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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

William J. Wilcox, Jr.’s Interview (2006)

Bill Wilcox, the late Official Historian for the City of Oak Ridge, discusses the origins of Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project. A chemistry graduate from Washington & Lee University in 1943, he was hired by Tennessee Eastman on a “Secret, secret, secret!” project in an unknown location he and his friends nicknamed “Dogpatch.” He recalls the amazing construction activity going on at Oak Ridge when he arrived at the site in October 1943. He worked with uranium, which was referred to only by its codename “Tuballoy,” under threat of imprisonment. Wilcox worked at Y-12 for five years and then at K-25 for 20 years, retiring as Technical Director for Union Carbide Nuclear Division. Wilcox has actively promoted preservation of the “Secret City” history through the Oak Ridge Heritage & Preservation Association and by founding the Partnership for K-25 Preservation. He also published several books on Oak Ridge, including a history of Y-12 and “Opening the Gates of the Secret City.”

Date of Interview:
June 17, 2006
Location of the Interview:


William J. Wilcox, Jr.: My name is Bill Wilcox. Oak Ridge, Tennessee resident for sixty-three years. Ever since—pretty much since the beginning of Oak Ridge. Can’t imagine a better calling, a better career, a better place to live, better people to work for, better people to work with, or to be associated with. Very important contribution to our country that I was privileged to have a very tiny, small part of. It was great.

Did you ever leave Oak Ridge once you moved here?

Wilcox: Never. Never.

When General Groves took over the command of the Manhattan Project, in September of 1942—the Manhattan Project had been formed in June and Colonel James Marshall was in charge, but in September they changed the command to General Groves and a couple of days later made him a Brigadier General. 

As Stan Norris and many other people have said, Groves was really an indispensable man. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine the Manhattan Project doing what they did, as soon as they did, as well as they did, without a hard-driving absolute taskmaster in charge like General Groves. He took over in September of 1942, and though he was an expert in construction—just finished building the Pentagon, and bases of one kind or another all over the U.S.—he didn’t know beans about atomic energy or about building an atomic bomb! 

So for the next couple of months, in addition to picking out the site here in East Tennessee to build these huge plants that Vannevar Bush and James Conant told him, “We’re going to have to have these big plants,”—he didn’t have any idea of what was going to go in them, but he knew it would take lots of space and there would be lots of people. But during those first two months, General Groves had the job of going around talking to these university scientists about how this incredibly difficult job of separating uranium-235 from U-238 could possibly be done. 

I’m sure he was bewildered, and I’m sure when he starts talking to these PhDs, college professors who can’t talk without going to a blackboard and starting to write differential equations on the board and explaining how you integrate them! It’s just amazing that he just didn’t let that overpower him, but he just listened to all that.

His job in those next few months was just incredibly difficult. He went to the University of Virginia and talked to Jesse Beams, Dr. Jesse Beams, a very Virginia gentleman, brilliant physicist, and a very easy person to talk to. But Jesse Beams had been separating uranium isotopes using gas centrifuges—very, very complicated, mechanical long tubes spinning at high speeds with very complicated bearings at the top and at the bottom, these things almost four feet long but a lot longer because of the bearings at the top and bottom. And Beams was the only person of all the ones he was going to talk to who could say, “Hey, I’ve separated about a gram of uranium-235.” This was a tremendous accomplishment, so Groves was very impressed with the gas centrifuge as a possibility. 

Then he goes to Berkeley, California and he talks to Professor E.O. Lawrence, who is Mr. Enthusiasm. “By gosh, I’m quite sure we can do this using a modification of the cyclotron that I developed.” He explains this to Groves, and I’m sure Groves, when he saw this huge, huge cyclotron, these big magnets and big tubes and devices— I’d love to know what he thought. 

But he [Lawrence] hadn’t separated anything to amount to micrograms of U-235, but was enthusiastic about it. Then he [Groves] goes to Columbia University and he talks to Dr. John Dunning and George Peagram and he gets the story about this gaseous diffusion process. It’s just amazing to me to think that this hard-nosed construction engineer is going around trying to figure out which one of these he’s going to bet on, because President Roosevelt made it very clear that we were going to have an all-out effort and we were going to get to the bomb before Germany did, and if anybody could make one of these darn things, he wanted to make it.

And Roosevelt was convinced—Vannevar Bush, his science advisor, was convinced at this point of the game that it would be possible if we had a real all-out effort. But Groves now is in the position of saying, “Oh golly, Ned, everybody has told me, yeah, this is a possibility.”  

There was another guy he talked to, Dr. Philip Abelson, about the idea of using very, very long columns which were filled with uranium hexafluoride and on the inside you heat it with super-heated steam and on the outside you cool it with river water. This is a process called “thermal diffusion.” So that was in the mix too. But Groves very quickly said, “Well, that one is no good, that one is just too complicated, and we don’t know enough about it yet.” 

So this problem that he has, you see, in December of ‘42 is, “Which one am I going to bet on?” And there are four horses in the race, and none of them has won a race before—they haven’t even run in a race before! 

So imagine the problem that he had, but he was a decision-maker, and he was determined, by gosh, they were going to do it somehow. So what they did—first of all, they ruled out thermal diffusion. Secondly then, after they went and looked at a pilot plant that Jesse Beams’ people had built in New Jersey—it was the only process that had even gotten to the point where they could build a small pilot plant, and they did that. They had industry come in. Westinghouse designed the big centrifuges and built them, and Standard Oil of New Jersey put this pilot plant together in Bayway Refinery of theirs in New Jersey, and had actually operated it. 

