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Norman Hilberry’s Interview (1965) – Part 2

Manhattan Project Locations:

Dr. Norman Hilberry was a physicist and the right-hand man to Arthur H. Compton at the Metallurgical Project (Met Lab) in Chicago. In the interview, Hilberry discusses the role he played as the Associate Project Director in Chicago. He elaborates on the process of obtaining large amounts of graphite, which was desperately needed, and extracting uranium metal. Hilberry also stresses the various and important roles played by corporations in the project.

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


Stephane Groueff:  You personally you were in what department or building? You were directly working with Doctor [Arthur H.] Compton?

Norman Hilberry: He called Dick Doan back in first. Dick had been one of his students. Well Mrs. H and Dick Doan had been, and Tom Johnson who is now with Raytheon, had been students of Compton’s clear back in the ‘20s when they were doing their graduate work. Dick had gone to Western Electric and had been there until up in the Depression years and Western Electric nearly closed down. And then Dick had come back to the laboratory, and his work was with Compton at the laboratory during the ‘30s.Then he went to Philips [Petroleum] and their research, but he and Compton had kept close touch. Then I went back for sabbatical, him and I both went back, and we were both doing research in cosmic rays.

Groueff: In Chicago?

Hilberry: University of Chicago. We both had been teaching at NYU. And then both of us went on this South American business, measuring cosmic rays up at high altitudes in southern Peru and then around a big conference in Brazil. It turns out that these expeditions are partly science and very largely administration. When we went up on the [Inaudible] we had thirty mules, burros loaded down with equipment. Well to transport that amount of equipment from the United States to Latin America and get it through customs, we had to handle all of these things and it’s a real logistical problem.

So we had come back in September of ’41 just at the time this thing was in complete ferment, and we were both back at NYU when — getting back in the swing of things when I got a telegram from AH, simply said, “Please arrange for immediate leave of absence.”

We’re parting Chicago at the earliest possible moment. We’d been at the first faculty party we had attended since we’d gotten back, this was on Saturday night and the telegram was there when we got home. So Sunday morning I called the head of the department and arranged for a leave of absence, and got on the train on Sunday afternoon and reported in to Chicago on Monday.

Groueff: Did you have an idea what it was about?

Hilberry: Partially.

Groueff: You knew it was something big—

Hilberry: I knew that AH wouldn’t put this kind of request through unless he meant—

Groueff: Did you know him before—?

Hilberry: Oh yes, I had been working with him on this whole cosmic ray business because he was responsible for this tour. And then I simply took over all of the responsibilities of organizing it and getting it going. We had had two expeditions in previous years that went out, which I had organized and run for him, and so on and so forth. So we knew each other very well and I had known him back in the ‘20s also.

He called Dick back to take over organization of the laboratory and then called me back to just serve as his personal aide. I never had any assignment, it was just a matter of figuring out what the hell we weren’t doing and seeing that it got done.

Groueff: They had briefed you the first when you arrived Sunday and you went to see him?

Hilberry: On Monday, yeah, I went to see him but he was so busy. When I left I knew very little more than I did when I got there except I should arrange to get out of Chicago and move — I mean, out of New York and move to Chicago at the earliest possible convenience.

Groueff: You lived in New York at that time?

Hilberry: Yeah, we lived in New York. And so in the meantime there was a physical society meeting during the Christmas weekend. And I go down, and just shanghai anybody I could shanghai and get them to report to Chicago.

Groueff: Where was that, in New York?

Hilberry: No this was in Princeton.

Groueff: In Princeton.

Hilberry: In physical society meeting, get them to report to Chicago on January 5 if at all possible.

Groueff: So you were to recruit them?

Hilberry: I started recruiting before I really had any very clear idea of what it was we were recruiting for. I just went on this way, and then of course as we started dealing with DuPont I had to handle a lot of the give and take between the two organizations. Then I got a title at Roger Williams’ request because, up to this point, I had had a real snap. I had no title, I had no responsibilities apparently, and I had no authority. Consequently, everybody felt I was “Aspirin Hall.” Everybody that had a headache would just immediately come in, because they knew perfectly well that I would see to it that somehow or other it got taken care of. But I had no authority to do anything about it. So I was all right to talk to. This is a wonderful spot to be in, this kind of a number two spot.

Roger Williams says, “Look.” He says, “It’s the only way we know how to work.” He says, “You’re going to have to give Hilberry some sort of a title because clearly he’s going to have to work with our folk’s right at the top.” So he says, “I recognize it’s only two of you or three of you in the whole business,” but he says, “Give him a title and everything will go smoothly.”

