—wanted him to become a co-director of Los Alamos along with Dr. Oppenheimer. Dr. Thomas did not want to do that because he did not want to leave Monsanto. However, he did accept the additional assignment of heading up the metallurgy and the chemistry of plutonium and polonium in conjunction with the University of Chicago and University of California and Los Alamos. What happened with that part of the assignment with Dr. Thomas, I do not have any knowledge of that.

But he did come back to Dayton and he set up the initial research, if you will, at Central Research over on Nicholas Road in the City of Dayton. Two people were taken out of Monsanto’s Research Department and they began studying the chemistry of polonium. As I said earlier, the knowledge of polonium, its chemistry, was next to nothing, and that is where the work started. Yes, that was classified. Yes, they did have guards at the front door. But as far as things like health clinics and worrying about radiation and all that, that was not in the cards. Well, for one thing, there was not that much to work with.

Well, that was in early ’43, and they realized that they had to expand the operation and that is when Monsanto took over the book repository for the City of Dayton over on 1st Street—or West 1st Street rather. And that had been built in the latter part of the 1890s or something like that as a seminary, the Bonebrake Seminary. And then after that, when they built a new facility out in Northwest Dayton, the Department of Education took it over as a book repository. Well, Monsanto then took it over and began setting up laboratories in there.

Now there were a few problems, one of which was that technical manpower was next to nothing, being able to hire people, that is. But they managed to get people, and that was a tough deal because you had to hire somebody but you could not tell him what he was going to do because obviously, this was pretty highly classified. But Dr. Thomas did get that rolling, along with Dr. Hockwalt.

Well, now we get to the point where we need to produce polonium. Of course, we did not have much by way of knowledge of production because the people at Los Alamos, had worked on two processes. One was a lead oxide process and the other was a bismuth process to get the alpha-emitter polonium. The bismuth process won out and then they decided well, we can not do the production work at the Bonebrake Seminary.

So the Runnymede Playhouse was selected and the reason that was selected was twofold, first of which, Dr. Thomas was married to one of the Talbot daughters. The Talbot family owned the Playhouse and one thing led to another and the building was taken over by the Corps of Engineers under the guise of being work for the Signal Corps. The residents of Oakwood were disturbed, and that is probably the understatement of the century, [laughter] because all of a sudden over at Runnymede Playhouse, telephone poles are going up, fences are going up, spotlights were going up, and this is not the kind of thing that occurred in Oakwood, that being a very quiet community of about maybe ten thousand people at the time.

Anyway, so Monsanto moved in and began setting up to process bismuth. And as I said earlier, that process had been selected as the process for extracting polonium. Backing up a little bit, bismuth slugs were initially irradiated down at Oak Ridge—let me take that back. Yeah, they were originally irradiated at Oak Ridge and I believe somewhere around 1943, ’44, in that neighborhood, the process was then transferred to Hanford, where the bismuth slugs were irradiated out there.

Getting back to the community of Oakwood for the moment, all the—what I call industrial activity like bringing in the bismuth slugs in a big truck, was obviously, since these things were irradiated, they were in lead casks for shielding. All this was done at night. Delivery of the other materials—normal industrial supply, laboratory supply—were delivered by smaller trucks so we did not get the neighbors too upset. But that did not stop them being upset, by the way.

Anyway, so the process was developed and the production, if you will. You have to keep in mind, production of polonium was so small that you could probably put an entire half year’s production in a thimble at the time. But we then produced the polonium. Early on, the polonium was shipped to Oak Ridge because the initiators were made out there. Later on, as Gus Essig pointed out, the process was transferred here. You were on that team, as I remember, Gus. And the initiator manufacturing was then at the Bonebrake Seminary Unit III. A Quonset hut was put up. An entire laboratory was set up so the initiators could be made there.

Then, of course, we moved here in the latter part of ’48 and that is when I took over the cleanup, Units III and IV, and get Unit IV torn down and Unit III cleaned up to get it turned back to the City.

That is about it.

Curtis: What was the initiator you talked about?

Mahfouz: The initiator was the neutron source, which was a trigger, as it is called a trigger. It was also called an “urchin.” And when we needed a lot of neutrons, and that was a neutron source. That was machined out of beryllium and that machining work was—was that done over at Unit III, Gus? Yeah, it had to be. 

Essig: Yeah, it was.