Numerous centrifuges working together to separate 235. It was the most advanced of any of these four horses, the only one that was really trying to do it. With a centrifuge, the way to increase the separation is to run them as fast as you can. So you do that, you run them as fast as you can without them blowing up, but occasionally, they blow up. And Bayway Refinery, they’d had experience with the machines blowing up. They’re in casings, they don’t kill people or anything. It’s a failure, but it’s not a disaster. 

But when Groves looked at the pilot plant then, in December, and saw all these machines working, he decided that this was a mechanical nightmare and just couldn’t imagine building a plant that had maybe ten thousand of these very, very nice beautiful machines whirling around, spinning, and so on and so on. And the thought of running ten thousand of them—just said, “Okay, that horse is gone too.” 

That left him with two horses. One of them was Professor Lawrence’s cyclotron-based process, and the other one was Dr. Dunning—Columbia’s—gaseous diffusion process. So at the end of December, Groves made that decision: “We’re going to go with Lawrence’s process, that’s probably the best bet.” And that’s what turned into the Y-12 plant. 

Lawrence didn’t use his cyclotron, which—the magnets are lying down like this, and you have an atomic beam coming around, spinning around inside. He invented a new machine he called a “calutron.” “Cal” for “California,” “Tron” for “cyclotron,” “U” for “University”: “Cal-U-Tron.” And the magnets stand up like this. And the atomic beam does the separation, goes up and down. 

At Y-12 then—Lawrence was delighted that his process was chosen for the first operation. He had built one of these gadgets and run it all through December, and produced something like 100 micrograms of uranium-235, separated, slightly enriched, not completely fully enriched, but very highly enriched. But you know, a tenth of a milligram, a smidgen!

And here Groves is saying, “Okay, we’re going to build this plant at Y-12, now let’s get somebody to operate it.” Again, this is an example of the brilliance of Groves.”

So he decided to go with Y-12?

Wilcox: Yes, by the end of December, he had, with his military policy committee, and his scientific advisor, they had decided on the horses that they were going to put in the horse race. And those two were the electromagnetic process, based on the University of California cyclotron work by Professor E.O. Lawrence, and the gaseous diffusion process, which had been under research and development at Columbia University since early 1940. 

The reason that they considered two horses is because frankly, even though Professor Lawrence was very enthusiastic about the possibilities, there were still many questions, theoretical as well as practical, and very many engineering questions. So here we have a situation where they’re not even positive that in the laboratory it’ll work, they have never done a pilot plant scale-up operation to see if it would work, let alone—they didn’t even have any idea what a production machine was going to look like! 

So Groves, under this pressure to be certain we got there before Germany did, and allowed to hedge his bets by President Roosevelt, who essentially had given him a blank check, he said, “I’m going to build plants using both processes, I’m going to hedge my bets.” There were a number of questions about gaseous diffusion also. They didn’t have a barrier that was at all practical in December of 1942. 

So the whole Manhattan Project—the motto that they used all through ‘43 and ‘44 was, “An effort will be made.” And what that really signified was, “We’re going to try and do our very, very best,” but that’s entirely different from “We’re positive that we can build one of these things.”

So having decided on which horses are going to run by December, then Groves turned to the crucial question about, “Who are we going to get to do this?” Now he couldn’t expect that Professor Lawrence would come in here and head up an engineering effort to build this plant and so on, gaseous diffusion. He had to get an industrial empire put together real fast. And his advisors were smart enough to know that at both Y-12 and at K-25 the kind of companies that you needed are companies experienced in chemistry and chemical engineering, companies that knew how to run, how to build big plants. 

For example, for gaseous diffusion he enlisted Union Carbide, whose Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corporation was experienced in handling gases and petroleum product and making things out of organic compounds, building big plants that could distill various organics, oil. And the Lindy Chemical Company was part of Carbide. Lindy was the primary company making liquid nitrogen and experts in handling gases. So Groves went to Union Carbide and said, “We’ve got to have you come in and help with this critical operation of running this plant, when we get it designed and when we get it built.”

In December, on Christmas Eve day, in December of 1942, he sat down with the officials of Tennessee Eastman and Eastman Kodak Company, and twisted their arm all day into running the Y-12 plant. He felt that, here is a company that understands chemistry, chemical engineering, they had just built an RDX improved explosive plant for General Groves.  He knew Tennessee Eastman. They told him all day long, Christmas Eve, 24th of December, they told him all day long that they just couldn’t do it, they were stretched too thin doing their own operations and this RDX plant they had just built for him. They couldn’t do anything else. 

And Groves said, “This is a plant that’s going to do something, if we’re successful, it might end the war.” And this is the kind of argument that he used. They asked him of course where it was going to be. He said, “I can’t tell you.” 

They said, “What is the process going to be like?”

He said, “I can’t tell you, it’s secret!” And so on and so on. 

But he appealed to their patriotism and the importance of this particular task and what it would be like. We have the memoir that James C. White, who was the President, wrote, and describes this day with General Groves. He says that finally he asked General Groves, “Can you tell me how many people we’re talking about?” 

And Groves said, “Well, I think probably about fifteen hundred technical people or something like that, maybe two thousand total employment.” And of course you know three years later Y-12 was twenty-two thousand people! 

At that point Groves, because of his conversations with Lawrence and his conversations with Oppenheimer, had a very, very much smaller idea of what the size was going to be than it turned out. It wasn’t Groves’ fault; it was a combination of things. 