So I was made associate project director. And the project consisted of Compton and Hilberry, and occasionally while we had Don Hughes for a while and we had various other people. But the project group itself was never more than four or five people.

But then you see, we had tied together the work in Chicago, the work in Clinton, the work that was going down at Battelle and MIT and California and all of these. We came to the matter of budgets and all of this claimed as programs and so forth. I would make out budgets and programs for all these operations, and I suggested that I would send one copy to [Col. Kenneth D.] Nichols and I’d send the other copy, the blind copy to Nichols and the other copy to Frank Spedding. Incidentally, you got Spedding on your list.

Groueff: Yes.

Hilberry: Frank Spedding or Bill Latimer [Wendell Latimer] in California or what have you, and then they would take this. They would use this to make their formal request to Nichols for their budget and statement of their program. Nichols would take my copy and he would see if their copy read the same as mine and he would approve it. He’d call up and say, “Look, Hilberry, has this got the H factor in it?”

And I would say, “Yes.”

He’d say “All right, then.” He said, “The Nichols factor won’t have to be quite so big.” Because I would take what they had suggested, you see, as a budget, and they didn’t know anything more about making budgets than the man in the moon. And usually the paper that I sent back to them would be at least a factor of two large.

Groueff: They always ask for less—?

Hilberry: They never ask for enough to do a job. And you would look through and you could just spot where they had underestimated what their needs were going to be. I didn’t have any experience. Guessing about materials and just the cost of materials, they weren’t accustomed to thinking in these terms, you see. So then Nichols would take my figures and I suspect he multiplied them by at least two, and then by the end of the year we usually came out just about even.

But anyway, we could organize. Actually the scientific department was just simply to organize it in terms of the leaders we had and groups. And then by these mechanisms of these weekly briefings, we’d spend half a day once a week. Everybody kept current with what everybody else was doing, and there would be give and take and back and forth.

Groueff: Which were the groups? The group from Princeton?

Hilberry: Yeah, and of course they recruited a lot of other people very fast because the [Eugene] Wigner group originally was only three or four guys, maybe half a dozen, and the same thing was true with the Columbia group. It was mainly just half a dozen people plus a bunch of graduate students.

Groueff: Fermi was the leader of—

Hilberry: Fermi and [Herbert] Anderson were working together in one group doing one set of experiments, and [Leo] Szilard and [Walter] Zinn were doing another set of experiments.

Groueff: But they were all considered Columbia?

Hilberry: But we considered it as a group. By the winter of ’41, ’42, Zinn had moved over and was working with the Fermi group, so essentially it was the Fermi group plus Szilard.

Groueff: I see.

Hilberry: And Szilard was always a group by himself.

Groueff: By himself. I’ll ask about him later. But so the organization was the Wigner group, the Fermi, and the Columbia group?

Hilberry: Yeah, and there was [Samuel] Allison, and then we began bringing in other people.

Groueff: Allison was in what—?

Hilberry: He was in Chicago. He was in at least part of the work on the exponential piles because he’d been working on exponential piles during ’41, actually I guess started in ’40. I was particularly measuring the suitability of materials for slowing down purposes, moderators. And then we had very shortly, we had an instrument group and we had the biological group.

Then the chemistry group came in, starting [Frank] Spedding was the first head of the chemistry group. Matt came in while we started getting it together in March of ’42, and it was going full blast with Spedding as its head by April. Then Spedding moved out and then we ran into the real problem of getting pure uranium, and this was just an utterly fantastic tale. Spedding then went out to the Ames [Laboratory] to use his own facilities out there and got their metallurgists in, and he set up the Ames Project.

And Allison took over the chemistry and after Allison, [James] Franck tried to run the chemistry operation. When we started up Oak Ridge, we put [Martin] Whitaker, who had been the head of the department at NYU, and he took charge of the exponentials then at Chicago. Then he was given the responsibility of designing the X-10 reactor.

Groueff: The one in Oak Ridge?

Hilberry: Yeah, he and Lyle Borst and a couple of others. Then when we set up the Oak Ridge Laboratory, Whitaker was made director of that and he got Doan to come down as technical director, and then that moved out. Then we moved Allison as director of the Met Lab and [James] Franck took over the chemistry. Well it was a—

Groueff: Shifting time.

Hilberry: Yeah, it was.

Groueff: What group was Glenn Seaborg?

Hilberry: He was in chemistry.

Groueff: Under Allison in the beginning?