Mahfouz: Yeah, it was done over at Unit III. We only produced the polonium at Unit IV, Runnymede Playhouse. But that is the initiator, and it was imploded so that it was crushed and then trillions of neutrons were generated by virtue of polonium being coated on a beryllium—let me rephrase that. Beryllium was first coded with nickel, is that right?

[Multiple Speakers]

Mahfouz: Nickel carbonyl. Polonium was put on there; the nickel was a shield. And once the shield was broken, then you had trillions of neutrons, which incidentally, no one knew it was going to work back in the early 1943 by the scientists of Los Alamos.

One thing, which you have not asked me about, and I would like to blow a horn for all the technical people that worked on the Manhattan Project, you have to keep in mind that in the summer of ’42, Los Alamos was selected as the site. The decision was made by Dr. Oppenheimer and General Groves, that was in 1942 and the bomb went off three years later. It was something that nobody knew anything about, which was a remarkable feat, I think, when it takes the automotive industry, it used to take them five years just for a model change.

Sheehan: I think something needs to be added here is that the polonium initiator was a very short-lived instrument in that polonium-210 had a half-life of a 138 days, which meant in a year’s time you went through three half-lives. So on the half-lives, you got one-half, one-fourth, one-eighth of the output after one year. So it was a remarkably good business for the Mound to be in because they did not last that long.

And that also spoke to the reason for the high degree of secrecy about Mound and what it was all about. Very little was known, even within the complex, what went on at Mound. They hardly knew we existed.

That is one reason we have also here a hardened site—a hardened site being the T Building, which was the production building for the total production of the initiator. The T Building is what, fifty feet in the ground or thereabouts?

Mahfouz: The other side of the hill, more than that.

Sheehan: More than that. It’s also got twenty-feet thick walls?

Mahfouz: [The] Ceiling is fifteen-foot reinforced concrete that would take a two thousand pound penetrating bomb without damaging the building. The sidewalls were seventeen-foot reinforced concrete. And there was a center supporting section of three feet, it was three-foot reinforced concrete, also. The building could actually be isolated from the rest of the world for three months in the event we were shut off. Because we were paranoid—the United States was paranoid about what the Russians were going to do to us. So the building could contain the people and continue operating for three months. We had generators, water supply, food supply, and there was a small hospital unit down there. Anything you needed, we were self-sustaining at that point in time.

Hertz: But that was only half enough. Marion, Ohio.

Mahfouz: That is another story. [Laughter]

Hertz: Well, they just went over to Marion, Ohio, and built a duplicate of T Building at Marion as a backup for this facility, but it never went hot.

Mahfouz: And it was not underground.

Hertz: It was not underground, no. But that is the Marion story.

Reagan: I would like to make a little statement about the safety of radiation workers. I guess you would call this an industry, as compared to medical radiation. And everybody argues that the people in the neighborhood got cancer from living near here and boys got cancer from working here. And it always was debated that our allowable exposure limits were wrong and that they would not hold up under scrutiny. But you know, we had the radium dial painters from the mid-1930s where two places in the United States, they were painting watch dials so they would glow in the dark using radium paint. These people were licking the brushes with the radium paint [laughter] to point them so that they could paint the small dials.

Well, pretty soon in the mid-1930s, they found all these cancer cases of these radium dial painters. But when it came time for the Manhattan Project, our plutonium and polonium were alpha emitters shortwave type radiation, as was radium. So they took the records of those radium workers who had the most exposure and found no cancerous effects. Took one-tenth of that and made that our allowable limits in industry.

So if you got ten times what you were supposed to get, you probably still were safe. Our worse accident was seven times allowable, which happened I think in 1968. And I did a physical on that person in 1997, almost thirty years, and he had absolutely no sign of anything from radiation.

Also, I think it was towards the end of the 1950s, I invited the Dayton Radiological Society—these are the medical radiologists—to come down here. And I gave them a dinner and a dog and pony show. And at that time, the only medical radiation going on was the iodine-131 for thyroid problems. They were completely fascinated by the things we were doing and so from a lot of the stuff that we had done with detectors and such, we are now in this great big blaze of all kinds of nuclear medicine. But I think these early people that picked our limits and all certainly were very knowledgeable and did a great job.

Curtis: Anybody else?

