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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Norman Hilberry’s Interview (1965) – Part 1

Physicist Norman Hilberry was Arthur H. Compton’s right-hand man at the Chicago Met Lab, serving as associate director and handling administration. Later in the war, he would often go back and forth from Chicago to Hanford. Hilberry recalls being present at the start-up of the B Reactor, its mysterious failure, and the rush to try to figure out what had caused the reactor to shut down. He also discusses his role in selecting Oak Ridge as the site for the pilot plutonium production plant and working with Eugene Wigner and DuPont on the design and operation of the plutonium production plants.

Date of Interview:
March 7, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: Yes, now we’re recording, Dr. Hilberry.

Norman Hilberry: I think Dale Babcock’s paper is a real addition to the overall literature on the subject, because that period which led up to the discovery of the Xenon had never really been gotten down on paper before. The things that happened in Wilmington, John A. Wheeler’s continual concern—you see, Wheeler was the one individual who was, of the group, who was willing to go to Wilmington. He went down and gave new courses and really indoctrinated them into what it was all about, and worked with them on the design. John was always afraid of fission poisons. Well, of course, he didn’t anticipate the one that really rose up to bite things. Nevertheless, it was his continual concern that caused DuPont to be so conservative in the size of the unit that they set.

The one place that, in Dale’s story, when the crisis finally did arise at Hanford on the B Pile, Wheeler was aware immediately that this looked like—

Groueff: Poisoning.

Hilberry: A poisoning effect, and so did Fermi. The two of them, independently, to all intents and purposes, simultaneously, came up with the solution as to what it was about. One of the boys that was the shift supervisor at the time this happened was the first one to state clearly that he was convinced that this was a poison. I can’t remember his name. Maybe Babcock or Hood Worthington would remember which one it was. But he sat there and plotted the decrease in reactivity as a function of time on semi-log paper, which was just lying around, and came out with the straight line. So he was quite convinced that this was some sort of a poison. Of course, as we started to get the thing up to some sort of power, it’d just start and die. And they kept taking the control rods out and control rods out until they were all out, and it kept on dying.

Groueff: Were you there, present?

Hilberry: Yeah, and since we had been so aware of the possibilities of sabotage and so forth, one was concerned as to whether or not this was a sabotage or whether there was some sort of a leak, one of the tubes had sprung a leak and water was getting into the moderator. As a result, one was getting some sort of absorption because you couldn’t stand very much water in those piles. That was one reason that the hand-cooling units were so small. The water itself absorbed enough neutrons so that you were in trouble if you got a leak and water started getting out in the rest of the pile. Then there was, as I say, the sabotage possibility that somebody had dumped some sort of an absorber somewhere into the water system and it was getting into the pile.

She kept right on dying. That was all there was to it. We started in taking scrapings out of the inside of the tubes and rushing them over to the spectrographic laboratory to analyze to see if there was boron or something else that had been dumped in, all the rest of this. Of course, in the meantime, when the power went down, then of course, the rate at which you were making this poison decreased. So the poison started to disappear.

I remember I’d been down at the lab area and came back out about midnight to see what was going on, because the tests that they had been running on possible poisons didn’t show anything. And as I walked in, one of the boys that had been assigned out there from Chicago—he is down at Duke University now, he’s on the ACRS [Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards], actually. I commented and he said, “All it needed is a master’s touch.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

He said, “Oh, it’s coming back as soon as I come on duty.” And, sure enough, the reactivity was again beginning to build up.

Well, it was during that night that both Wheeler and Enrico Fermi pinned down—and, of course, the thing that startled them was the enormous cross section of the Xenon. Because this was just clear out of anything that anybody had any experience with at all. Then the question was, you see, we had loaded just enough to be above critical, and this had turned out to be quite satisfactory. I’ve forgotten, it was 900, some 900 tubes, 1000, the record is there somewhere. But it was a relatively small number of the tubes to get to criticality. And then as soon as it was clear that this was a poison that was being generated by the operation, then the question was, did we have enough tubes to go up to full power?