The productivity of the machines turned out to be a little lower than what Lawrence had expected, so they had to build more of them. But the main problem was that when Oppenheimer and his scientists got together finally, in April of 1943 at Los Alamos, and started to really go to work calculating what the critical mass would be that they’d have to have, how many pounds of 235 you were going to have to have, the numbers started increasing, and instead of just one critical mass, they knew that they were going to have to have several critical masses in order to be sure that the bomb worked, and so on and so on. 

So that right in the beginning, back in December of ‘42 when they were talking about this, and Groves, after he had gotten Tennessee Eastman to sign on, and in January, after he had gotten Carbide to sign on, and earlier in December when he had gotten DuPont to sign on to build the graphite reactor plant here at Oak Ridge, after he had lined up his main contractors, he went to his construction contractors, Stone & Webster from Boston, and said they were going to build three sizeable institutions here in this Oak Ridge area. “We’re going to need a town for these people to come live in.” 

And they said, “Well, okay, how big?” 

And he said, “Thirteen thousand people.” That, you see, is where he was in the start of 1942. A year later he changed it to twice that many, and a year later he changed it to twice that many, and they ended up you see with seventy-five thousand people in 1945. But it wasn’t bad estimating, it was just that as the physicists gradually got more and more information, started to do a little experimental work instead of just calculating on blackboards, the critical mass of the amount of material grew larger and larger, so therefore the plant grew larger and larger, therefore the town had to get larger and larger and so on.

So as we went into 1943, as far as the research and development goes, it’s going on full blast at all these institutions around the country. The companies that he had enlisted started getting into work with architects and engineers with the design of these buildings and processes. Then in the spring—each one of these companies, seeing that they’re going to need people to come and do the grunt work at the plants, start fanning out to all the colleges and universities in the US and trying to grab from the graduating classes people with degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering, and physics. Of course the Army had grabbed a lot of them, and a lot of the male graduates had signed up to go fight in the war effort, because everybody at that time—World War II was the key part of all of our lives then, and all of us were wondering what in the world we could do to help win the war. 

A lot of us thought we ought to join the Army, Air Force, or do this or do that, but the graduating class that spring, which I was a member of, we went to—I went to an American Chemical Society meeting in Detroit, Michigan from my college, Washington & Lee in Lexington, Virginia where I graduated in April—or I was going to get out in May, but I went in April—and we signed up for the employment clearinghouse, and posted our resumes on a big blackboard, along with people from all over the country, chemists. This is the way we got our jobs in those days, American Chemical Society. 

I ended up with requests for eighteen interviews. People were really hiring everybody. Part of it was because of the war effort required technical people of all kinds of skills, but the first interview I had was with H. J. Heinz in Pittsburgh, and a dear old gentleman, Dr. Almy, I’ll never forget him, a real nice grandfatherly man. He wanted me to do ascorbic acid analyses on batches of tomatoes they were going to make their ketchup from, and how important this was that it be uniform from batch to batch. And I listened to him for a long time and I finally told him, “It sounds like a very nice place to work, and I’d sure like to work for you, but I feel like I need to do something for the war effort.” 

And he said, “I understand that, young man!”

I went on to my other interviews and accepted an interview with Eastman Kodak Company. But when I look back afterwards, after the war, and found out what was going on, begin to appreciate the complexity of the Manhattan Project—I look back and I think that if I had accepted any one of a dozen of those eighteen interviews I would have ended up working on the Manhattan Project. Iowa State was doing uranium feed research, University of Chicago, University of California, there were people all over the country in the marketplace, and they just scooped up youngsters from the class of 1943.

The Eastman Kodak guy that was interviewing me gave me the General Groves treatment! I asked him, “Where will I be working? Will I work for you guys in Rochester?”

 “No, won’t be working in Rochester.” 

“Well, where will I be working?” 

“Well, I can’t tell you.” 

“Well, what kind of work will I be doing?” 

“Well, it’s going to be war work.” 

But I said, “What kind of chemistry will it be? Organic, inorganic, physical?” 

“No, can’t tell you. Secret! Secret, secret, secret!” 

I didn’t see anything to object to, so I said OK. I knew it was a good company. So along with about fifty others from that graduating class I went to Rochester, New York to report for employment in May of 1943. 

Of course, looking back, there wasn’t anything here at Oak Ridge Reservation. They were still tearing down farmhouses, putting in 300 miles of roads, railroads, infrastructure. The only building that was being built in May, almost finished, was the big federal building, the administration building, the Castle on the Hill. That was well on the way. It was finished in June or July of ‘43. 

But as far as Y-12 was concerned, it was swarming with people, and even though they didn’t have the final designs for the calutron machines, they were building the buildings. Somebody had gone out to Lawrence’s place and said, “Well, how big are these things going to be?” 

“Well, we don’t know.” 

“Well, is it going to be any bigger than that cyclotron standing up on its end?” 

“No, probably won’t be.” 

So they had actually designed a 425-foot long building so many stories and so on, and they started building these things just as fast as they could. General Groves said, “We’ll just save space inside. Make it big enough, make it strong enough, estimate this and estimate that,” and the engineers did a fine job. When they got around to putting the machines in them, the buildings were just pretty much the right size. 

