Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it’s Friday, May 15, 2015, and I’m in Middlebury, Vermont, with Irwin P. Sharpe. And, my first question for him is to tell us your name and spell it.
Irwin Sharpe: Oh, I know that. Okay. It’s Irwin, I-r-w-i-n, initial P, Sharpe, S-h-a-r-p-e.
Kelly: Terrific. Very good, we are going to talk about how important the engineers were to the Manhattan Project, as you are a prime example of an innovative engineer. And, I would like to start with when you were born, if you could tell us your birth date and where you were born. All right. Why don’t you begin where you’d like to begin, something about your education.
Sharpe: Okay. I graduated from the University of Michigan in engineering, mechanical engineering, and this was in 1942, right after we went to war. At that time, engineers were in big demand and I must have had at least a half a dozen job offers. And, I went to work with the General Electric Company. I was with them and they have a training program, where you spend several months in different parts of GE, and then you decide where you want to work. So, I worked on air conditioning equipment, on steam turbines, on large motors and generators, on industrial control equipment. And, then I went to work with the air conditioning department.
And, the first project I had was I was as a member of a team that tried to solve a problem for the Army Air Corps. The Army Air Corp had a fighter plane called the P-47 Thunderbolt. It was one of the main or the main fighter in the—there was an Army Air Corps then. It wasn’t a separate Air Corps, as you know. The P-47 had a problem in that it could only fly to a certain height, and the German Messerschmitt could fly quite a bit higher and come down on them. And, that was a big problem.
So, I think Republic Aircraft was the manufacturer and they developed a super charger, a turbo super charger and it required an intercooler to cool the hot gasses that went through it. Anyway, that wasn’t working. It was failing—the intercooler was. And, since the air conditioning department's expertise is heat transfer, we were given the problem and we solved it. And, after we solved it—I didn’t, of course, this was a whole team, and actually, the GE research lab where they had the metallurgists actually solved the problem. We gave them the information that helped them do it.
After that, I applied for a commission in the Navy, and just as I was doing it, my boss, Atry Hee, said, “I want you to go up to Schenectady" (which was the GE headquarters). "There is going to be a presentation there about a project that I want you to listen to. You might be interested in that.”
So, I did. I went up to Schenectady and I went into a small auditorium with about forty GE engineers. And, we sat down—nobody knowing what this was all about. And, finally, an Army officer gets on the podium. I think he was a colonel with his eagles here and lot of stuff on his chest.
He said, “I’m here to invite some of you to join us in a project, which if it is successful, will end the war.” And, that’s all he would tell us.
And, “I’m going to invite some of you to join.” And, I was one that they invited to join.
I said, “Well, I can’t. I have an application in for a commission in the Navy.”
And [they said], “Oh, we know about that. If it comes through—it takes them a long time—and you want to go, we’ll let you go.”
I said, “Okay.” It sounded like fun.
So, I accepted and I filled out a form for the FBI and they took a couple of weeks to investigate me, which I know they did, because I got phone calls from people and relatives all over the country [asking], “Hey, what’s going on? Why is the FBI after you?”
At any rate, I was told a couple of weeks after that to report for work at 233 Broadway, which is the Woolworth Building in New York City, to an office on the fifth floor, and that was it. So, I dutifully reported to the fifth floor and I walked into this office, and there’s this guy sitting there with a big cigar in his mouth. He was an elderly guy, must have been about forty. I was about twenty-three, or twenty-two at the time. He introduced himself. His name was Herb Rose. He had come there from Westinghouse.
And, he sat me down and he said, “You know what we’re doing here, don’t you?”
I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”
He said, “Well, we’re trying to separate the light isotope of uranium.”
Well, I knew what that was because in my senior year in college, I had read a Time magazine article about splitting the atom. So, here I was. “Okay, great, what do we do now?”
I was in what they called the special pump section, and he was the head of it at the time. He explained what the setup was down in a place called Oak Ridge, where in the main building the actual separation was going to be done. And, there was another building, which they called the conditioning building, where everything that went into the main building had to be treated with pure fluorine before they could put it in, because the gas used in the main building was uranium hexafluoride, which was very corrosive and everything had to be treated beforehand.