Foster: Well, the one comment that I would like to make involves some of the nuclear physics involved. You might, in retrospect, wonder why we were building neutron sources. When you set one of these gadgets off, it is only in what they call “a supercritical condition” for a very short time. And during that time, you have got to throw the neutrons in there or it will not go up, and this is the whole idea. They implode this thing and it gets supercritical and the neutrons go off, and that sets the thing off. So that is the reason for having the sources as a trigger per se.

So it is rather interesting that the test they made at Alamogordo was actually a plutonium test, not a uranium test. They figured the uranium bombs would work. Those were the ones they dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. But the Alamogordo test in August [misspoke: July] of 1945 was actually a plutonium test because they did not know whether that was going to work or not.

So anyway, that is my comment.

Hertz: Well, working at Mound, I was sort of a maverick because I was in the so-called source group. And the source group had nothing to do with the initiator business except that our early neutron sources were very similar to the urchins, except that they had no coating of nickel over the polonium so they became neutron sources as we built them so we got quite a little radiation. When we moved down to the T Building here, we had a much better facility. We had glove boxes and we had two-foot thick water shields that would rise up out of the floor with windows in them so you could see the work in the hood. We did a lot with remote control to assemble these things.

And also, when we moved into the T Building, the instrumentation to test the strength of neutron sources was up in the R Building, the Research Building, and so we had to set up our own tests to determine how many neutrons were being irradiated by our sources. Well, we did a lot of work on that. In fact, I did an awful lot. And so we got to be quite experts at measuring the neutron flux that was put out by these sources, and we did some work sending sources around to the rest of AEC sites to standardize, because the other AEC sites were off as much as thirty or forty percent in their measurements of neutrons. So that was a lot of fun.

I got considerable radiation, more than lot of people. But here I am eighty-seven years old and still kicking around. And along in ’65, 1965, my mom was given the job by Seaborg—Glenn Seaborg—of making a movie for the Physical Science Study Committee of the National Science Foundation, making a movie to demonstrate that we could measure the mass of atoms. And that was loaded onto the source group, and so they came out and I went through what I could do and the upshot was I finally made a movie on the mass of atoms for the National Science Foundation.

And out of that, I think—I do not know for sure—but out of that and the fact that I had gotten a patent on polonium, rare earth elements compounds, and a composition of matter patent, why, suddenly I got in the mail a certificate that said I was a Fellow of the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And no one knew what that meant, and it did not mean anything. It is a nice thing to put on the wall. [Laughter]

But anyway, that was what we ended up with. And then later on, the source group was more or less disbanded because we ended up making a lot of plutonium-beryllium neutron sources, but the source group was sort of disbanded because the AEC Division of Industrial Participation put us out of business. They wanted to give it to outside commercial concerns. Mr. Richmond had started a neutron source manufacturing operation over at the Central Research Lab at Monsanto on Nicholas Road in Dayton. And then he left and I got saddled with coming over there and doing that job. Well, as soon as I could, I got back to Mound and spent less than a year over there. But it was successful; we made money. So that is about it.

Oh, oh, one other thing. When I was working, we had two locations in the T Building here, and then the SW Building was just originally involved in the actinium project. And our health physics supervisor there got sent with a group of health physicists to Three Mile Island when that occurred, when that accident occurred. And so when he came back, I asked him, “What happened over there?” [Laugh]

And he said, “Well, we got over there and they asked us to survey the surrounding territory. We did, and nothing was turned loose to speak of. And then we sat around in motels for two weeks and every time that the news media said they might have to evacuate eastern Pennsylvania, why the answer by the Pennsylvania Nuclear Council was ‘to sit tight. This does not mean you.’” Because nothing was happening.

Incidentally, I ran into him in, of all places, waiting in a waiting room at the New Delhi Airport in India. And we were stuck there for several hours because our plane had had mechanical problems and we could not get off. And we had quite a discussion on what happened at Three Mile Island. So that is about it.

Curtis: I remember I was in college at the time and I had called home and was talking to my mom and I said, “Well, what do you think? What is your take on the Three Mile Island?” 

And she says, “Oh, the system worked.” All of the safety things that were built into it had done their job.

Hertz: Right. But there was one person killed in that accident. It was a ten-year-old boy. His parents had sent him up into the Poconos to be safe and he drowned on a boat accident.

Essig: Well, I guess quite a lot of us have been associated with neutrons. And my first assignment under Dr. Knouse was to evaluate the neutrons coming from neutron sources. So I did that for quite a while until he recommended that I join the initiator establishment that was going to be started. And shortly after that, was sent out to Los Alamos where I got all the details and everything else regarding these initiators.