But that’s why we all were shipped up and reported to work in Rochester, New York. We spent the summer up there in locked laboratory rooms doing research on uranium, chemistry. When I reported to Rochester the first day—we lived in downtown Rochester right in the middle of the city at the YMCA. We were all just out of school, all of us were in the same boat, you know, we’d been going to school paying our own way for years, and all of a sudden we’re working for a living and getting a paycheck every two weeks, and we felt like we were doing real well! Thirty-seven bucks or something a week, it wasn’t much, but—

Kodak Parks Research Laboratories—big beautiful research building. They were still doing all of the Kodachrome processing in the first floor of Kodak Research, and so the building was just full of scientists doing very, very elegant chemistry work. It was a fine place to work. They didn’t tell us any of their secrets, though, their proprietary secrets. Kodachrome finishing, the way they control the thickness of the emulsion on film, which controls everything, and the different layers, all of that information is proprietary information. But as far as keeping things secret, that was just as secret as what we were trying to do, so that it sort of came natural to all of those people. Though we kept our doors locked and didn’t tell anybody what we were trying to do. 

When I got there, the welcome was by the Vice President of Research. Nice three-piece suit, black tie, very distinguished-looking gentleman, Dr. James G. McNally. The secretary finally ushered my lab buddy Paul Blakely and I into his office and he said, “Mr. Wilcox, Mr. Blakely, welcome to Eastman Kodak. We’re pleased that you saw fit to join our company in this tremendously important war work. As chemists you’ll have to know that you’ll be working this project with a substance called uranium. That is the last time that you will hear that word or you will speak it until after the war. And if you are ever heard speaking the word you will be subject to discharge from our employment immediately, and very likely prosecuted by the United States government, and may end up in jail. Is that clear?” 

I’m sitting there, and my knuckles are white, and I’ve grabbed hold of the chair. Paul said, “Yessir.” 

I said, “Yessir.” 

And he didn’t smile at all. 

He said, “You’ll call it ‘Tuballoy,’ code name, and use the chemical symbol T. You’ll learn to talk about all of its compounds, and all of its reactions, as tuballoy compounds—such as hexavalent ones, call them tubaneal sulfate or tubaneal chloride, tubanous oxide for TO2, and so on. Is that perfectly clear?” 



That’s the way it was. 

We used code names for the whole thing. We worked all summer long, developing, understanding uranium chemistry. There were no textbooks. You couldn’t call in a consultant who knew all about uranium.  We really learned uranium chemistry from the ground up. Here I am, twenty years old—I was a little younger than most of the guys, when we went out to a bar for lunch, for beer, I was the only one who couldn’t ever get anything—I was embarrassed to death! But even though we were twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two years old, we ended up at the end of the summer, in the fall, we knew more about uranium chemistry than almost anybody else, except people that had been working on the chemistry, say, at Columbia, or maybe at Iowa State, some in California.

The first building, chemistry building was finished at Y-12 in October, and we all ended up coming down here. All summer long we kept trying to find out where it was we were going, and all they would tell us is, “Well, it’s a place somewhere in the U.S.,” and we all called it “Dogpatch.” Some people called it “Shangri-La.” How we got the name “Dogpatch” I don’t know. That, of course, is out of the L’il Abner cartoon strip, and it’s sort of a hillbilly thing, and that might have been a giveaway, but none of us ever even thought about it. When people started thinking about where Dogpatch was, they were thinking Arkansas rather than the hills of Tennessee. 

October—the day came when they said, “You’re leaving, we’re going to the site,” and gave us train tickets, or—one of the guys I’d met up there that summer had a car, very unusual, and I hooked a ride. We piled in his car and came down.

I’ll never forget the day we got here. We spent the night in Cleveland and drove on down, and had to spend the night in Knoxville and then came out the next day, so we hit Oak Ridge in the daytime—Clinton Engineer Works, of course. We had passes, and got in and went to TEC Employment Office, which was down in the middle of town. 

My neck hurt at the end of the day from shaking my head all day long. We just couldn’t believe it, it was just an amazing place. It was farmland, you could tell that, but there was construction going on everywhere you looked. Trucks and people just crawling all over the place, hammers and banging, saws, wooden structures going up everywhere. Roads, road machinery, nothing was paved, and there weren’t any sidewalks or boardwalks. Somebody, bless their hearts, when they cut down all these darn trees to put up a building or something, they had a sawmill and they used the lumber to make sidewalks or boardwalks for us. We had miles, 160 miles of boardwalks all over town.

It was just an amazing place. So much going on. There weren’t any signs except for security signs: “Keep your mouth shut!” “Loose lips sink ships!” and things like that, but there weren’t any signs on buildings, just numbers, code names and numbers. Dormitories were M1, M2, and M3, and the other dormitories were W1, 2, and 3. It took us about twenty-four hours to figure out that it was men’s and women’s. We were thrilled to count them up at the end of the day. A bunch of us got together and said, “I’ve counted ten women’s dormitories and I think five men’s dormitories,” And we said, “Well, by gosh, that’s just about the way it ought to be!” They were all chock-a-block full, too, 150 gals or guys in each dormitory.

The buses had these strange destinations, they didn’t tell you where they were going. They had X-10, K-25, Y-12, Townsite, East Village, West Village, and that’s it. Everything else was just numbers or some kind of strange coding. It was a remarkable place. Army cafeterias where we all had to eat, and we all ate together. They had a big recreation hall, and we all went up there together. They had bowling alleys. This is when I first got here. Those first fifteen dormitories expanded to ninety in a couple years, ninety dormitories all over the place, for thirteen thousand single people. 