Hilberry: Well under Spedding for a week or two and then under Allison and then under Franck, James Franck.

Groueff: But it wasn’t very rigidly organized at all, no?  

Hilberry: It was nearest to practical anarchy that you ever saw in your life. There was one redeeming feature and this was the way to leave it, very clear because you had to rely on the maximum originality of every individual. Everybody was living under this Sword of Damocles of,

“What are the Germans doing?” And this was overriding. You didn’t find any two people that thought it ought to be done the same way. I used to come pouting particularly Ed Creutz. If you haven’t talked to Ed Creutz you should.

Groueff: Creutz, yeah, [John A.] Wheeler mentioned him.

Hilberry: Yeah, you should talk to Ed Creutz. I guess Ed is a director of the John Jay Hopkins Laboratory.

Groueff: What was his job in Chicago?

Hilberry: He was originally with the Wigner group at Princeton. But when he came out to Chicago, he shifted over and established his own group to do something about the fabrication of fuel elements, and did a fantastic job which—you never knew where Creutz was.

Groueff: Of fuel, I see.

Hilberry: He did all the original work on extruding uranium as a physicist, and he did things that the metallurgist said couldn’t be done. He started in with using plasticine, different colors and extruding in order to find out just how—

Groueff: Extruding them?

Hilberry: Yeah extruding. You take a big billage, you see, and you push it through a dye so that it forms rods. And never knew where Ed was or where his materials were, but he got things done. He’d come pounding in the office, “Hilberry, do you want to lose this war?” This kind of an operation.

Groueff: You were the kind of liaison coordination of trying to do some minimal organization. Who was in charge of that organization, [Arthur H.] Compton and you?

Hilberry: Compton.

Groueff: You didn’t work on a specific problem in a specific group, you yourself? You were just helping here and there?

Hilberry: Trying to keep ahead of the game. Trying to out guess what they were going to need next and be sure it was there before they needed it.

Groueff: And then you would report to Compton, and you decide together—or when Compton is not there you take care of it—the different groups have what they need. But you were not engaged in laboratory work personally?

Hilberry: Never had time. Well one of the first things I had—graphite procurement shoved off on my neck. Trying to get pure graphite is just—

Groueff: Nobody had pure graphite?

Hilberry: There wasn’t any sense in it. It wasn’t needed. There were some pure graphites that were made for electrodes for spectroscopic work, but they were about this big around, you know, and this long.

Groueff: And you needed bricks?

Hilberry: We needed tons and tons. Really, graphite people—

Groueff: So that’s one of the things without precedent. That’s interesting.  

Hilberry: This was just one of those things that [Leo] Szilard had been needling the graphite companies for two years to try to get pure graphite. He had been working with the Speer Carbon Company.

Groueff: What company?

Hilberry: Speer [Carbon Company], it’s over in Pennsylvania — awful place to get to and you just can’t get there from anywhere, particularly in the middle of winter. I know, because I tried. I finally got there, but boy. They discovered that—the impurities—if you used petroleum coke to make the graphite, you got a much purer graphite than if you used mineral coke. That was not surprising because the mineral coke would have other minerals. Boron was the one that we just had to keep out because it has such a terrifically high cross section for neutron absorption.

But we did succeed in getting Speer to make some. What they tried to do at first was to use what’s called green graphite, which is the ungraphitized carbon material of petroleum coke. And then they need something to build up the electrical resistance. So they would use mineral cokes in between, when the impurities would diffuse into the surfaces. But the petroleum coke was a much better electrical conductor than mineral coke. If you tried to use petroleum coke in between, which you had to do, you got only about half as much graphite out of a furnace.

But they made some that was clearly a little more developed. It was going to be adequate, would be pure enough to use; at least, it was enormously better than anything else. But their facilities, a number of furnaces and so forth, were so few that I went down to a national carbon company to see if we couldn’t get them, now that we knew what had to be done, couldn’t get them to start making stuff for us. Well of course they were building electrodes for making the sodium that was used in making the ethyl that goes into airplane fuels, and they were making electrodes for the electric furnaces for steel and some things of this kind. But these were not tremendous big orders. It was a nice quiet business. You know, when I walked into this joint, I ran into a guy by the name of [James] Nolan who seemed to be the—

Groueff: Nolan?

Hilberry: Nolan, N-O-L-A-N, seemed to be the person I was to talk to. So I described what I needed in the way of graphite. I said I was sorry I couldn’t tell him why I needed it, the only thing I could say was that there was no more important world project than this. And he said, “Well how much you need?”