Sheehan: I want to follow up on some words that Kenny had about the initial tests, the one at Alamogordo. I have always been impressed by the fact that they knew from the get-go that the plutonium bomb would not work with the artillery or gun-style of getting the critical mass together. The uranium bomb, which was used on Hiroshima, was uranium and it was by artillery or gun where they shot a subpar mass into the larger mass. And in the case of the plutonium, it had to go by implosion. And the theorists had already decided that because of the contamination of 240-plutonium and the 239, that the artillery method would be too slow. Therefore, they had to devise the implosion method and the reason was because the implosion method was so much faster.

That brings us around to our later Phase II work here at the Mound, and that was detonators. The detonators were those explosive devices on the outside of the weapon that were simultaneously, within microseconds, set off, which would cause a basketball ball to be squeezed to the size of a golf ball. And so we were on the outside of the weapon with our detonators and we were on the inside of the weapon with our initiator. So we were on the outside and we were on the inside.

One other thing I wanted to mention about the polonium initiator. When one of our people was out west during the atmospheric tests in the early fifties, they tested a new device, which was later was known as the Nemo, and the thing worked. And this gentleman heard someone from the government AEC say, “Well, there goes Mound Laboratory,” and it almost did. [Laughter]

Reagan: My concern, of course, was mostly with the wellbeing of the employees. I want to mention that in those early days, as we were the only place dealing with polonium, we had our own biology department where we had dogs and rats and mice and did experiments of exposure on these animals. And we had a local pathologist from Dayton who would come out three afternoons a week for four hours and read the slides after they sacrificed these animals. Then also, our safety department, which is a physical safety, not the radiation safety, has always been good.

Since during the Monsanto reign, we had forty million man-hours at one time without a lost time accident, which was pretty much heralded around the DOE as being quite good. And then the health physics department, working with Medical, we worked so close and we had very few problems with our exposure people.

Incidentally, we had one fellow in the old polonium days. They talked about the polonium have a 132 day half-life. It only had about a 31 or 32 day half-life in the body. So the biological was less than the physical half-life. And we look back and he had a tremendous urine count, the most anybody ever had. And that gentleman now is something like 83 years old and does one and a half flips off of the diving board and goes to the health spa and does 500 and 600 sit-ups. So it looks like radiation might be a little helpful in the right dimensions.

Curtis: You got something for us?

Hudgens: This could be added to that, of course. It is an anecdote. Over at Central Research Monsanto, Nicholas Road, there was a chemist who was doing X-ray diffraction by the name of Arno Herzog. Arno was of strong German descent with the Western ethic of conservative Germans. And he had been with Monsanto for several years, in which he had been imbued with the unit cost ethic, which is “keep it to a minimum.” So this must have been in ’42, very early before there were any formalisms, any health rules formulated for having polonium. And he was called into his boss’s office one day and says, “We are going to be giving you a recipe here for electroplating and some platinum gauzes. And you are to do these gauzes according to this procedure and turn them in. You are not to talk about them to anybody.” Arno was not cleared.

So Arno, he did his duty very well. He would run these foils in this electroplating solution according to this formula. The electroplating solution just looked like water to him. And he would turn them in, and to his great puzzlement, the agency that received them seemed to be happy with the results. So Arno was not willing to be just knew things and never think about them. He was curious about this. So he asked his boss, “What is this stuff we are working with?”

So his boss he was working with, his boss said, “Shut up and do your work.”

Arno did not take this sort of thing lying down. So he thought about it some more and he started doing an entire analytical procedure, qualitative, right out of Reedy’s college textbook. Went through the entire periodic table, and did not find a thing in there. So he sat down and he thought about it some more. And he had done a little mathematics on this. He said, “Well, if I could see a film of such-and-such a thickness, about a quarter wavelength of light, if there is that much there, and I could estimate the mass on this foil because I could estimate the surface area of the gauze.” And he calculated the cost. He knew his time in the lab and overhead. He says it raised the hair on his head: the unit cost of that stuff is more than the GNP of the United States.

So he sat and thought about it some more. The only thing left he could not test for was radioactivity, radioactive elements. So he went in to [James] Lum, who was his boss, later went onto greater things at Monsanto, and says, “Is this stuff radioactive?”

