The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Hans Courant's Interview

Manhattan Project and SED veteran Hans Courant became a noted physicist and professor, studying cosmic rays and cloud chambers after his time at Los Alamos. Due to his family’s many connections in the scientific community, Courant was friendly with many of the famous physicists of the Manhattan Project, despite his military status. In this interview, Courant discusses his upbringing in both Gottingen, Germany and New Rochelle. Courant talks about the social and working structure of Los Alamos, as well as watching the Trinity test and some of his personal experiences with the other inhabitants of Los Alamos. He also touches on his academic career studying cosmic rays.

Edward Gerjuoy's Interview

Edward Gerjuoy was a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s at Berkeley. He went on to become an eminent scholar of atomic physics and a Professor of Physics at the University of Pittsburgh. In this interview, Gerjuoy discusses his relationship with Oppenheimer, how he felt about Oppenheimer from a student’s perspective, and why he did not go to Los Alamos or participate in the Manhattan Project.

To Fermi ~ with Love - Part 1

A collection of remembrances of Manhattan Project physicist Enrico Fermi narrated by the late Chicago radio host Jay Andre. The audio recordings are drawn from the archives of the Argonne National Laboratory, the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and the American Institute of Physics. In Part I, Fermi’s close friend and colleague, Emilio Segrè describes his scientific discoveries, motivations, and personality in detail. Fermi’s wife, Laura Capon Fermi, also offers some of her recollections of life with her husband and his decision to come to the United States.

Gordon Steele's Interview

Gordon Steele was a chemist who began working at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley, and was later transferred to the Y-12 Plant at Oak Ridge. He worked on separating uranium-235 using calutrons developed by Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley. In this interview Steele explores a variety of topics, from his work separating uranium isotopes to the realities of living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He recounts a trip to Georgia in which he and his friends purchased rum and other liquors to smuggle into Oak Ridge, a decidedly dry town during the war. He also discusses his coworkers, their chess games, and some mishaps in repairing the calutron machines.

Alfred Nier's Interview - Part 1

Dr. Alfred Nier was an American physicist well-known for his work on spectrometry. Nier designed the mass spectrometers used for Manhattan Project experiments and his instruments were sent to all of the major Project sites. With his mass spectrometer, Nier helped prove that that U-235 was fissile, not the more abundant isotope U-238. Nier worked for the Kellex Corporation to design and construct the apparatuses used to monitor the separation of Uranium-235 and Uranium-238, as well as leak detectors for the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant. In this interview, Nier describes in detail his instrumentation at the University of Minnesota and his work leading up to the Manhattan Project.

Isabella Karle's Interview

Manhattan Project veteran and award-winning chemist Isabella Karle is a pioneer in the field of crystallography. Her work on molecular structures and plutonium extraction and purification has had a sweeping influence across many scientific fields. In this interview, Karle discusses her upbringing in Detroit, Michigan, and how she obtained her degrees in physical chemistry from the University of Michigan. Karle discusses her time working on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago, as well as the time she and her husband, Jerome, spent working at the US Naval Research Laboratory following the war.

Eileen Doxford's Interview

Eileen Doxford was a lab assistant at P6, an early site for the British Tube Alloys Project. After answering a radio announcement from the United Kingdom’s government science agency, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, she traveled to the M.S. Factory Valley in Rhydymwyn, Flintshire, Wales to assist engineers attempting to develop a process for the separation of uranium isotopes. She worked at P6 from 1943 until just before it was closed in 1945. She reflects on the secrecy surrounding her work, the separation of P6 operations from the other wartime production activities of the factory, and rationing and life in the United Kingdom during the war.

Myfanwy Pritchard-Roberts's Interview

Myfanwy Pritchard-Roberts worked in Rhydymwyn, Wales as a laboratory assistant in the Tube Alloys program, the British mission to create the nuclear bomb. In this interview Roberts not only explores life within Great Britain’s secret city, but also touches on what it was like to live during World War II. She discusses rationing and the tensions it created with the people she worked and lived with, as well as the experience of being away from her family for an extended amount of time. Roberts also recounts the overalls she had to wear to work each day, as well as her assignments and the other people she encountered within the laboratories.

Dieter Gruen's Interview

Dieter Gruen joined the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge in September of 1944, shortly after his graduation from Northwestern University. His work primarily focused on the chemical problems related to the separation of uranium isotopes. In response to difficulties determining the difference between uranium nitrate and uranium peroxide in the final stages of separation, Gruen created an entirely new material: sulfonated copper phthalocyanine. This indicator maintained stability in nitric acid, allowing for the easy identification and eventual extraction of uranium nitrate. Immediately after the war, he helped form Oak Ridge Scientists and Engineers, a group dedicated to ensuring the future prevention of the use of nuclear weapons in war. In this interview, Gruen discusses the secrecy related to the project, the relatively lax safety standards of the period, and the differences between government support for science in the 1950s and government support today.

Lew Kowarski's Interview - Part 1

Lew Kowarski was a Russian-born French physicist who worked as part of the team that discovered that neutrons were emitted in the fission of uranium-235 in the 1930s, setting the groundwork for the use of nuclear chain reactions in the design of the atomic bomb. After the Second World War, Kowarski went on to supervise the first French nuclear reactors and became a staff member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, in 1953. In this interview Kowarski discusses his upbringing in Russia, and the beginnings of his scientific career under Frédéric Joliot-Curie. He also outlines the process through which the splitting of uranium atoms was realized.