And, it was important in the conditioning building mainly, that everything, the pumps, these special pumps be clean. And, I mean clean. If you know what a dirty machine shop looks like, as many of them were at the time—we had to find a company and have them set up a clean room separate from the main room. And, make sure that every part that went into the pump was degreased and cleaned, and the workmen wore gloves and white smocks. So, this was really one of the first of the clean rooms.
In the case of the pump for the conditioning building, the other important thing was that it didn’t leak. There were all kinds of leakage. When I say that, I mean that compared to the pump that went into the main building where the leakage was measured in what they called micron cubic feet an hour. And, it was only like a few micron cubic feet an hour. A micron is a thousandth of a millimeter, but I better not get into all that.
So, we had to develop, first we had to find a pump manufacturer, but a lot of that work had been done before I got there. And, Herb had several manufacturers in mind, and actually had signed a contract by the time I was there. He had a signed a contract, or at least Kellex did, with two companies. The Beach Russ Company in Brooklyn—they were to make the pump for the main building. And, the F.J. Stokes Company in North Philadelphia—they were to make the pump for the conditioning building.
But, the job was still to design the seals. The big problem was the leakage along the shaft that went from the motor to the internal part of the pump, and these seals had to be, well, they were very complicated and I think the basic design was done by Herb Rose. His job at Westinghouse involved high vacuum equipment. So, he was able to do it. My experience in tight systems was in air conditioning, but this was much tighter than was required in air conditioning. So, he designed most of the seal, and shortly after that, he was promoted.
Meantime, we were adding people to the special pump section, and eventually, we added, I think, sixteen or eighteen people. I don’t really remember exactly how many. But, about that point, Herb had been promoted to another job. I didn’t know what it was, and I took his place as the section engineer for the special vacuum pump division.
We arranged with each of these companies to build these clean rooms for assembling pumps. With Beach Russ, where it was extremely important, they set aside a whole section of their plant, sealed it off, and put in degreasing equipment and cleaning equipment and dressed the workmen--who really thought this was very funny--in white smocks and gloves and so on, to make sure everything was clean. Not even a thumbprint on any piece of equipment. And, then I assigned two men to stay there and make sure that this is exactly what happened. They were very cooperative to the whole effort and we had no problems there.
With Stokes, it was a similar situation. We set up a clean room for them. They thought this whole thing was crazy with these bunch of college kids coming in here and telling us how to do this, but they did it. And, again I had one or two guys spend time there, full time, to make sure that they did what they were supposed to do, and they did. There were no problems with either company, both very cooperative.
In the meantime, I traveled to Oak Ridge several times to see where the pumps were to go—oh, the first time down in Oak Ridge, the big K-25 building, which is that big U-shaped building that everyone is familiar with, I guess the construction was being completed for it. And, you could stand in that building and look down it with nothing in it and all the walls just seemed to converge. It was pretty impressive and four stories high. The conditioning building was a pretty large building, too, but not nearly the size of the K-25 building.
We had problems. Well, this is interesting, I think. We didn’t know what this light isotope of uranium, U-235, was going to be used for. We knew what it could be used for, but nobody told us officially what it was going to be used for. But, we pretty well, in talking among ourselves, had it figured out. But, no one ever confirmed it. No one ever talked about it.
So, one of the first, or one of the main problems I remember being talked about was the fact that here’s this building almost completed, and the main equipment, which was the diffusers, which were to do the separating of the U-235 from the U-238 were not working yet. And, everybody was wondering, “Well, what’s going to happen if it doesn’t work?”
There was constant activity between Columbia University with John Dunning, as I remember, and some of the other people at Columbia and the scientists in our building. And, we had most of the—I might point out, if I hadn’t said it earlier, that most of the engineering for that Oak Ridge K-25 plant, particularly, was done from the Woolworth Building. And, this is where the scientists and engineers were all located, so we had a constant parade of people in and out. So, we knew what was going on without being told what was going on.