And I said, “Well to start we could probably get by with 250 tons.” And he shook his head. I said, “It’s a messy business. It’s got to be made out of petroleum coke and you have to use petroleum coke as the separator as well, which means it will cut your capacity by about fifty percent, This is a must and we have to get it just as soon as we can. And I know it takes you six weeks to make a batch, and we would like to have the whole business next week.”

“And now as far as priorities are concerned,” I said, “I don’t know what you need,” and said, “I can give you an A priority right now,” and said, “If you need to have one of these X priorities,” which were essentially, oh, these were things that were just special command performance affairs. I said I would have to wait until I got home and got to a telephone, but I could have them for him the next day.

Groueff: Where was this conversation taking place?

Hilberry: It was in New York.

Groueff: In New York.

Hilberry: In the Carbide building, National Carbon offices. Nolan sort of looked at me and says, “Well you know,” he said, “I think we better go talk to the general manager.”

I said, “Fine, whatever you say.”

So we went into the general manager’s office and I went through this whole spiel again, you know. He sat there and listened, and I ended up with my little comment on priorities. Well, priorities, everybody had to have them. And I said that I would give them an A right now if that was adequate, and if it wasn’t then I would get one of the specials and have it to them the next day.

Well he sort of sat up and looked at his watch and he said, “Well you know,” he said, “I think we better have lunch with the vice president.” I had forgotten whether it was the president or the vice president; I think it was both. We met at lunch and I went through my tale again of how I would do everything I could to help out.

Groueff: They didn’t have to do it? They could have theoretically said “no”?

Hilberry: Except as far as the priority; I slapped a priority on and this would take priority over anything else they did, so they couldn’t deliver to anybody else. So it was a bit coercive and I hadn’t realized how coercive until I went and got on the train.

Groueff: Train back to Chicago?

Hilberry: And I got back to my job from the taxi. I was just walking in the office door and the secretary said, “Washington has been trying to get you ever since we got here this morning. You’re supposed to call back this chap at the War Production Board.”

Before I could call him back the telephone rang again and it was this chap on the phone. He said, “I understand that you were in New York yesterday visiting National Carbon Company.”

I said, “Yep.”

He said, “Well nobody slept in New York last night.” He sat up all night trying to rework their production schedules.

I said, “Well I hadn’t realized it was going to upset things quite that much.”

And he said, “Well,” he said, “They had me on the phone,” and he said, “My phone was ringing when I walked in this morning.”  He said this was a little bit of a joke to have this new requirement on the graphite business, so he said, “I’ve been doing a little exploring in the last hour and a half,” and he says “I’ve got my instructions.” He said, “I hadn’t had these before,” and he says “My instructions are to do what you tell me to do and shut up.”

He said, “This could get a bit embarrassing,” he said, “I think you may realize.” But he said, “I’ll make a deal with you.” He said, “If you’ll give me your word that you won’t ask for things that you don’t have to have,” he says, “I’ll see that you get them.”

I said, “You couldn’t ask for a fairer deal than that.”

Then he explained to me that they were in the tight position on electrodes for potassium, for the sodium for the other war projects. He said, “There’s only so much capacity,” and he said, “If you talk 250 tons,” he said, “You just took the wind out of their sails.”

I said, “Well that’s just a starter.” I said, “If the 250 tons does what I think it will do, we’ll be talking 5,000 ton lots and not 250 ton lots.” He said, “Well something is going to have to be done about graphite capacity,” he said, “If that comes up, because,” he said, “We just don’t have that capacity.”

I said, “Well I’m not surprised; I expected this might be the case.”

So then just before he hung up he said, “Now there’s one other little item,” he said, “Will you please let me handle the priorities?”

I said, “Sure, why”?

And he said, “Well the highest priority that’s been applied in the graphite business to date has been a C,” and he said, “When you walked in there and said you would give them an A priority on the spot and if you had to have an X you’d have it tomorrow, for them the next day,” he said, “You just stopped the entire graphite business.”

So we cleared their laboratory people almost immediately, well it was one of these rush clearance businesses. And they came out to the lab and they jumped right in head over heels. Of course this was in January and February. This was January that we did this. Then as soon as soon as we could tell that this graphite was going to do, the job, then the Manhattan District took over the procurement.

Groueff: The graphite for the first pile comes from them?

Hilberry: Part of it was Speer Graphite, was the stuff—

Groueff: And part of it was from the—?