Lum said, “No, get back to the lab.”

Well, Arno did not trust his boss. So he thought about it some more and he finally did a very elementary experiment. He lit up on of these foils one day routinely and before he left work, he laid an X-ray film out in his darkroom, put this foil on it. When he came back in the morning, he developed this film and there was a big black spot on the X-ray film. He charged into his boss’s office and said, “You lied to me.”

So as his boss turned red as a beet, picked up the telephone. In three days, Arno had his clearance. End of that story.

That was probably the earliest history of polonium in this area.

Curtis: Do any of you that were there towards the beginning remember when Arthur Compton came in?

Hertz: Yeah.

Curtis: Do you?

Hertz: Yeah, shortly after we moved with Mound, the local people were apprehensive about what might happen at Mound. And we had a big show and meeting at the high school down here in Miamisburg, and Compton came in to speak there. And they also set up a lot of demonstrations there—a ping pong pile and things like that.

But I have an anecdote, too. It is how I got in trouble with the security. Back in about 1951 or 1952, they had the [Operation] Greenhouse test on Bikini [Atoll]. And I had read in the Sunday New York Times that the thing had gone off with the four megatons power. And so I figured out—did a lot of figuring and trying to figure out what really happened there, because I knew that we had made up a capsule containing tritium to put in the center of a plutonium bomb and that was to be set off, and hopefully they would get enough indication, enhanced power, to show that the tritium was being—not fission, but had a nuclear reaction.

In the source group, we always had—Friday afternoon after we cleaned everything up, we would have a little conference there and discuss all sorts of things and what we thought might and so on. And I had brought up what might have happened at the Greenhouse. And we had a carpool there, John Burton and Ed Walfogel, who was in charge of all the bookkeeping for all the polonium. And I had mentioned this and mentioned what I had worked out on the board. All the rest of the group knew it.

And next thing I knew, I was called up by Ed McCarthy, who was in charge of our whole outfit and he said, “What happened?” And I explained why I had done it and it was all in the car in the carpool and all the people were cleared. And so he said, “Well, you got it wrong. The thing went off with ten megatons. The New York Times had underestimated it.” And so after I explained what had happened, what I had worked out there in this source group way, I was cleared. [Laugh]

Curtis: Any other stories?

Sheehan: Broadly, no discussion of Mound Lab would be complete without interjecting the part it played in the space nuclear battery program. And Ray just mentioned John Burton, I believe. John Burton and Kenny Jordan together devised and probably put together the first nuclear powered battery. And in fact, the very first satellite transmission by nuclear power was made, I do not know what year, but Eisenhower’s Christmas address to the world was powered by a polonium-beryllium heat source in a satellite.

Unidentified Male: Polonium only.

Sheehan: Yes, I am sorry, just polonium, yeah. We are away from neutrons now. It was just a polonium heat source. And so that sort of spurred a lot of work that we did in later years in the heat source business, which polonium, as well as plutonium-238, so a lot of work came to the lab by virtue of the beryllium work. Well, John and Kenny have a patent on that device. In fact, they talk about it being carried into Congress and demonstrated—rather risqué in the way it was presented to Congress. The little steam generator. Do you remember that?

Hertz: Yeah, I remember it.

Sheehan: The little steam generator?

Hertz: Yeah, I can describe it. This was done up in the Research Building. What they did was take the fanciest and most efficient toy steam engine, which were normally were powered with a kerosene flame under a boiler. And they reworked the thing with much better insulation and then they plugged 2,000 curies of polonium in rods into this steam boiler. [Laugh] And it was set up so you could take them out and put them in a heat sink when you were not running it. And then, of course, it had no injection pump, so it would run only as long as the water, as the steam lasted. But anyway, the steam engine ran and they had a little bitty generator they built. And it generated enough electricity to run one—

Hertz: And this was in the Eisenhower era, and this thing ran on Eisenhower’s desk in Washington; someone took it to Washington to demonstrate it and it actually ran. And so that is the first nuclear power generation, electricity power generation.

Foster: One of the effects of alpha radiation is, it shows up as heat. It is very easy to encapsulate it so that the radiation itself does not leak out. Alpha particles will bounce around and then it will create heat, and this is one of the things that you have on this. And one of the ways of measuring this—there was a lot of development work at the Mound on the calorimeters, which is, you would drop the source on one side of it and by various Wheatstone bridge circuitry and things of the sort, you were able to measure exactly how much heat is coming out of this, and you could correlate them with the amount material.