The bosses that came in from the companies, as you might imagine, from Carbide, from DuPont, from Eastman Kodak, they weren’t their top management people, of course, they were their younger middle-management people that were willing to get up and go somewhere to do this. And I was in the grunt corps, what would be the first line supervisors after a while, but those people, the professionals, from Carbide and DuPont and Columbia, Eastman Kodak, those were old folks, hell’s bells, they were thirty to forty years old! Lots of them with little kids. 

In 1945, the average age of the people in Oak Ridge was twenty-seven years old. Can you imagine? Seventy-five thousand people. So this was a very young place. We had everything. The Army provided, Leslie Groves again. He did not want an Army camp here, and this was not an Army camp. There were fifteen hundred soldiers here out of the seventy-five thousand, but not like you would see in an Army camp—no big parade ground, lots of people marching around, and so on. 

And Groves realized that it was important to have the feeling of a community where these scientists and engineers and top managers and their spouses and their children would feel at home, not like they were just off in a terribly temporary community. He wanted it to have the feel of a normal town. And that’s why they did such a beautiful job on the layout of the community. People were relatively happy—it was a great place to raise kids. They had neighborhood schools and neighborhood shopping centers. There were buses here, loads of them, but most people could walk to a shopping center where there was a grocery store, beauty shop, barbershop, laundry—little strips, twelve of them all around the town. And there were nine elementary schools so most kids could walk to school. So the town was really a remarkable place.

[Tape switch.]

Ground was broken for the Y-12 plant in February of 1943, and in the same month, they broke ground for the X-10 graphite reactor, which was to be a pilot reactor for the manufacture of plutonium—teaspoon-sized quantities of plutonium so that the chemists could do research on the processes that had to be used at Hanford, Washington. At Hanford, where the big plutonium reactors were going to be making the fuel for the second atomic bomb, the question was, “We know how to make the plutonium by a nuclear reaction, but the question is, how are we going to separate that stuff from all the uranium fission products that are made?” And so far the chemists had just had microgram quantities, so they wanted to get their hands on gram-sized quantities so that they could really do the research and develop good processes. So, both of those facilities the ground was broken in February of 1943. 

And all summer long at the Y-12 plant they built these enormous buildings for the machines that they hoped they were going to be able to buy and install. And sure enough, by the end of the summer they started actually installing the calutron machines. These were complex physics machines, and at Y-12 they ended up with 1,152 of them! Eight hundred sixty-four were great big ones, about eight feet tall, and the rest of them, 350 or so, were smaller machines. The reason for the big ones and the little ones is that in the calutron process, it’s a very powerful process as far as the amount of separation that you get, but you do have to do it twice. You can’t get pure U-235 in just one pass through a calutron. So you have to have those two sizes. 

One of them we call “Alpha calutrons,” one of them we call “Beta calutrons.” These alpha calutrons, the way the separation takes place is that you have an electromagnet, a strong electromagnet, strong, strong magnet, and it’s big, about eight feet tall. And then in between these magnets you put a vacuum tank, pump it out, high vacuum, and you vaporize some uranium, uranium tetrachloride specifically, and you vaporize it. You heat it up to about 400 degrees, and it boils out of this tank down here at the bottom. And then you bang it with an electron stream, which knocks an electron off of the UCl4 and gives it a positive charge. And then that stream now has a positive charge so that you can accelerate it by putting a high voltage out here, and you can accelerate that so that the stream comes zipping out. Well, if you didn’t have a magnet, that stream would just go in a straight line until it’s stopped by something.  But with a magnet, it bends that stream in a hemispherical semicircle. 

So these charged molecules go zipping around in a long circle, and up at the top, you see, the heavier ones have taken a larger diameter course than the lighter ones. Think about a whip in an amusement park, with the people that are heaviest in the seats, you know, those cars are going to go out farther. Or these airplane rides, where you ride in buckets around, and the heavier ones go out to the top. 

So up at the top you have a little separation, maybe a quarter of an inch, between the 235 stream and the 238 stream, so then you put a pocket up here with slits in it, and the 238s go in one slit and the 235s in another. Sounds simple! But the beams aren’t very sharply focused, aren’t completely sharply focused, and by the time they get up there they’ve spread all over the place, so you don’t get complete separation and you don’t get a very pure cut. Stuff gets spattered all over the walls and you have to get in there and scrape it off with acid or something, and then turn it over to the chemists to get it all pure again to stick it into the beta calutrons. 

That’s why I was there. I was in beta chemistry. And my responsibility, along with the other people I worked with, was to take this alpha product out of these pockets on the sides that it spattered over, and take it into the laboratory and separate it from all the other junk that we had to leech off the walls. There was stainless steel, for example, and when it came to us, the uranium-235 was all mixed up with iron and copper and nickel and molybdenum and so on, so on. We had to make nice pure stuff, get it back to uranium tetrachloride to put into the beta calutrons.

So imagine now you’ve got 864 of these, all working. And it’s a batch process—you put so much uranium tetrachloride in here and you run it for three or four days and then you take it apart and you have to clean everything up and start all over again. So this is why it took so very many people, you see. Thousands and thousands of people. Unlike gaseous diffusion, which is just a continuous process, you turn on the electricity and all these pumps, you know, and you get that stuff in there and it just whirls around and you just stand back and watch it, and open the valve out here and pull some stuff off, which is far less labor intensive.