Hilberry: Well it was, yes, I’ve forgotten how many tons, but part of it was that and part of it was AGOT. But the same sort of thing happened with metal. If you haven’t talked to [Richard L.] Doan, you must go talk to him.

Groueff: Where is he?

Hilberry: He’s in Washington and he’s head of the Division of Licensing and Regulation for the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission]. He retired a year ago last September from Phillips. He reached age 65 and retired, and he was down here for a few months and then Washington shanghaied him to take this job. Richard L. Dolan. He could give you the story of the metal business, but this was already fantastic. Again, it turned out that when we wanted metal, we found that maybe there was as much as ten grams in the country. There’s a chap at Westinghouse in New Jersey, he would made just a few little samples, just for fun to make it, and the only other source of supply was a—

Groueff: The Belgians?

Hilberry: No, of metal.

Groueff: Oh, of metal.

Hilberry: Was Hydrides Corporation, which was run by a wild Russian and he was temperamental as all get out; he was always on the verge of going broke. He made powders. He ended up with a metallic powder which was extremely pyrophoric. As soon as it was exposed to air, it would catch on fire and burn up to oxide again. And so we got stuff from him and then we got [John] Chipman from MIT, who is somebody else that you ought to really talk to.

Groueff: Who is that?

Hilberry: Chipman.

Groueff: Chipman.

Hilberry: C-H-I-P-M-A-N, metallurgy. I think Chipman is retired but I think he’s still living in the area, in the MIT area. They tried to reduce this powder to metal by vacuum melting and so forth, which they did succeed but much of the stuff we got was just cinder. They’d take the powder and then center it and put it under pressure at high temperature, you see, to get it into solid blocks. But you never knew when it was going to catch on fire. These cinder blocks, they were an inch square and a half inch thick.

So the boys made up a lot of trays of asbestos at the lab. And then they would fit these in, separately into these trays. They would take a station wagon and drive up to Massachusetts. They’d stash these in the station wagon with dry ice to keep them cool, and start driving for Chicago like mad. And they stopped for dry ice along the way to keep them cold, and then we’d open them up. When you opened them up they sometimes looked almost like a checkerboard because some of them would have started a reaction and would be red hot, so you’d have black ones and red ones. The black ones you’d just toss to the side because they were going to turn to oxides. In spite of anything you could do, they just oxidize. The others would work all right.

The first good experiments that we began to get, we used these centered pieces. In the meantime, [Ernest] Marsden at Westinghouse was making us a good and solid metal. It was the damndest system; he had to use photosynthesis at one point. They had just big plastic trays up on the roof of that place there in New Jersey.

Well you know what it’s like in winter in New Jersey, and the amount of sunshine you get is practically zero. And how much stuff he made depended on how much the sun shone. He made uranium fluoride, tetrafluoride, and then reduced this just the way we did later. We didn’t reduce this to metal. He made the so-called Westinghouse cubes, which were one inch cubes of very good metal. But I think we figured out that the cost was about $520 a gram. And what we wanted was 200 tons. There didn’t seem to be that much money in the United States.

It was at this point that [Frank] Spedding took over. It was clearly a chemical metallurgical problem, and Spedding took over. It was so urgent that we said, “Look, forget the rest of the process chemistry; for God’s sake, solve this thing.”  So he set up a little plant down there in Ames [Laboratory] and in very short time he was turning out good sound metal eggs, about this big around and about this high. And that was the, that was the source of the first metal and he made just loads of metal until finally—

Groueff: Was that by Mallinckrodt [Chemical Inc.]?

Hilberry: Well Mallinckrodt himself, senior, was a close personal friend of Compton’s. And as they ran these experiments in New York and then started running them in Chicago, it was clear that the major problem was a problem of impurities in the uranium. This time, we knew we knew how to lick the problem with graphite. They were moving ahead fast. It didn’t make any difference to them. I went through one of the graphite places and it was obvious why the graphite was impure. They just paid no attention to purity, they didn’t need to. Janitors would sweep up the aisles, you know, sweep the stuff into a shovel and then toss it into the nearest graphite oven, because the temperatures were terrifically high and it would just disappear. The fact that it had Boraxo in it meant nothing to the janitor, but the borax would then just be fused into the stuff.

Groueff: So graphite creation was absolutely impossible?

Hilberry: Utterly impossible. So as soon as they put control on this, then we begin getting excellent graphite and we knew that this was licked. But the uranium, you see, the oxide is mixed up with all these rare earths, all of which were terrific poisons. And the question was, “How do you clean it up?”