Well, this heat effect is a thing that they are using then on these thermoelectric generators. The invention that Jordan and Burton had was basically a thermocouple series parallel arrangement. You put the heat source on one end of it and you would actually draw power out of the thermocouples. Now this turned out to be a very practical gadget for space work and there are a lot of thermoelectric generators that have been floating around in space. For a while, that was a very viable project here at Mound. Unfortunately, with the advent of the 9/11 problem three years ago, the project was terminated here and it has been moved, I think probably out to Idaho Falls or someplace like that. The feeling that the Department of Energy had was that this space could not be held secure enough for that.

But anyway, this is a kind of a fallout from this business was that these materials get hot and we are using the heat to generate power.

Hertz: In connection with calorimetry, one of the methods of assaying polonium was to weight the platinum gauzes. So there was a whole development project here in research and the machine shop to develop a torsion balance that could weigh down to a millionth of a gram. And so they could weight the amount of polonium and they could also check the heat and do a very accurate assay.

Sheehan: On the subject of calorimetry, I do not know if any of you gentlemen recall the story where they put an ant in a cal can. 

Hertz: That is Kenny Jordan’s story.

Sheehan: Kenny Jordan’s story. Well, you know the story?

Hertz: Yeah, I know the story. To check their calorimetry, they put a little red ant about an eighth of an inch long in one of their calorimetry capsules, in one of their calorimetries, so they could measure the heat that the ant generated by running around in that thing. And he lasted a couple of weeks, I think, and then in his dying throes, he generated a peak in the heat, too.

Sheehan: Possibly another area of the Mound involvement—again, later years and nothing has much been said about it—but we were very much involved in tritium technology. And while I was not involved in the fabrication of things, I was measuring the leak rates and so forth on items that were actually made. But we had quite a high level of technological expertise in tritium containment and tritium salt bed fabrication and materials and such. It was quite, I think, strong-based, technological base we had in tritium technology. Any other gentlemen work much?

Sheehan: We got into the tritium war probably around—we had a strike here in, what, ’58 or ’59. Anyhow, they were setting up a glove box operation, called a stick job, over in SW. And they really benefited the technical people, because they went in and did things that had to be done, certain welding of items and all.

But anyhow, it was ’58 we were getting started into the tritium work and it became pretty much a mainstay product, as well as we had surveillance of returned weapons parts that were coming back to the lab for analysis of the containment and also the composition of the materials within. But tritium technology was pretty highly advanced here.

Curtis: Have we spoken at all about the development of the different types of—what am I looking at—I guess it was the Engineering Department coming up with different ways of measuring, or different types of techniques that were unique to here as far as advancing knowledge of the atomic energy or nuclear physics? I remember my mother talking about how great just the local people in electronics were, able to create things that were just marvelous.

Sheehan: Let me say one thing. I have always thought that the machining capability in this area due to our history with the automotive industry, there is a lot of machining expertise in the area. And I think that led to device making, if you will. I think it was important that we had that kind of a base here.

Mahfouz: Yeah, actually, we had a number of talents here that were unique at the Mound, one of which is we had a standards laboratory, which measured all sorts of electrical components, as well as measuring mass and volume. I cannot think of what else we did.

But our standards labs were secondary to the standards laboratory in Washington. The entire area of the standards laboratory there were on vibration-free mounts—a combination of spring and some elastomer.

And in fact, it [Dayton standards lab] was part of the VS Building, which incidentally, was built on top of the T Building. We figured fifteen-feet-thick reinforcing ought to be able to hold another building [laughter]. So that capability was there, which was somewhat unique within the sites. I believe we [Dayton] and Sandia, Albuquerque were the only two sites that were qualified as secondary standards laboratory to the standards laboratory in Washington. That was kind of a unique talent.

That was not part of the Engineering Department, though. Yeah, we did have a pretty sophisticated shop. We could make almost anything you could imagine. Eventually, we converted most of the shop to everything that was numerically controlled, computer controlled. We had a Director of Engineering who could not understand why we needed all the computer-controlled machine tools, and so my response to him at that point in time was, “The beauty of electronic-controlled machinery is when you make one part right, they will all be right and if you make one part wrong, every part thereafter is also going to be wrong.” [Laughter] So he finally, I think, got the message to that.