Groueff: In spite of the—?

Hilberry: In spite of the poison. To override the poison. And so then there was a mad struggle to get more and more fuel to get the thing loaded, to clear up. It was clear that there would be some power level, you see, at which it would work. When we started up the second time, after we were clear what it was, you could carry it up to a power level that it would run at. But it was such a low power level, you never would’ve made enough plutonium in time to do anything with it as compared with what it was supposed to do. The question was, what would be the top operating level that you could operate at? It turned out that the conservatism that had been built into it due to this concern of Wheeler’s was just adequate to take care of the thing.

Groueff: Because the DuPont people left some extra space.

Hilberry: Oh, yeah. It was arbitrary. You didn’t know, you made a good guess at what the critical size would be. But in those days, if there was any question, you played it conservatively. Almost invariably, in the early days, things went critical at a smaller size than had been estimated. This was because everybody was conservative in their estimates of what the cross sections would be and so on and so forth. It turned out the materials were better than they had dared hope for, so it went critical at a smaller size. Your result was that when you designed the size of this thing, okay, it was going to be impossible to make it bigger later, so you might as well be sure it was big enough at the beginning.

Groueff: And that saved them.

Hilberry: And that saved the situation.

Groueff: But if you didn’t have this extra space, the whole reactor had to be remodeled?

Hilberry: Well, what it would’ve meant would’ve been that you would’ve just had to operate at a lower power level, which meant a lower plutonium production rate. This could’ve been serious enough so it would’ve taken ten, twenty times as long or 100 times as long, you see, depending on how badly off you had been. Leslie R. Groves, of course, was vitally concerned.

Groueff: They called him, huh?

Hilberry: Yeah. Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias’s office let him know almost immediately. I’ve forgotten. It was something like a seventy-two hour period. I’ve forgotten. You see, I had no operating responsibilities out there at all. After we first discovered it, as I remember, I did go to bed long about 2:00. About 4:00 Matthias’s guys, including Roy Hageman, barged into the bedroom, wanted to know what this was all about and what should they do and what should they tell the general, so on and so forth. I gave up and got up, and then I decided I would just stay out at the plant. So, I didn’t go to bed again for—

Groueff: For the next two days.

Hilberry: —several, yeah, it was something like that, but because—

Groueff: Were you really worried? Everybody was very—

Hilberry: Oh, sure. We had to figure out what on earth this was all about. And the one thing I could contribute would be continuity, you see.

Groueff: So, supervise the—?

Hilberry: Well, just to be there, because the other guys, obviously, had to go home. The ones that were running it had to go home and get to bed and get some sleep. You had three shifts going, and if I stayed there, well then there’s a chance observation here, I could, if something came up two shifts later, why, there was somebody that had been there—

Groueff: So, you practically lived there?

Hilberry:—to say, “Oh, yes, this.”

Groueff: Or you slept there?

Hilberry: So, I just lived, oh, I didn’t sleep, but then I didn’t need to, you see. The other guys had to.

Groueff: And, Fermi was there at Hanford. He didn’t come—

Hilberry: Oh, no, he went out. This was one of the things that DuPont insisted on. They wanted Fermi, and Fermi was a reasonable requirement. So, he went out and lived there, through the whole startup period. Of course, this was fascinating. He went out under some—

Groueff: Name, assumed name.

Hilberry: “Farmer,” yeah, it was that. He was Mr. Farmer. Then Eugene Wigner came out to visit, was there just a matter of a few days. They gave Wigner some peculiar name, simply because they didn’t want these names out on the record anywhere. What was it, Eugene’s name was?

Well, by this time, of course, the guards had gotten to know Fermi very well. They had complete reliance on him. So Fermi and Wigner started out through the gate and as the guards did upon occasion, particularly when there was somebody they didn’t recognize, what should they do but challenge Eugene and ask him for identification. Well, of course, he had no identification under this cockeyed name. Fermi, without the slightest hesitation at all, he said, “Oh, I can vouch for Mr. Wagner.” He said, “His name is Wagner just as much as mine is Farmer.” The guard said, “Well, thank you, Mr. Farmer” and he walked on through.