Well in the laboratory there’s a very simple way of cleaning it up. They take the uranium nitrate and they put in a flask with some ether, a water solution and nitrate, and put it with some either and shake it up. When you do that, the uranium moves quantitatively over into the ether. And the rare earths stay in the water. So you just decant the ether solution, and you’ve got pure uranium. You do this two or three times and your uranium is really highly pure. Then if you dump water back in, you can take it back into the water and the water solution. Well, if you wanted thirty tons a month, a ton of stuff a day, you don’t just have a thousand people with flasks.

Groueff: Like in a kitchen.

Hilberry: And they, Mallinckrodt, was one of the big producers of ether and knew how to handle it. Compton just went to Mallinckrodt personally and said, “Look, we just got to have this and you’re going to have to do it.”

Mallinckrodt said, “All right, if you say so, I’ll do it. I’ll send [John R.] Ruhoff down.” And Ruhoff came down.

Groueff: He was a scientist, or young man?

Hilberry: He was a young man and he was moving up to the top in their research business at that time in Mallinckrodt. Ruhoff started in, and he went Shanghaiing furnaces from the East Coast and all sort of places, and within thirty days he had his ton-a-day plant operating in which they did the ether extraction. And as soon as we began getting that metal — metal made from that fluoride — then we were over the hump. This is the thing that made the difference, because it was really pure. And they then they supplied the fluoride to Spedding, and Spedding did the reduction of metal and the casting. And then as time went on, of course, and the demand built up, why, they put in their own casting and all the rest of it. So they made the metal and it was a business.

Groueff: The metal — I should see Spedding and Ruhoff, probably?

Hilberry: Right.

Groueff: Ruhoff’s a colorful man?

Hilberry: Yeah, he’s quite a guy. We tried to keep Ruhoff out of the Army, but his name was Ruhoff. And Ruhoff said he recognized the importance—this was after he got the plant going. He said he recognized the importance of the work place and said, “We are engaged in a war. My name is Ruhoff. I am an officer in the reserve corps and when the call comes for me to report, I am reporting.”

He said, “As far as I’m concerned, with as German a name as I have, I am not going to stay out of uniform.”

We arranged to have him called by the Manhattan District. And then he was immediately assigned back to St. Louis.

Groueff: The man wanted to fight?

Hilberry: Well he said with a German name, he just never would have lived down not being in service. Well he was assigned back to St. Louis in civilian clothes. The director of the Corps of Engineers in St. Louis just didn’t what to make of this. There he received his papers from Engineer Headquarters in Washington assigning Major Ruhoff to his office with the following instructions, that he would report to [Arthur] H. Compton in Chicago and do whatever Compton told him to do. Their sole function, as far as Major Ruhoff was concerned, was to take care of the administrative detail. The colonel in St. Louis had seen many funny things but he considered this was one of the funniest he had run into.

Groueff: How did Ruhoff take this? He was disappointed?

Hilberry: He understood and okay, this was the way it worked out, well fine. At least he’d he was in the Army and there wasn’t any question about it, although it didn’t show on the surface for some time, nevertheless he was. Then, later on, after the thing got going, they pulled Ruhoff out into the district operation.

But quite an experience. With those two problems licked, then we were in much better position, but until we got pure materials, it was a very hard problem. Then of course the business of fabricating the stuff was just—

Groueff: The graphite?

Hilberry: No, the graphite you just machined but the uranium metal—it was clear why the Lord postponed the discovery of fission until this date. Because the uranium metal, except for plutonium metal, is the most intolerable material that the Lord left around for us to discover. They’d take a piece of uranium, a cylinder about the size of my litter finger, and they would put it in a device in which they could raise and lower its temperature, just cycle it. After some hundreds of cycles, it would come out. I saw one that came out a wire about this long and about an eighth of an inch in diameter.

Groueff: About a foot long. Why changes the size with a temperature?

Hilberry: As the temperature changed, it just ratcheted out into a wire.

Groueff: Very unstable.

Hilberry: We were stipulating that the dimensions had to be fixed within a tenth of a mil.

Groueff: And yet it was then that—

Hilberry: That wouldn’t stay put at all and they had to go to work to find out why it was this dimensional change.

Groueff: The characteristics. So what did the metallurgist—?

Hilberry: They discovered that it was a matter of its crystalline structure. By changing the structure they would stabilize it.

Groueff: They had to start a new chapter of metallurgy?

Hilberry: Completely, yeah.

Groueff: Nobody before ever had seen enough?

Hilberry: We never had enough to do anything.