But, we kept working on our part of it and we had our own problems. One of them I remember was when the first pump at the Beach Russ Company, which was the one that had this very complicated, special shaft seal, was completed and was being tested. I was in my office in the Woolworth Building and had several men at Beach Russ when my phone rang and one of them says, “Irwin, that seal is no damn good. It leaks like a sieve. We can’t even pull a vacuum on that pump.”
Great. So, I got on my horse, which was the subway system in New York, went over to Brooklyn and walked into the plant, and they were all standing around with long faces.
And, I said, “Where does it leak?’
Said, “I don’t know, we can’t pull a vacuum on it.”
So, I said, “Okay. Let’s do it the old-fashioned way. We’ll put compressed air in it and dump the whole thing in a big tank of water and see where it leaks.”
So, they put compressed air in, brought a crane in and they dumped the whole pump into this big tank. And, the water bubbled. It was all coming from the casting around the seal. Well, we suddenly realized that that was stupid. Well, it was partly stupid. We shouldn’t have used a casting, because castings can be porous. But, you couldn’t get a forging—this had to be brass or bronze. All of the forged brass or bronze was owned by the Navy. It was used for shafting, for the ships. We couldn’t touch it.
But, General Groves had a—I don’t remember what the priority was—he had the priority for anything. So, he assigned an expeditor to us, a guy by the name of McAlister, I remember. Again, an elderly guy, he was about forty. And, he went out and in a couple of days he had located some bronze forging, had gotten it out of the Navy and brought it over to Beach Russ. And, they machined the grooves and the things that were necessary out of this forged bronze. And, we tried that in a pump and that was fine. No problem, it didn’t leak. So, that part was okay. And, they continued to make the pumps.
I might mention we had a laboratory over in Jersey City under the stadium, where we initially tested some of these pumps that came through. So, I would go to Jersey City every now and then and down to Oak Ridge and New York. That was my circuit. And, in the meantime, I think they got the barrier problem solved, and they started—I think Chrysler Corporation was making the barrier, the diffuser. And, then they started making them, and they were getting ready to deliver them. And, we delivered the first Stokes pump, which was for the conditioning building, to the conditioning building. And, I had one of my men down there to be there when they got there.
And, then I got a telephone call afrom Oak Ridge, and it wasn't from my man, it was from someone higher up. He said, “Those pumps are dirty! You’re holding everything up. You got to get those pumps clean.”
I said, “They’re clean, I know they’re clean.”
“Well, all the oil that we put in it is carbonizing.”
I said, “Well, there must be something wrong with your oil.”
“It can’t be. This is a special oil that was flown over from England for this purpose, and we’re paying $2,000 a gallon for it. It’s not the oil, it’s your pump. Get them clean.”
So, I got on the other horse, which was the DC-3 at LaGuardia Airport and flew down to Oak Ridge. And, I looked at the pump and they were right, it was all carbonized. And, I said to the chemist, “Well, let’s check the oil.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the oil. Get those pumps clean.”
And, they were giving me hell. Everything’s being held up. So, I had my fellow who was down there from my staff, a fellow by the name of [Joseph Roland] Troxler. I can’t remember his first name. He had been there a month and had made friends with everybody, very nice guy.
So, I said, “Look, get me three beakers, two of them out of cast iron. You can take a piece of pipe and weld the bottom to it. And, the third one out of glass, out of the chem lab. Clean--chemically clean the glass one, and one of the cast iron ones, and the other cast iron one, mash some grease in there. And, get me a little bit of the oil, I want to put a little bit of oil in each beaker. And, make a manifold, a pipe with three prongs to it, one over each beaker.”
What I was trying to do is to get some fluorine. The chem lab wouldn’t let me have any. At least they didn’t want me messing around with it. So, Troxler and I traced the lines in the conditioning building, the valves, back to the fluorine plant. I don’t know how we did it, we were probably crazy. But, we opened enough valves of the conditioning building to reach the spud in the floor waiting for a pump to be attached to it. So, we had one of them and we got the fluorine, we thought, to one spud, and we set these three beakers up under it and put the manifold in it.
And, as we were doing it, people were gathering around. And, that was not good and I didn’t want to open the valve. And, suddenly, a couple of MPs come walking by and said, “What’s going on here?” I said, “Soldier, get these people back.”