Groueff: Well, wasn’t Fermi there, also present when this happened?

Hilberry: No, he was not at the—

Groueff: Because he was more as the designer—the reactor was his scheme.

Hilberry: Well, Eugene—well, this was hard to say. Actually, the water design originated with Eugene Wigner and his crew of boys. We had, by December of ’42, we had what was called the “Mae West” practically designed.

Groueff: Which one was the Mae West?

Hilberry: This was the gas-cooled reactor.

Groueff: The one in Oak Ridge?

Hilberry: No, this was a production reactor. We had assumed from the measurements on the multiplication concept that we had so little margin to work with that water would be just utterly impossible. Because the hydrogen in the water, if you just used normal water, the hydrogen itself would provide such a poison that you would just have no way of overriding—that you didn’t have enough margin to work with. So that as early as, oh, must have been, certainly no later than March, they started in on the design of a helium-cooled reactor, graphite moderator, but helium-cooled, because the helium would do no absorbing so that you would be in a position in which you could have the maximum amount of reactivity.

This was to be graphite-cooled, graphite-moderated, helium-cooled. It consisted of three spheres or parts of them, the top one to be a plenum chamber and through which you could load and unload. The tubes would be vertical, you see. And then the bottom one would take care of the discharge of the fuel from the reactor. Actually, the boiler plate, the plate for these spheres was ordered and was rolled so that after we had the first reactor running, the CP-1, we’d be in a position to move fast on the detailed design and all the rest of it to go ahead with this gas-cooled reactor.

DuPont had been looking over the designs. Well, of course, there were the problems of loading and unloading in these spheres, and the mechanical equipment you needed would have to operate at high temperature and all the rest of it. So, it was a rather elaborate and somewhat complicated design. Incidentally, have you seen Miles Leverett yet?

Groueff: No.

Hilberry: Well, Miles Leverett is another one that you, that you must include, because Miles was one of the first engineers on the thing.

Groueff: From DuPont?

Hilberry: No, he was—

Groueff: From Chicago?

Hilberry: No, he was from Humble Oil.

When CP-1 came in with more reactivity than we had expected and critical size was smaller, and obviously, our materials were improving continually, Wigner then said, “Now, look, we’ve got enough excess reactivity to use water cooling.” It was Wigner and Al Weinberg and Gale Young and that crew that came up with the water-cooled design. Well, of course, Fermi didn’t care whether it was water-cooled or gas-cooled or what. If there was enough reactivity to do water and this was a simpler way to cool, as it obviously would be, and gave a similar design—

Groueff: So, he wasn’t personally involved with the design of the cooling, Fermi?

Hilberry: This was DuPont. And, so actually, what was done was to turn over to DuPont the first or second week in January of ’43, the two designs. The water one was sketchy; the other one, the gas-cooled one, was in fairly good detail. The DuPont people made the decision to build the water-cooled one on the basis of the data. Because we started exponential piles immediately then, started doing exponential piles with water included, aluminum tubes and water to see what sort of decay we were going to get. Because, now we knew from the gas-cooled variety what one could expect, because we’d gotten a reactor running. This fixed the number so that you could move with some sureness. It became clear that if you kept that annulus for the water small enough and could run the water through fast enough, that, okay, you could have enough reactivity to actually work. DuPont decided that the simplicity of the once-through water was so much greater than the—

Groueff: The gas?

Hilberry: —than the complication in the gas system that the chances of being able to make it work would be very much greater. Since the numbers that were coming in indicated that one could do it, they decided to go ahead with the water-cooled system rather than the gas-cooled. I don’t know what happened to the steel. It was left in the yards, and the gas-cooled one then just died completely. They went on then with the water-cooled machine.