But Y-12 was an incredibly successful operation, after the first months when it was just agony. Everything went wrong that could go wrong. The first calutron started up—I said that they broke ground in February—it’s hard to believe, but the first machine started in November. It was just incredible. But it shut down almost immediately. Sparks, electrical shorts. Groves just went berserk when he heard about it. You know, he was thrilled that it was getting started, but the place just—phhbbbttt! And this is not a lot of calutrons, this is one or two or three or four of them, shorted out. They found out that the magnet gaps were too close together, and there was dirt in the oil which was causing these short circuits—people hadn’t put in a careful enough cleaning system, filtering system, to clean up the oil.  He was just furious. They had to rip out the machines and send them back to Allis-Chalmers, and rewound the magnets. It was dreadful.

I need to interrupt to tell you quickly a fascinating story about these eight-foot magnets. That is that of course the way you make an electromagnet, is you wind copper wire around an iron core and then you run current through the copper wire and that generates the magnetic field. But it was clear in 1942, long before the—that can’t be right. Let’s see, it must have been ’43. Yes, it was ’43. It was after they had already decided to build Y-12. That’s right. It was in the summer. They were building the buildings, but now they were getting ready to build the calutrons and the magnets for it. 

Somebody started calculating how much copper it was going to need for all these magnets at Y-12 and realized that it was going to shut down—have a major impact on the war effort if Y-12 corralled all that copper. Now, we had the top priority in the country, Groves had gotten a triple-A priority, and he could have just said, “We have to have it.” But then we would have had problems with electrical motors for airplanes, airplane engines, and tanks, and tank engines, and so on and so on. 

And somebody, I wish I knew who it was, but somebody had this brilliant idea and said, “Look. Silver’s a better conductor of electricity than copper. We can make an electromagnet very, very nicely out of silver. And this plant’s going to be under guard behind big fences. Everybody that’s going to be working with it is security-cleared and is trying to do what they can for the war effort. Why don’t we just borrow some silver from the Treasury? They’ve got ingots up there by the kazoo backing up the silver currency, the paper currency, silver certificates, and it’s just sitting there doing nobody any good!” 

So they went to the Undersecretary of the Treasury, Bell, Colonel Nichols, in August of ‘43, and explained it to him. And he said, “Why, certainly. We’d be glad to help the war effort. We understand. You guys’ll give it back. Take good accounting for it.” 

“Oh, yes.” 

And he said, “How much do you need?”  

Nichols said, “Well, somewhere between five and ten thousand tons.” 

And Bell said, “What did you say?” Bell said, “At the Treasury Department, we don’t talk about silver in terms of tons, we talk about it in terms of troy ounces. How many troy ounces are you talking about, Colonel?” 

And Nichols said, “Well, I don’t really have any idea, but I’ll find out for you.” 

And later he went back and he told him they were talking about something like 300 million troy ounces of silver! They ended up borrowing not five to ten thousand tons but fourteen thousand tons of silver from the West Point Depository up in New York. And arranged a very secret means, they got some dummy corporation to go up there in trucks. And they got the silver out and they got it all weighed and they carted it off to some other company and they rolled the ingots into long strips and then they sent it all up to Aliss-Chalmers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And they turned it into strips and wires and bus bars and so on to make all these windings. 

The whole Y-12 plant was just full of this fourteen thousand tons of silver. And after the war it was all taken apart, taken down. K-25 proved very, very successful, so that a year after the war, Y-12 was shut down completely. The alpha calutrons were all shut down in September, a month after the end of the war, but the beta calutrons ran again for another year, and then they were all shut down, and all the silver went back to the Treasury. And Groves was very proud, in his book he brags about 99.96 or something percent of all the silver was returned. They even kept track of all the shavings from all the machining and so on. But that’s an interesting sidebar on Y-12.

But the Y-12 operation, really they had troubles, as I said, right at the beginning, and then all through the spring of 1944 there were problems. I came as close as I ever came in my life to getting fired in late February of 1944. As a chemist, you can’t believe it now, but I was a foreman at that time, I was still just a kid but I’d had a whole lot more experience than any of these people who were working for me. And my boss came to me one day late in February and said, “We’re getting what’s probably the first production batch and it’s extremely important that it be done very, very carefully. We want it to be very pure, but we want to be sure that we don’t lose any of it, and we don’t want to lose any days, any time.”

I said, “Oh yeah, sure, I’d be glad to.” So I took care of the extraction, the purification, and the conversion to tubaneal oxide, TO3, a nice lemon yellow powder precipitate. And I put it in a Büchner funnel, and filtered out all the hydrogen peroxide and other stuff. Anyway, then I had to put it in the funnel in an oven and convert it to UO3, dry it out completely, from UO4 to UO3—TO4 to TO3—so I put it in a stainless steel beaker. We had carried everything around—anytime you put any of this precious stuff in glassware, you put it in some stainless steel container, so that if by any chance it broke, you’d save it. We didn’t want to tear up any concrete, or any more concrete than we had to. This stuff was precious. The stuff that went to Los Alamos in 1945 cost us over two hundred thousand dollars an ounce. This stuff was precious! 

So I put it in this stainless steel thing and I put it in this oven, and I said, “Well, that’s that. It’ll be cool in the morning, and I’m going off on a date.” So I did. I took off about ten o’clock and went off to the rec hall. 

Came in the next morning and somebody saw me coming into the building and said, “Boy, you watch out for the boss, he’s looking for you!” 

I said, “What in the hell’s the matter?” 

He said, “There was something terrible happened last night, I don’t know what it was, but they’re looking for you with an axe!” 

And I couldn’t believe what happened! So I just charged into the boss, I just went into his office and said, “What the hell happened?” What happened was that the stainless steel container had expanded when it got hot in the oven, and the glass funnel had sunk down into the thing a couple inches further, and when it cooled off in the morning, it contracted again, but this time it crushed the glass. 