And they pushed everyone back, and after they got them back, I cracked this valve and the fluorine came through and this smoke puffed out. Then we closed the valve and all three beakers were carbonized: the dirty beaker, the clean cast iron beaker, and the clean glass beaker. It had to be the oil. And, we got the chemists in and we showed it to them. Well, they moved real fast after that. They called England, they reformulated the oil and in less than a week they flew a new shipment back and they tried that on another pump and it was okay. So, those are the two near catastrophes that I can’t forget.
But, the interesting thing about the whole project is that everything was done in series. We never knew whether the step ahead was going to work until it was tried. It took a lot of guts to build, to do what they did there, not knowing whether it was going to work.
So, anyway, we shipped all the pumps and, or they started shipping and then I went down to Oak Ridge shortly after they started up the plant. I think they started in January or February of 1945. And, I went down in March, which was the time, when they were going to use these Beach Russ pumps to sample the effluent and find out what was happening. And, when I got there and they had done it, we learned that they were getting separation and everything seemed to be working just fine. This was toward the latter part of March of 1945, and I was anxious to get back home, because my first child was about to be born. And, I did. I got there a couple of days before he was born. And, I guess everything else should be a blur after that, shouldn’t it?
I still didn’t know what this stuff was going to be used for, that is we knew, but we were never told officially. And, then toward the end of the project, I remember, or near the end of shipping the pumps but with still a lot to ship. We were told there was an urgent meeting for us up at the conference room on X floor in the Woolworth Building, I don’t remember the floor. And, there would be a group of people from a place called Los Alamos, who were going to be there and they wanted to talk to us.
Well, we had heard about a place called Los Alamos. We never really knew what they were doing there, we just kind of guessed, but we didn’t know. Anyway, a half a dozen of these guys are sitting around the conference table when, in the company of Herb Rose, who’s the guy who I reported to initially and Rollo Powers and I walked into the conference room and these guys were sitting around a table and talking, and we greeted each other.
One of them, with a very strong Hungarian accent, whose name I learned later was Edward Teller, said, “The pumps that you are making toward the end of the plant, they have to be coated with another metal.”
Now, it may not be secret, but I won’t mention the metal.
“And, we have to have at least an eighth of an inch coating across the entire pump.”
So, Herb Rose, with a cigar in his mouth, says, “Doctor, I’m a farm boy from Kansas. Please tell me why we have to coat this with an eighth of an inch of this metal?”
And, Dr. Teller says, “Well, toward the end of the plant, if you get…”—these pumps were horizontal pumps, they were about that high—“…you get a couple of workmen standing there with their feet on it, the human body emits neutrons, and if the solid angle of these neutrons is (whatever the key number was) this whole thing could go boom.”
So, Herb says, “Thank you, Dr. Teller.”
Well, we went back and we found a company that made metal spraying equipment, where you feed a wire into a hot gun and it sprays molten metal. And, we had wire made of this material, this metal, and we put about a quarter of an inch, in some cases, three-eighths of an inch, not an eighth, around these pumps. We were taking no chances. And, it didn’t blow up, so I guess we were all right.
And, then I guess we’re getting to the end of the project, I thought, and then one July [misspoke: August] day I was in the subway. I left my office in the Woolworth Building, I was going home, and across the aisle from me, this person holds up the New York Times paper, I could see the front page. And, it says, “Atomic Bomb Dropped in Japan.” That was the first I really knew about it officially. Wow. I went out and I bought several copies of the Times. And, I dashed home.
Oh, I didn’t tell you that through all this, my wife didn’t know what I was doing. This was a secret and she accepted it. And, I dashed up to where she was. She had the baby in a—you know what a bathinette is, I assume. These guys don’t here, but anyway, she had the baby in a bathinette, and I said, “This is what I’ve been working on.”
And, I showed her the Times. And, she dropped him, and she picked up the paper and he started gurgling. So, we picked him up and we went on from there. He made it. He’s doing fine.