It was at about this time then, that Wheeler went to DuPont. And, as I say, he was concerned about the Samarium poisoning in particular, and goodness knows what else. The Samarium would’ve been a long-term buildup, relatively speaking, whereas this other one was short-term. Bur this concern was built in throughout his entire—as the Babcock paper shows—from the very beginning. And, oh, there are various stories, from Babcock, various stories of how it was set just at the number that it was set at. But apparently, of course, with scientists, the difficulty is to ever get them to settle on any number. They always want to leave it flexible.

Well, if you’re going to design and build something, you can only be flexible so long. The chap then serving as the administrative coordinator for the DuPont technical group, I gather was the one who said, “Look, it’s going to be 2024,” or whatever it was, “tubes, period. This is settled.” That was the way it happened to be that number. Well, apparently, they had some that were a little bit larger and some a little bit smaller, and he just chose one size and said, “Now, this decision is made. Go on from here.”

But the amazing thing was that, really, as you look back at it, that there weren’t more problems of this kind that show up. You take a little electric motor, you know, and we can do lots of things with that. But you try to jump from a quarter-horse motor to one of these big central station power stations, the generator, and it’s a very different problem there. While, sure, the inductive effects are there in a small motor, if you break the circuit suddenly, nothing much happens. You get a little spark. But you take one of these generators, and, well, the electric motors went up and generators went up by modest steps and as these problems appeared, they were gotten under control and so on and so forth.

Groueff: But, in your case, you had to jump from laboratory—?

Hilberry: In our case, we had to jump—

Groueff: —to mass production?

Hilberry: —from the toy motor to the central station power plant.

Groueff: I had the feeling in reading some of the books that at the beginning, the Chicago group scientists, or some of them, when they learned that DuPont or the industrial people will take it over from the lab and translate it to the big scale, there was some resentment or some feeling of regret. They wanted to run the show.

Hilberry: Well, it wasn’t that they run the show. They were just convinced that they could do the job a lot better than the industrial people could do.

Groueff: But did they have any experience with industrial methods?

Hilberry: [Eugene] Wigner was originally a chemical engineer and did have some experience, not with that magnitude of thing. Of course, this goes back into the very roots of training of a physicist. A physicist, in the old days at least, physics is clearly the simplest of all the sciences. This is just so, because in general you can separate your variables, you know what the variables are. You can test your hypotheses clearly without, and know what you’re getting. Even get into chemistry, there are many cases you can’t separate the variables, really. The result is, it takes lots more experimental work to check out what you’re doing.

Well, physics is nice and clean, you know what you’re doing. That fact builds a certain confidence, and moreover, in the old days, folks just didn’t get degrees unless they demonstrated that they were perfectly capable of standing on their own feet, period. You don’t take other people’s word for things unless you check it out yourself and are convinced that they are right. It builds a kind of independence, or it did. I don’t know, where one has these big group operations now days, whether this will follow the way it used to. But unless a guy just really stood on his own and proved that he could handle it himself, regardless of what the difficulties arose, you just didn’t get anywhere.

This crew were all people of this brand. They’d gotten to the positions in the field through their own abilities. They’d been faced with all sorts of difficulties and they’d found solutions for them. Now, they were not always the best possible solutions. It was aside from the point. At least they got them. There wasn’t any question in their minds that if they went ahead and did it, that they’d get it done. They were perturbed, and very rightly so, that here were a group of people coming in that didn’t understand—they couldn’t understand the basic fundamentals of this business.

Groueff: The scientific side, the theoretical?

Hilberry: Upon which the success or failure of the thing as a whole would depend. Never having had any experience in cooperative work with engineers, as most of them had not, there was a deep and a very honest concern that bringing in a group of people who just couldn’t possibly be brought to a point of full understanding of what this whole thing was about. Turning over major responsibility for construction and design to such a group was asking for disaster. It was not that they had any illusions that they would turn out a masterful, polished mechanism, but, by gosh, they’d turn out something that worked, because they knew at every point what to look for and what to be prepared for in the actual design itself.

Groueff: They were resentful?

Hilberry: They were concerned.

Groueff: Concerned.