Having nothing to do technically, but security was obviously one of the prime considerations here at Mound at one time. It was not that way the latter days. But at one time, every employee wore a badge, obviously, but point being, there was a color-coding on the badge. And that color code allowed you to get into certain buildings. So because you had clearance here given to you by the Department of Energy, that did not mean that you could go into any building and any lab at all and see what was going on. T Building had guards. I do not know how buildings were involved but I know the T Building and I believe the R Building—

Unidentified Male: The R Building, too.

Mahfouz: The R Building. There were a number of buildings that were color-coded and your badge had to correspond to that color code so that you could get in there. This applied to everybody.

And another think I do not think we mentioned, I had forgotten the number until Dr. Reagan gave me the right answer when I asked the question. But safety was very high on Monsanto’s priority. And I think we went forty-some million man-hours without a lost time injury here at Mound. The Safety Department was very strong. Total support by management. And that is an enviable record—forty million man hours in that kind of operation that we had going on here at the Mound.

Curtis: As a kid, I remember coming in and seeing a big clock.

Mahfouz: Yeah. The other thing along that line, which Dr. Reagan had not commented on, is that our Medical Department was probably second to none. We had very competent nurses and everybody got a physical at least once a year. And in fact, I think we had a whole body counter—just in case anyone was irradiated, we could measure the amount of radioactivity that that individual may or may not have gotten. But the Medical wing was a big wing here and properly staffed, and Dr. Reagan was the head of that department, too, by the way.

Foster: Ranking along with this business of industry safety, one of the side problems that you run into when building these neutron sources and other things is the machining of beryllium. Beryllium itself is a very difficult material to work with. The oxide becomes quite toxic and it had to be done under very careful conditions. And I think there was all sorts of monitoring, wasn’t there, for this? I do not know if we ever had any major exposures or not.

Reagan: No, we never had any major exposure, but all the machines had suction above them and all so that fumes or even particles would not be airborne at all as far as the employee was concerned. And we look back on all our X-rays and everything and we never really had anybody that got anything bad from that.

You know, talking about that development thing around here, I think some of these people in Los Alamos would get an idea and they would send that to us and say, “Is it feasible?” And it if was feasible to get it into production. And as they talked, a lot of times from their ideas to actually being an operating bomb would be maybe six to eight years. And then later on in the ‘80s, when all the terrorism started and we got into the idea of safeguards, then we had a lot of things going on with pyrotechnics where it could burn up the circuitry if somebody pushed some wrong buttons and all. And that was a big development that came from somebody’s ideas, and we developed the whole thing.

Hertz: In the field of pioneering and technology, one of the things that was developed was the quartz fiber microbalance. And to make it, part of it was a quartz fiber that was the torsion element, was stretched between two poles. And so a machine was developed to draw quartz fibers and make it draw up miles of quartz fibers. And this was sort of a forerunner to the optical fiber cables that lace around the United States and carries all our information.

And also, one of the best machinists we had here who could work down to ten-thousandths of an inch or better and had his hand in all these things was Howard DuFour. And Howard DuFour moved from here to the Dayton lab over on Nicholas Road and from there he retired and starting an instrument machining operation for Wright State University. And then he retired from that, and he went up to the Ford Museum in Detroit and using the original Wright Brothers jigs and things like that, he built an engine identical with the 1903 Wright Brothers, and that is up in the Ford Museum.

Then he came back here. The Dunbar Library at Wright State has a big rotunda and he headed a project to build a facsimile of the 1903 Wright flyer and that hangs in this rotunda over at Wright State. So he was really a jewel.

Curtis: The name again?

Hertz: Howard DuFour—D-U-F-O-U-R. He has written a book and was very close to Tom Creutz of the Air and Space Museum in Washington. And he is sort of fundamental to the Wright brothers’ [laugh] operation.

Sheehan: Kind of going back and forth on subjects here, but one of the things I thought was always somewhat of a detriment for Mound was its non-exposure, if you will. Because of the high level of secrecy of the early part of the Project that people never knew we existed. And many times, they were surprised to even find we were here.

Case in point, I was kind of involved in this—you have got to remember back in about ’66, we lost a couple nuclear weapons over in the Mediterranean Sea. That was called the Palomares Incident. In other words, Palomares was off the coast of Spain, and one of the weapons went in the sea and the other one landed on the ground.