Kellex had designed and had made a gold key, and it was to be given to about 100 of those they considered to be the key men on the K-25 project. And, by some—I don’t know why—but, anyway, I was one of them. And, I was invited to the dinner and given the key at the dinner. At the dinner were all of these great scientists and military people that I had met casually on and off. And, I was able to shake their hand, like General Groves and K.D. Nichols and, oh, Manson Benedict, I should say a word about him.
Manson was a physicist, an extremely nice guy, and probably the guy who was most responsible for the success of that K-25 project. He knew all the answers, he did a lot, he was responsible for most of the design. And, he followed up. He would appear in my office every now and then and just sit down and we’d chat. He didn’t give the appearance of questioning me; we just talked. And, he let me know if there is ever a problem, to be sure to let him know, he might be able to help. I didn’t know who he was, except what his name was, you see, at the time. I learned later who he was.
And, of course, he was there, and M.W. Kellogg and P.C. Keith, the president of Kellex, Dobie Keith, and [John] Arnold and Baker and the whole—anyway, the Woolworth Building had, I won’t say most, but many of the key men, really, the key men for that K-25 and really the Oak Ridge project. So, that was the Kellex key.
[As Kellex describes it:]
“The Kellex key symbolizes the great service and high faith of all those who dreamed and labored through the years 1943 to ’45 on the K-25 project, which hastened the end of the war.”
“It is awarded to key personnel of the Kellex Corporation and certain members of the U.S. Army and other organizations closely associated with the Kellex project in lasting recognition of their professional and person contributions to the vital task. The key itself, of which only a limited number have been struck, was designed by the Kellex staff. The concentric rings represent the orbit of electrons around the nucleus. The crossed lightning forming a KX for Kellex stands for the forces unleashed by the interlocking of the atom.” This has the names of all those who attended it. Oh, and this is the menu. Okay.
Kelly: Well, why don’t you read the dessert? Tell them what you had for dessert.
Sharpe: Oh, I generally like to eat the dessert, but okay, we had Bombay Praline Atomic.
Kelly: Was it good?
Sharpe: Right, must have been good.
[Shows the key] It has my name on it, and it says, “The Kellex Corporation Atomic Bomb, 1943 to 1945.”
[Shows cartoon drawings] This is Dobie Keith, P.C. Keith, he was the president of Kellex.
Kelly: Why is he looking like a madman?
Sharpe: Well, his reputation was, he wanted things done, and he wanted it done—well, they both did. This is Al Baker, who was the operating guy. We want it done and we want it done now.
Kelly: So you met John Dunning. Can you tell us about him?
Sharpe: I just met him at the dinner. I saw him dashing in and out of the Woolworth Building. He was at Columbia University, but he was practically commuting to the Woolworth Building, because he was one of the guys working on the diffuser, on the barrier.
Kelly: So, other than Dunning, how much did you collaborate with Columbia University folks?
Sharpe: I personally didn’t collaborate with them at all. My job was getting these special pumps and that was it, really, and some other pieces of equipment, but primarily the special pumps.
Kelly: So, do you think organizationally that the project worked well?
Sharpe: It must have. It did. You have to keep in mind that nobody knew what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work. Right from when they started building it. All the scientists, the physicists and chemists, knew was the theory. They had done a little bit of work. I think [Enrico] Fermi at the University of Chicago and [Harold] Urey had but they had never gone from a laboratory to full-blown production. And, typically, the big manufacturer, the important manufacturers of refineries and chemical plants didn’t normally go from the laboratory to a full-blown project. They had something in between. But, this went from the lab to full-blown, and each step, you never knew whether it was going to work, and they never knew. But, when there was a problem, they got it solved. Each problem got solved and people just kept working at it.
So, to answer your question about organization, I can’t answer that one, because I don’t know enough about the whole organization. But, I do know that things got done. When we needed something, we got it. And everybody was working and there was nothing like the back-biting, at least that I know of, that you see in other organizations. We all had—you know, you open the New York Times every day and there are pages and pages of fine print listing the American casualties, the wounded and the dead, and you see that every day and you kind of feel, well, we better keep working on this.
Kelly: We were talking earlier about the project being a mix of physics and engineering. What kind of mix was that?