Hilberry: I wouldn’t say resentful, they were concerned.

Groueff: But, who? Most of the older, I mean, the established ones? Because you had a lot of very young physicists.

Hilberry: Well, of course, yeah, but they would take their lead from the seniors.

Groueff: Who were the main members of the team at that time? Fermi and Wigner, [Leo] Szilard?

Hilberry: Yes, largely, and [Samuel] Allison. I think Allison was somewhat less concerned about the, well, I think Allison had had a little more contact with—

Groueff: Industry?

Hilberry: —engineers, at least. Though Sam was concerned, he wasn’t quite as volatile as some of the others. But it was not resentment. It was—

Groueff: Concern.

Hilberry: It was real concern, because you have to keep this thing painted against this everlasting terror of being a day too late. One day could make the difference. The boys were convinced that if you started to do a polished engineering job, which they knew was what DuPont would do, that here would be a day here and a day there. Whereas, they would go out and they’d just build it. These other folks couldn’t until they had drawings approved and all this sort of thing, and it was a matter of the time.

Groueff: Yeah, but the magnitude, you never had any experience in some enormous thing like Hanford’s.

Hilberry: This is true, but—

Groueff: You could employ other people to do it, huh?

Hilberry: Yes, and self-confidence is—when it’s been proven out, is self-confidence.

Groueff: Was [Arthur H.] Compton also thinking—

Hilberry: No.

Groueff: —on the same line?

Hilberry: No. Compton had had so much experience with Westinghouse and with General Electric both, that he was well aware that this just could not be done unless you had a major talent available in the engineering. His patience and just quietly insisting in spite of everything—

Groueff: The tempers, oh, yeah.

Hilberry: —and so forth, was the saving grace of the overall situation.

Groueff: Who took the decision, actually? Groves?

Hilberry: Actually, the decision was made early.

Groueff: Before asking you, I mean, I see.

Hilberry: Before anybody, because [Vannevar] Bush had made the decision when OSRD [the Office of Scientific Research and Development] was set up, that Eger Murphree was going to oversee all pilot plant or production, and that when it came to production, it was going to be turned over to the military to do.

Groueff: I see.

Hilberry: So that decision had been made before any experimental work started. Now, for very good reasons, you don’t always annoy people with unnecessary detail, and there was just no point of raising this business and getting everybody upset so they wouldn’t get any work done. You’d just go ahead and do the work—

Groueff: And, when the moment come—?

Hilberry: —and then when the moment comes—well, I can remember, we went out, Tom Moore and Dick Doan [Richard L. Doan] and myself, to try to find a site for a pilot plant. Apparently, the boys at SAM [Substitute Alloy Materials Lab at Columbia University] did the same thing. I hadn’t known that at the time. But we were told by the War Production Board that the only three places—if we were going to require large amounts of power, and obviously we were, and needed water, that there were just three places in the country in which we could look for a site.

One of them was on the Grand Coulee area, one was down in the Hoover Dam area, and the other was in Tennessee. Well, you take a look at the map and the distances; we wanted to keep the pilot operation just as close to the laboratory as possible. So we were assigned the task of finding a suitable location. Now, we took a look at some of the country down there in the sand dunes, but here were four major railroad lines within a quarter of a mile. Somehow or other, this was not looked upon with favor of building a new atomic plant within a quarter of a mile of four major railroads, so that if you had any difficult it would ruin all of the transportation of the country.

And, so we went down to Tennessee, and there was a chap by the name of [Albert] Fry, who was Director of Research for TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] at that time. We told him what our needs were and he said we wanted the most godforsaken spot that could be found that still had power or we could bring power in, that had water and had a railroad siding or we could bring siding in. 

We started out and they hadn’t any rain for a long time, until just a few days before we got there, and then they’d had about six inches a day or something like this. That Kentucky clay, we pounded around through this, and he took us in various places, and finally we ended up at what was known as the Elza Gate, where the Clinch River came in. Here were two railroad lines that take care of transportation, and the power was available. We were quite sure God had never invented anything that was more desolate than this. So we said, “We can drive a stake in here, this is it.”