So here this precious two hundred grams of stuff, the first slightly enriched material from the Y-12 calutrons, is all mixed up with ground glass and shards of glass. And it’s in the bottom of this damn beaker and of course the only way you can get it all out is to pour it all out, but then you’ve got to rinse it with acid, and so you have to go through the whole—so they lost about two days. They had to repurify it, redissolve it, repurify it, reprecipitate it, and so on. My boss told me, he says, “Al Ballard told me to fire you.” That was his boss. “He said, ‘Get rid of that guy!’” He said, “Just stay out of his way for at least a week or two, would you please?” 

And I said “I sure will!” And that’s as close as I ever came to getting fired.  

That was early in ’44, and Los Alamos was desperate—of course, they were a long way from a bomb. They were desperate to get pure U-235 so that they could make their cross-section measurements and pin down even better what the critical mass was going to be, what they had to do to design a bomb and so on, for their research. But that all got straightened out, and by 1945 things were going smoothly at Y-12 .The alpha units were all working, the beta units were all working, the chemistry cycle was going well, and we started sending weekly shipments to Los Alamos. 

One of the things that was curious about Y-12, really, Oak Ridge, was that these rail cars came in every week. The Louisville-Nashville Railroad people kept wondering. One time they went to Colonel Nichols and they said, “Colonel Nichols, sir, we just don’t understand this. We send in three thousand rail cars full of materials, steel, chemicals, everything, every week.” He said, “They go out here empty.” 

He [the railroad representative] said, “One of these days, you’re going to want to start shipping out, and I hope you call on the L and N Railroad Company to have some of that business.” 

And Nichols said, “Of course we will, there’s no question about that.” He said, “We’ll certainly call on you!”

People in the town were curious. Seventy-three thousand out of the seventy-five thousand didn’t have any idea what was going on. What they were very much aware of was that it was a terribly important war effort, and they felt like they were really a part of it. And we kept being told that. The Army kept that message coming to us in various ways, reminding us about the war news and how important it was that we keep working as hard as we can and so on. Starting in 1945, they really souped up the message, that we need to work hard, because they could see that in January, I guess it was, Oppenheimer and Groves and Nichols went to Vannevar Bush and they told him that they thought we would have enough material by August, so the heat really came through. 

Now I didn’t learn this until just the last five years, but all I heard out at Y-12 was, “We need every milligram of enriched uranium, whether it’s fifteen percent or twenty percent,” and you scraped the bottom of the barrels. We went back all through that spring, the chemists, we went back to barrels that we had, wiping rags and diapers—we used diapers by the kazillion to wipe lab benches and so on—we went back and burned diapers, we burned our lab coats and so on, and then we would extract these residues just to get back everything we could. We even drained the water off the roofs, we had a three-inch layer of water on top of the roof. We had no A/C, but the engineers built roofs with built-up sides and you could flood them with water and the evaporation of the water kept the buildings a little cooler. These were production buildings, and every little bit helps. We used fans of course, open windows, and everything else. But the laboratory hoods inside the buildings, we had them blowing down on that water. We even siphoned the water off the roofs and boiled it down to recover just a few milligrams.

I worked in the chemistry building, I told you, to start with, 9203, but in one year we were outgrown. Production rates were much higher so we had to build another building, 9206. And that building had this roof with water on it. And I remember in the spring of ’45, when the orders came out to get everything we could finally possibly get and prepare it for final product, and we ordered a maintenance truck to come up there and a guy—we didn’t have any drains built into the roof, nobody’d thought of that. So we used big Tigon hoses and start a siphon, fill it up with water and run it down to a tank truck down on the ground, so it would [slurping noise] suck the water off the roof. 

And of course, if the guy up there who’s holding the siphon just wasn’t real attentive, you know, one corner would come up and it would suck air. You know, if he got the hose a little bit out of the water [slurping noise], you’d have to fill it up and start all over again. Pain in the butt! This maintenance guy, who’s some fine local Tennessean—nice guy, I’m not denigrating Tennesseans, my wife would make sure I didn’t do that—anyway, the guy says, “Look, I know how to stop this. We got all these gravels on the roof, I’ll just dig a hole in the gravels and then all the water will flow in there, just like it does in the sump at my house, and then the water’ll go in there. I’ll stick my hose down in that hole, and that way we won’t have any more of this problem!” 

Well, the next time the thing broke, he lays the hose over here, and he picks up a pick, and he goes “Thwack!” at the gravels with his pick. This is a built-up roof! And all of a sudden, about the second time he hits this thing with his pick, there’s a hole right square down into our records center in 9206. I’m in my lab down the hall and I hear this screaming and hollering all of a sudden, bunch of women screaming, and this sounded like Niagara Falls is coming down—fifteen thousand gallons of water—right down into our records room, and these gals pouring out of the records room in the front hall, water all over the place! That was a day we will never forget. We dumped the water off the roof into the middle of 9206. 