Sharpe: Well, it was the physicists and the chemists who developed the project concept. But, that had to be turned into hardware, and that was an engineering job. We used to, in talking to the physicists and chemists in the Woolworth Building—always in the building, never at lunch and never outside of the building, I might add—we’d kid them.
They would ask us, “You guys going to get this thing to work?”
And, I said, “We’re going to get it to work.”
“Is it going to work? Is your theory right?”
And, that’s the way it went back and forth, until it actually did work.
Kelly: So, you were both right.
Sharpe: We were both right, yeah. But, I think we were right only because of the hard drive. I think Groves is the one who really deserved credit for this whole thing. I never met Oppenheimer and I know he was extremely important in the bomb, but for the overall project, to give him the ammunition for the bomb, I think Groves is the guy who deserves the credit. That’s my opinion of it from what I observed.
Kelly: In the Woolworth Building, there were some members of the British mission for a while, before they shipped out to Los Alamos. Were you there when they came?
Sharpe: I guess I was there. I mean Klaus Fuchs, I think, was one of them. I never met him; I didn’t know him. We had heard about spies. Mostly we were warned not to talk at lunch or if you were out in a bar or out in the street because the spies were all over the place. But, I never specifically learned about a spy while I was there. It was afterward that I did. But, everybody knew about it then.
Kelly: So, had you heard of any one of your colleagues being approached by someone?
Sharpe: No, no. We were just constantly warned, “Keep your mouth shut.”
Kelly: So, was your schedule a five-day workday, or was it a six-day?
Sharpe: Oh, no. Well, it was supposed to be a five-day workweek, but we worked on Saturdays and Sundays, too, and we worked late at night sometimes. And, then we’d got to some very nice restaurants in downtown New York and we’d go out to dinner and go back and work again. But, I’d get home very late some nights. Other nights, I’d get home, leave at five, six o’clock. So, it depended on the workload at the time. But, we didn’t draw any line as far as hours of work; we just worked depending on the job that had to be done.
Kelly: Now, New York was in a blackout situation, is that right?
Sharpe: Yes, they were. It was sort of a blackout. It wasn’t really a blackout. I mean the streets were never dark, absolutely dark. I guess if they had heard of any planes or anything in the area, they would’ve done it. But, I don’t recall ever being caught in a real darkness there and I’d take the subway back home.
Kelly: I guess I just heard the Statue of Liberty—
Sharpe: Oh, that, well, the lights were out on that and the Empire State Building, the beacon was out. And, the tower was normally lit, that was out. I mean, those things were out, but the streets were lit. When you say a blackout, they did have one later. New York had a big blackout, a complete blackout, and some twelve year-old kid thought he was responsible for it, because he was walking down the street with this stick and he hit one of the light poles, and suddenly all the lights went out. But, that was much after the war.
Kelly: That’s great. Why don’t you tell us about your trips to Oak Ridge? What was security like?
Sharpe: Oh, okay. Well, I’d take a plane. It was a DC-3. If you haven’t been in one of those, I can’t stand up, I have to bend over, or I did then, maybe I can now. I was usually greeted at the airport by an Army car, and driven to Oak Ridge. And, I stayed at the guesthouse.
I was able to bring a camera in there, provided I registered it with the military police, which I did. And I did take pictures in the town site. That was okay. But, never brought the camera near what we called the job site, which was several miles away.
It was dirty. It was muddy. It was dusty. And I remember walking in these buildings, I had been in factory buildings before, but never like this. GE had some pretty big buildings, but again, never like the one they had down at Oak Ridge.
The conditioning building itself was an extremely large building, and the main building, the K-25 building, as I mentioned earlier, some of the foremen and the men used to go around on bicycles and roller skates until they got the equipment installed. But, when I was there the first time, there was no equipment, it was just this big, empty building. And, they were scooting by on bicycles and roller skates.
But, as I went down there, the building kept filling up. Eventually I didn’t get into the building. I never got into it. I’d enter the conditioning building, but after our first pumps got installed and things got going, I didn’t go near the K-25 building.