Groueff: And that was Oak Ridge.

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: The Engineer Works?

Hilberry: Yeah. Apparently, the boys from Columbia had gone through much of the same sort of thing, and because as I understand it now, we turned our report into [Col. Kenneth D.] Nichols and [Col. James C.] Marshall. We did this the end of March of ’42. By the middle of April, we had a report with pictures and all the rest of it, you know, analyzing various possible sites.

Groueff: And that was a completely empty area?

Hilberry: Well, there were a few houses.

Groueff: But nothing of the Manhattan Project yet.

Hilberry: Nothing, no, because there wasn’t anything. It was still OSRD. When Nichols and Marshall showed up, one of the first things that we did was to hand over this report on the site. Since two of us had come up with the same recommendation, they just decided to go ahead. Where we had thought of a fairly small package, they went in for the whole business.

Well, one thing: there was another thing, of course, another difference that caused this concern. It was clear that all of the scientific crew were thinking in terms of a bomb, or perhaps two.

Groueff: I see.

Hilberry: Because, clearly, this was going to be such a devastating weapon that—

Groueff: You didn’t need the mass production.

Hilberry: —you didn’t need more than just one or two of them and this would do the job. When Marshall and Nichols first showed up in May or June of ’42, this was the basis of the scientists’ thinking, was that this, if it works at all, is such a massive weapon, so destructive, that the psychological impact of a single bomb is all that’s needed. Certainly, you don’t need more than one or two.

After we had had the first session—see, we held meetings weekly or biweekly, in which all of the scientific leaders met there in Chicago. We brought them in from California, from MIT, from all over everywhere. This group would report on what they had accomplished during the week, and then everybody would make their own plans as to what to do in the next week in terms of what had shown up the previous week.

The first meeting that Marshall and Nichols attended, Marshall took me aside afterwards, and he said, “Now, look, Hilberry,” he said, “There’s clearly one major problem here that somehow has got to be straightened out.” He said, “It seems clear to me that all of you folks are talking, are thinking in terms of making one or two bombs.”

I said, “Yes, that’s quite right.”

He says, “It’s quite wrong.”

Groueff: Marshall?

Hilberry: Yeah. he said, “There is one fundamental principle in military matters which,” he said, “I don’t care how fantastic this device might be, is not going to be violated.And he said, “That is, that it is one’s ability to continue delivering a weapon that determines whether the weapon is useful”. He said, “if you folks succeeded in making one bomb, I can assure you it would never be used”. 

Groueff: He stated it that strongly, huh?

Hilberry: He said, “The only basic principle on which the military can operate is their ability to continue to deliver.” He said, “You’ve got to sit down and get reoriented. The thing we’re talking about is not a number of bombs. What we’re talking about is production capacity to continue delivering bombs at a given rate.” And he said, “That, you will discover, is a very different problem.”

Groueff: It was quite new to you, no?

Hilberry: Well, yes, it was. Sure, I wasn’t willing to settle for one, you might need a half a dozen. But it was clear that half a dozen was going to mess things up for anybody to the point in which it would pretty well take care of them. But of course, what the Army was looking at was that this is just one incident in history, and after you’ve once used these, you can’t sit around without any. You’re going to have to keep on making them, because this is this year, but we’re going to around twenty years, fifty years and 100 years. And the only thing on which one can depend is productive capacity. Some of the boys were just never willing to accept the concept that more than—

Groueff: One or two.

Hilberry: —one or two were going to be necessary. And, consequently, their concern was very real, because in order to build productive capacity—

Groueff: That’s different from—

Hilberry: —well, it’s going to take very much longer than to build one or two devices. DuPont, of course, having supplied the military for years, were very well aware that nothing but productive capacity would be wanted. It was, again, a matter of judging these times. Suppose Germany just made one or two and dumped them on us? If they dumped them in the proper places, probably we would collapse. What good was it for us to be building a capability of building one a week or one a day or what have you, if in so doing it took so much time, the other folks—

Groueff: You give the Germans time.