But all through the spring of 1945, the product came out of the beta calutrons and went to Los Alamos. I said that nobody ever saw any product going out, and the reason is that the product went out in a briefcase every week. Just a businessman’s attaché case. There was a wooden frame just about that wide with two holes in it, and the uranium, the precious uranium product was in a container about the size of a coffee cup. The container was built out of nickel, machined out of nickel, with a very heavy gold plating inside. Not for nuclear purposes but to make very sure that there wasn’t any contamination of the uranium compound. It was UF4, tuballoy tetrafluoride, UF4, which would make it very easy for Los Alamos to just reduce it directly to metal from UF4. That’s the easiest way to make the metal. So we converted it to uranium tetrafluoride, and it may have some residual hydrogen fluoride in there from the process, and that would attack the nickel maybe and get some nickel into it, so that’s why it was gold-plated. And then it had a nice cap on it, and two of these were put in an attaché case, and chained to the wrist of a military security officer, in plainclothes, with two plainclothes assistants. He would get on the train and go to Chicago and then get on the railroad to Lamy, New Mexico, Santa Fe. And of course as the summer went on there might be a couple of shipments of that a week. It’s a pretty green crystalline compound, UF4, very pretty, teal-colored. The crystals kind of look like some colored sugar that you might decorate a cake with, very pretty stuff. It’s radioactive, but it’s entirely harmless radioactivity, alpha-radioactivity. 

[Tape switch.]

The material that came out of the Y-12 beta calutrons went to Los Alamos and they turned it into metal parts and machined it into the parts needed for a gun-type assembly, where you fire a uranium-235 bullet down a gun barrel into a uranium-235 target. Each one of these are sub-critical masses, but together it’s very supercritical and you start a chain reaction, which results in the atomic explosion. 

And the parts went out in the July of 1945. Most of them—the gun barrel and most of the assembly for the Little Boy bomb—went out on the cruiser Indianapolis, starting the same day that the Trinity explosion took place in the desert at Alamogordo. And the remaining few pieces that were necessary for the Little Boy bomb went out by airplane and got there July 26. The whole assembly was ready on August the first and weather delayed it until a delivery of August the sixth.

The K-25 plant started operation in early spring of 1945, but the enrichment concentration by June was just up to seven percent. But they did send a lot of their material—seven percent enriched with the help of S-50’s material—they sent it all over to Y-12 during the spring. And so they made a contribution to that first atomic bomb. Y-12 of course just used it as enriched feed for their calutron. And every bit of the material that went into Little Boy came through the beta calutron at Y-12. 

But the K-25 process during 1945 was surprisingly successful. Groves was just very pleased. It turned out that all of the worries about the barrier plugging and so on that everybody had had—it turned out that it worked out just fine and the process worked very smoothly. Because it was a continuous process to follow, instead of twenty-two thousand people, in the next year or two they were doing their process with ten thousand. And then in another year or two it was down to four or five thousand.

The cost was less than ten percent of what it was at Y-12. So Y-12 then shut down their alpha calutrons—the 864—in September of 1945 and that started a layoff of ten thousand people. And then in another year K-25 was producing eighty percent of pure stuff and they shut down the rest of the calutrons. So in over a year Y-12 had laid off twenty thousand people. I was one of the two thousand that was left. It was a traumatic time for Y-12; we didn’t know what we were going to do.

But the way things worked out—we got a brand new mission in 1947 and have been at it ever since at Y-12. And K-25 of course ran full blast for another twenty years. So that’s sort of the way the picture developed. 

Y-12 in the early ‘50s got a second Manhattan Project mission of separating the lithium-6 from lithium-7 for the thermonuclear project. And so their employment really picked up. We had another banner mission and successfully accomplished in the 1950s and ‘60s at Y-12, and Y-12 has been a major part of the national nuclear defense system ever since.

You asked about the girls at Y-12. That story dates back to the earliest days of Y-12 operations with these 864 alpha calutrons and the beta calutrons. And the question was, “Well, how are you going to operate these fancy, complex physics machines that I described?” Electrical marbles, heaters—you’ve got to heat this source material to just the right temperature and then you’ve got to have these electron beams—so many amps go in here. And then you have to have accelerating voltages—so many minus voltages here and so plus voltages here. And then you have to have shims on the magnet. All of these are fancy controls: ammeters, and so on and so on.

Lawrence’s position right from the beginning—he told Groves that one of the big problems with the calutron process is he didn’t know where we were going to get all the PhDs that we needed to run all these machines. Because out in California, you see, these physicists are tweaking all the time—they’re tweaking these magnets, the shims in the magnets that control the focusing of these beams. They’re worrying about space charges. And this is a thing for a PhD physicist.

And Tennessee Eastman, though, came in and they said, “Look, this plant is not going to operate if we run it that way. We can’t run this as an experiment. What we’ve got to do is to run this thing as an industrial plant. So on this meter that has microamps, on this meter that has milliamps, on this one that has kilovolts—instead of writing a manual that says, ‘You keep the kilovolts between sixteen and twenty-eight if the microamps down here are between so and so and so and so,’ instead of all of that stuff, how about a different approach and we put a grease pencil and we mark a red line on this meter and you say, ‘This is Knob A and it controls Meter A, and you turn this Knob A until the needle on the meter is up at that red line.’”

And Groves—I mean, the physicists— says, “You just don’t understand how that works.” So that’s the short story.

But what happens you see then is that they finally said, “We’ll settle this; we’ll just draw the test. We’ll take this group of five calutrons and you put your best physicists on them and you run it for a week and we’ll see how much stuff we get out. And then were going to take five calutrons over here—we’re going to take high school girls, we’re going to put lines on these meters and say, ‘You turn Knob A to keep this thing here, and you turn Knob B for Meter B, and so on and so on.’”

And after a week the girls had won hands down in terms of productivity and so Tennessee Eastman hired high school women and trained them how to do it but it was operational training, you see, rather than trying to understand how the calutrons worked. And it was very successful.


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