Groueff: Did they know how to cut it?

Hilberry: Yeah and no, nobody knew this very much.

Groueff: Is it very hard?

Hilberry: No, it isn’t too bad from that point of view, at least in some forms. It’s just a peculiar material. We started rolling it into rods, which is what we wanted for X-10. So we got a hold of a rolling mill down in Indiana. And we told these guys—of course, its density is very much greater than steel. We told these guys, this was a new kind of stainless steel.

Groueff: You couldn’t even tell them?

Hilberry: Oh no. Well, the workmen at least.

Groueff: But could they touch it? Was the radioactivity?

Hilberry: No this isn’t serious enough. We insisted on their wearing gloves and so forth by this time. But they put it in rolling mill. Now you put steel through a rolling mill, you have to heat it up every once in a while in order to keep it hot enough to roll. But this stuff, as soon as they put it through the rolling mill, it turned red hot. They had to put water in order to keep it cooled off.

Groueff: So they had never seen a steel like this?

Hilberry: They had never seen a steel like that. Then they’d pick it up you know: “Steel?” And say, “This is the heaviest steel I ever saw!” So on and so forth. There’s another chap that who during the war was outside of the — was at Detroit and worked a lot with Ed Creutz by the name of James [F.] Schumar. He’s at Argonne National Lab now.

Groueff: James Schumar.

Hilberry: Yep.

Groueff: Was it to do with—?

Hilberry: S-C-H-U-M-A-R. He did some of the early extrusions up at the Wolverine Tube. He’s now in metallurgy department at Argonne, like [Frank] Foote. There are a number of those folks at Argonne that you really ought to talk to.

Groueff: Yeah. Metallurgy department at Argonne.

Hilberry: Yeah, and Frank Foote too. Frank Foote is director of the division there, but he was one of the early metallurgists. He was inside on this metallurgical work, and Schumar was outside until after the war. But their stories of the things that happened, along with Ed Creutz’s, would be worthwhile. Because this was really one of the fascinating—

Groueff: Everything about the new metallurgists, they were the people creating this stuff.

Hilberry: Yeah. And they had been in it ever since.

Groueff: Sounds like a lot of anecdotes and the workmen’s stories.

Hilberry: Oh yes. That crew were in it from the very beginning. There are a number of the folks around the division that were in it. I was just thinking—Winston Manning, who is now associate laboratory director in charge of basic research at Argonne, was, through that whole chemistry thing. He worked with the Seaborg contingent. They were contingents in chemistry as well as in physics, I can assure you. He worked with the Seaborg group in chemistry. But Winston has been head of the chemistry division of Argonne for — well, ever since it started, ever since the war, until he was made associate director of the laboratory a few weeks ago. It would be more worthwhile talking to him about the overall chemistry program because no one knows it any better than him.

Groueff: Winston?

Hilberry: Manning, M-A-N-N-I-N-G.

Groueff: So now he’s associate director of Argonne?

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: And he’s mostly in chemistry?

Hilberry: Yeah. And he knows the chemistry from—he didn’t come immediately, but he was one of the early folks in the business and has been with it steadily ever since. He’s the senior responsible reviewer for the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission], their classification people. He’s been in the heart of the thing throughout the whole period.

One by one we succeeded in peeling these jobs off onto industry, you see. By getting the pure materials peeled off on Mallinckrodt and then eventually getting the fabrication partly done by Jocelyn and partly by Wolverine. Then, as soon as DuPont came in, then we turned over the procurement business to them.

Groueff: But until the first pile was made, only by your group, the Chicago group?

Hilberry: I remember when we turned over this procurement responsibility to DuPont, Dick Doan and I went into Wilmington. We had drawn up a piece of paper that indicated how this transfer, who would be responsible for what, during the interim period and so forth. [Granville M.] Slim Read is a big, tall heavy guy, always laughing.

Groueff: An extrovert?

Hilberry: Yeah, an extrovert sort of guy. We handed him this piece of paper. I stood there and was watching him read, and his face just turned to a fish. His eyes got this sort of fixed glazed look. He went through this piece of paper word-by-word, comma-by-comma. I just stood there and watched. I’d never seen anybody read with quite that kind of caustic intentness, you know? And he got through and he said, “I think you want a comma right here, if I’m to sign this.”

And this was settled, it was read over again, this was fine, and then he was himself again. Well, I’ve never seen a piece of paper since then that I had to sign that I haven’t thought of that experience. And boy, I have read pieces of paper far more conscientiously after that demonstration. All right, everything was just fine, until it came down to signing the piece of paper.