Hilberry: —the other folks could dump one in ahead of time and essentially eviscerate the whole results of the work? It was this kind of concern that was at the basis. It was not resentment.

Groueff: But, you personally, at the beginning, did you share this concern or you shared the confidence of you?

Hilberry: Oh, I was convinced that we were going to need engineering help after I took my first look at a big power plant. We talked glibly about a 1000-megawatt unit. I took a look at a 50-megawatt unit, 50,000-watt unit, and decided that maybe a little engineering help would not become amiss.

Groueff: So, you were not one of the over-confident of the group?

Hilberry: No, but I understood perfectly well what their concern was. So did Compton. We knew perfectly well what their concern was and why and sympathized with it. But, on the other hand, we also knew perfectly well that if the military said they weren’t going to use one, period, then they weren’t going to use one, period. And, if one’s going to be realistic, one might just as well face the fact that if it’s productive capacity you’re got to build, well, then you’re going to have to build productive capacity. And, for that, obviously, knowledge of operations is just as important as the technology of getting the thing, because an operation has to be run by operators.

Groueff: How were you organized there in Chicago? Could you describe me from the physical—where you were located and how many people and who and how did you work?

Hilberry: Well, in March, in March of that year—well, you see, when we first started out, there was the group at Columbia, there was a group at Princeton, there was a group in Chicago.

Groueff: In ’42?

Hilberry: This was in ’41.

Groueff: ’41.

Hilberry: The secrecy that had been self-imposed by the group was more or less crippling, because they really, due to their geographic separation, didn’t know what each other was doing. Consequently—communication is the life blood of research, and with the communication stopped, why, the whole system of development was really just sort of staggering. Everybody agreed that it had to be pulled together in one place. Well, what? Clearly, the diffusion didn’t have to be pulled together with the plutonium.

[Ernest] Lawrence felt that the plutonium work and the electromagnetic should probably be at one place, but the more one considered it, the more one decided that probably wasn’t necessary either. Lawrence agreed that he probably—[Glenn] Seaborg, this crew of folks that had been doing the chemistry of 94 and so forth were all out at Berkeley, and Lawrence would’ve kind of liked to have had the whole thing at Berkeley. They had an organization, and we had nothing in Chicago, literally, and at least he had a laboratory. It wasn’t very extensive in those days, but it had the makings of—

Groueff: Organization, yes.

Hilberry: —organization. Well, the other three groups, the actual chain reaction groups, all agreed that the work should all be pulled together. Those at Columbia, that it should be pulled together at Columbia, and those at—

Groueff: That was Fermi in Columbia.

Hilberry: Yeah, Fermi and Szilard and [Herbert] Anderson and [Walter] Zinn and that whole crew were at Columbia. The folks at Princeton, Wigner and his gang felt that it should be pulled together at Princeton.

Groueff: Who was the third group?

Hilberry: The Chicago group.

Groueff: That was [Arthur H.] Compton?

Hilberry: That was [Samuel] Allison. No, I had been out there doing cosmic ray work. I had had a sabbatical leave and had been out doing cosmic ray work. And, then we went down to, that Summer of ’41, we went down on a State Department goodwill tour to measure cosmic rays in Latin America.

Compton explored the possibilities of getting someone in the industrial outfits that would have administrative backup to support the thing. But they were already getting in over their ears, particularly after December 7th, it was clear they were going to have their hands full with their own business. He made his final decision. Both Princeton and Columbia assured him that they would be glad to support the project. 

Groueff: The project, yeah.

Hilberry: It was very largely on this basis that he decided, “Well, okay, I’ve got to make a decision. We’re going to move to Chicago.” Well, of course, folks weren’t very happy with this, Princeton and Columbia. Though, they didn’t fight it, and we agreed that they would finish up the work that was in progress and then they would move to Chicago as fast as they got their things finished up.

But of course, then we started taking over buildings piecemeal. We took over the physics/math building first, and the mathematicians, moving them out of their building was a rather serious thing. But on the other hand, they were good about it, they moved.