Well, how did that affect Mound? Well, the Wright-Patterson had a lab out there that was in charge of all of the symmetry and monitoring of Air Force personnel. And so in other words, film, badges, urine samples and all that from all over the Air Force all over the world, was sent to Wright-Patterson to be analyzed. Well, after that incident, a fellow who was in charge of the lab, his name was Colonel Odlin, he called Los Alamos and wanted help. And the fellow out there who got the call was named Morris Milligan. He said, “Well, you got help right there,” he says. So he gave him Harold Kirby’s name. He says, “You call Harold Kirby.”

Well, Harold then called me. So he says, “That is not my responsibility.” He dumped it off on me. So I was running the bio-assay lab at the time and we ended up doing most of the samples that came out of the Palomares that were shipped back. The Air Force lab had never got up to speed on running plutonium assays. So they were shipped back and we ran those samples from the cleanup crews and everything from Palomares for about three months. But again, here was Wright-Patterson out here, and the guy did not know we existed hardly. Never had heard of us. We almost died on the vine back in ’53.

Mahfouz: Yeah, along the line of not knowing what we were doing—when a lot of the radioactive work, the Manhattan Project work, was declassified, Dayton’s portion or part of that entire program did not get declassified until 1983. And therefore, until after that, no one had even heard of Dr. Thomas, and he played a major role in the Manhattan Project, but because of the classification problem, he was never really recognized for his contribution. And that is why Mound Lab did not get much notoriety either, except when we had a little action down at the canal one time.

Sheehan: Yeah, I know a little bit about that, too. Someone correct me if I am wrong. You are familiar with the term “barn,” cross-section?

Multiple Speakers: Yes, yeah.

Sheehan: Did Dr. Thomas have something to do with that?

Hertz: Well, I think it arose at Oak Ridge, but a barn is ten to the minus twenty-fourth square centimeter.

Sheehan: How do you know? [laughter]

Hertz: Because I worked out a lot of stuff on reactions.

Mahfouz: How you measure it?

Hertz: Well, you measure it by reactions that occur.

Sheehan: It is a probability.

Hertz: Yeah, every nucleus has so many barns cross-section for neutrons to do fission and things like that. And I did some work, which was not unofficial work, on working out the amount of radiation time for bismuth slugs and so on and reactors with a given flux and that sort of thing.

Sheehan: Well, the story I remember—I do not know if it is true or not—but someone theorized that they knew how they came up with the term “barn.” They stood back so far and threw a ball and if you hit the barn, there was so many probabilities that you would hit the side of the barn.

Hertz: I am not sure of that at all.

Sheehan: I thought it came from Dr. Thomas on the original concept.

Hertz: Well, and in nuclear weapons, a microsecond is a wink and so on. There were a lot of terms like that.

Mahfouz: Shake. The shake was a microsecond.

Hertz: Oh, well, then a wink was a tenth of a microsecond or something like this.

Mahfouz: No, the shake was a Los Alamos term.

Hertz: Yeah, and I think the wink was too.

Foster: This is completely different. Looking at this thing, we did a lot of work with bismuth. This has absolutely nothing to do with any of the projects that we had here but it shows you one of the physical characteristics of bismuth itself. It builds very neat single crystals, or crystal materials, which provide rotary, square, corners, things like that, and it makes very attractive decorations. The crystalline structure itself has no function to any of the projects we did here other than to keep a lot of managers happy who had one in their office. But this is a bismuth multiple crystal display.

Sheehan: Back to the initiator. I believe I have read that the Klaus Fuchs case out of Los Alamos had a lot to do with the design of the initiator. Any of you gentlemen recall reading that?

Unidentified Male: No.

Mahfouz: I am not aware of it.

Sheehan: I recall reading that it [the initiator] was part of the technology that was passed onto the Russians.

Hertz: Speaking of security, we had a problem with the neutron source group because no one was supposed to know that neutron sources were being made here at Mound. So every time we had a source ready for shipment, we wrote a letter of transmittal, and that went to the Atomic Energy Commission office up here. And they rewrote it and the neutron source then was shipped under security to Oak Ridge and the letter went down. And then they wrote a letter with all the specs on it and shipped it out and no one knew it came from Mound.

Unidentified Male: I laughed in a way years after being over here that anything that came out of Mound always said, “According to AEC spokesman, Ethan Walker.” I thought Ethan Walker was the only person that worked here. [laughter]

[End of Discussion]

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