Groueff: He knew what the signature meant?

Hilberry: At that point, any surface was just wiped out until business was taken care of.

Groueff: He was engaging the role of DuPont empire.

Hilberry: Well sure. And he was just a good businessman. He was going to make certain that—

Groueff: What kind of a man was he? Because everybody says that I should have some good descriptions of him. He’s very colorful in his language and vitality.

Hilberry: Slim was a good poker player. He really was an excellent poker player, but even the best poker players upon occasion have not too good of luck. There were a bunch of the guys at Hanford, the younger fellas. The DuPont Company had been living up in a house before Richland was built. They were about the only ones out there, bachelors and they had this house up outside just north of where Richland was built. And they used to have poker games once a week.

Slim came out on some sort of a visit and, of course, Slim’s financial position was quite different from that of these youngsters. They weren’t particularly keen on playing with Slim, because their standard game was quarter limit table stakes. And when you’re playing with a guy who can make the table stakes very much higher than anything that you can play, why, this gives him a certain amount of—

Groueff: Advantage.

Hilberry: Advantage. So they very carefully did not invite Slim to their poker parties. Slim came out this one time and he couldn’t scare up a poker party and he knew it was a night these guys were playing. So he just went up and invited himself, somewhat to the consternation of the boys.

But as luck would have it, the luck was all with them and none with Slim. At the end of about fifteen minutes he’d lost several hundred dollars. He just stood up and grinned and he said, “Gentlemen, I know when I’m raked,” and turned around and walked out.

He was a very keen customer, who had the understanding of the human factors involved in these operations pretty thoroughly at hand. And could be exceedingly disarming, unless it was necessary to be otherwise. But just as sharp as a rapier, as far as his ability to get things done and to know precisely where things stood.

We were getting well along, they were getting along on the B Pile and, the General [Leslie R. Groves] used to come out and pay a visit every so often to inspect, see how things were going. Well, when one of these inspections came off, DuPont being DuPont was going to do it right. They weren’t going to horse around with this thing. If they did it, it was going to be done properly.

The top level people associated with the project, for a week before the General’s visit were busy just getting everything in shape so that it was perfectly clear. Being sure the charts were all drawn, getting all the data and having everything there so there just couldn’t be any question where the whole project stood. Which was fine for the General, but it took just an awful lot of time of the management of the project.

So after this particular visit, they came back to the transient quarters, which was what the hotel was called at that time. And Read said, “You know General if you really wanted to speed this business up,” he said, ‘You wouldn’t pay any more visits until we told you that the reactor was ready to start up,” except final acceptance.

The General looked at Slim and he said, “Why?” He explained why.

And he looked at him and he said, “Okay. Can you guarantee that you won’t be bothered by any DuPont vice presidents either? If I keep myself and my crew out of your hair, can you guarantee that you will keep the DuPont vice presidents out of this place?”

Read said, “Yes.”

Groves turned on his heal to me and he said, “Hilberry, will you keep those scientists from Chicago out of here?”

I said, “Unless they’re needed, I’ll see that they’re kept out of here.”

He said, “All right, Mr. Read, that’s a deal. I will await your call.”

Groueff: And he didn’t come unless asked?

Hilberry: When the Pile was ready for final inspection before start up, they notified the General and out he came. But Read kept all the visitors from DuPont out, and I kept the—

Groueff: So he was a strong man?

Hilberry: Oh yes. 

Groueff: Authoritarian? Bossy?

Hilberry: No. They questioned who was boss. This is a funny thing about the DuPont organization, at least the part that I saw. He would have a staff meeting on something, some problem. If you were a stranger and you walked in, there would be no way on earth that you could tell who was boss. It was just give and take, hammering out just what the problem was and what ought to be done about it. The youngest guy there is arguing just as strongly as anyone else. And after the thing had been covered, then you discovered who the boss was because he’d say, “Now gentlemen, we have probably pursued this as far as is profitable. Let me sum up where we stand.” He said, “As I see it, this is it.”

Groueff: And that’s that.

Hilberry: “Here are the arguments on both sides; it seems to me that the preponderance of the argument is this way, so let’s do this.” And that was it.

Now, what he proposed to do was opposed to what some of them wanted to do. But they went along with it because they had made their case the best they could. If they hadn’t been able to make their case, that was their fault not somebody else’s. The result was that this was settled. But this was the characteristic of any of the operations that I saw, and as near as I can make out, this is the way the outfit functions, right through.

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.