Groueff: Now, who was taking this, the President of the University?

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: Compton had the free hand to do what?

Hilberry: We just simply told them we had to have this space, and then the university backed us up in trying to get it freed up. We took over all of Ryerson and all of Echkart. This meant the physics department had to be moved out.

Groueff: All those buildings are on the same campus in Chicago?

Hilberry: Yeah, these were right there close together. We had the cyclotron building, which was an old power house and dated way back but it had been turned over to laboratory work. Then we took over the space under the West Stands, because it had a big squash racquets court, which would make a good place to do exponential experiments and things of this kind. In March of ’42, we had forty-five employees at Chicago, total.

Groueff: So, scientists?

Hilberry: Forty-five people. This included the guards that we’d hired and it included the telephone operators and everybody. But we had people that were going to be transferring in, and by July, we had something like 1,250.

Groueff: From 45 to 12—?

Hilberry: And then, of course, it just went right on up. I’ve forgotten, I think we were up to about 2,500 by, oh, the Spring of 1943. Then, of course, we transferred a lot of people back down to Clinton Labs, because the University, again, said, “Okay, if you say so, all right.” The University took the contract for the X-10 operation, because DuPont said, “This is not our business.” It was raised as to whether they would take over the pilot operation. They said, “We’ll help, but we won’t run it. This is your baby. If it goes on to production, then, okay, we’ll take the responsibility for that. But this part of it, we’ll help all we can, but this is your baby.” So we had the contract down there.

We had built up again after the cutback, after the transfer, we built back up to something like 2,500 again in ’44, the Spring of ’44. And, then we sent another group up to Hanford, which was not as large.

Groueff: All the buildings in the meantime were guarded with security?

Hilberry: Oh, lord, yes.

Groueff: Since the beginning?

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: So, each time you moved, you got new buildings for the mathematics—?

Hilberry: We got some more guards and more—

Groueff: And guards, and so it was secret immediately.

Hilberry: Oh, yes, well, it had been secret, you see, before, because the scientists themselves, as I say, their security system was so secure that it really hampered the work. Because it was essentially no direct communication unless people just actually got on the train or an airplane and went and visited. The business of written reports, they’d get stamped “Secret” and locked away and even the guy that wrote them couldn’t get them back again. These boys, you see, had lived under the circumstances of, in Europe, in which the value of secrecy was well understood. They were much more keenly aware of the need for it, the foreign-born people, than we were ourselves. We sort of thought it was—

Groueff: Unnecessary or exaggerated.

Hilberry: —well, exaggerated, but these others were just as insistent on secrecy where it made sense as the General himself. Now, their concepts of secrecy didn’t always agree, but—

Groueff: But the principle.

Hilberry: —the principle, the understanding of the need was just universal.

As far as organization is concerned, of course, we were in terrible shape, because both the proximity fuse project had been built up and staffed before the war, before December 7, and the radar business at MIT had been built up and staffed, and this had put a very heavy drain on—

Groueff: The proximity fuse was where?

Hilberry: It was at Johns Hopkins and at the Bureau of Standards.

Groueff: And, the radar was MIT, yeah.

Hilberry: So when we started out trying to staff, we were faced with very, very real problems. As I say, we had nothing to go with. I would take over personnel to try to get something done, until I could get somebody to be head of personnel, and to take over purchasing. Well, that one only lasted a couple of days until we shanghaied a guy from campus to take over purchasing.

At first, the university was inclined to think that this ought to be handled within the University facilities. Well, we had that knock-down, drag-out in a hurry, because it was clear to us that you’d never get anywhere with that sort of nonsense. So, we got our own purchasing, and so it went.

We faced up to the fact that we just simply had to have a big biology program, radiation biology, and have it fast. We had a couple of M.D.s that we’d been using just for physical exams and things of this kind. Compton said, “Look, you’re head of the health division until you find somebody to take it.” Well, we ended up with two heads for it.

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.