Well, as I said, you had to register your camera and on one of my quick trips down, it must have been the one when we had the problem with the oil and I went down there in a hurry. But, I automatically throw a camera in my valise, and I forgot about it. And, after I was through and I had to be driven back to the airport, I got into this Army car in the backseat between a guy who was—I forget what rank—a general, he was a general, and a colonel. And, they were talking across me. I don’t know what they were talking about, but they were talking, and we started to drive out to the main gate.
And, as we got to the gate, the MPs were stopping every car, opening the truck, and opening all the valises. And, I suddenly remember my camera and no pass for it. I said, “Oh, boy, here goes.”
So, we got up to that gate and the MP stuck his head in the car and was about to tell them to open the trunk when he looked at who was in there. And, he stepped back and he saluted and let us through. But, they weren’t saluting me, I can tell you that. So, that was luck. Otherwise, I’d still be in jail, I guess.
So, that was Oak Ridge. They used to ask, in the town site, or in Knoxville, “What are these guys doing there?”
Well, we were told to tell them, “They’re building the front end of horses for final assembly in Washington.”
So, that’s all, theoretically, that people were supposed to know. But, it’s true, they didn’t know what was going on. We knew a lot more in the Woolworth Building than they knew down at Oak Ridge.
Kelly: So, how many people worked in the Woolworth Building? You have a guess about?
Sharpe: Well, there were four or five floors, and my office was on the fifth floor right in the front. It was a great office, overlooking City Hall Park and Broadway, so I could see all the parades after the war. I think it went up four or five floors above that. I’d say there were several hundred people there. Then there were some who started in the Woolworth Building and then went down to Oak Ridge and stayed there. But, luckily, I wasn’t one of them.
Kelly: So, you were living in Jersey City, is that right?
Sharpe: No, Jersey City had a Kellex lab underneath the stadium, and that’s where we tested the pumps before we released some of them when they were first being built. So, I’d go to that lab, but I was living in Queens, in Jamaica, and taking the subway to the Woolworth Building.
Kelly: How long a commute was that?
Sharpe: It was about an hour. I had started in New Jersey, in East Orange, when I was with GE, and when I got an order to report for induction, I thought I’d better get my wife out of there and moved her back with her parents in Queens. And, then my induction order was cancelled the weekend before, and so it wasn’t necessary, but that’s where we were.
Kelly: So, you just stayed living with her parents then?
Sharpe: I did for a few years and then went back to GE and built a house in New Jersey.
Kelly: After the war?
Sharpe: After the war, right.
Kelly: So, she wasn’t too lonely with your working and all that.
Sharpe: No, she wasn’t lonely, just curious.
Kelly: So, other than dropping the baby in the bathinette, how did she react once the news—?
Sharpe: Well, she was telling—I mean people would want to know, “What’s your husband doing home?”
“Well, he’s working on a special project for the Army.”
“Well, what’s the project?”
“I don’t know except it’s a big one and it’ll probably end the war if he’s successful.”
That’s all she could tell anybody. And, that’s all she knew. So, that was it.
Then I left GE and got into my own business and I was involved in some atomic energy projects as a marketing consultant after that, some for companies like Westinghouse and for Canada, for the Canadian Atomic Energy Association. They were developing products to sell to our atomic energy people. So, I stayed in contact with atomic energy for many years afterward, and I’ve been in my own business ever since then as a consultant, but not on atomic energy, necessarily, but all kinds of industrial products.
Kelly: So, do you ever run across an old Manhattan Project colleague?
Sharpe: Yes, I did. When I started in the consulting business, I needed a place to meet potential clients where I could impress them. And there’s a club in New York at the time called the Engineer’s Club in a beautiful building right across from Bryant Park. And, I wanted to join the Engineer’s Club and then invite potential clients or clients to have lunch with me there, you know, that sort of thing. But I had to know somebody—two people had to recommend me. One of them I knew and he was going to recommend me, and I looked through the membership list and I see Harry Rehnberg.
Harry Rehnberg, R-E-H-N-B-E-R-G, Harry was his first name, came from Seattle. He was a construction supervisor, a real construction supervisor. He started at the Woolworth Building to familiarize himself with our pumps, and then he went down to Oak Ridge and he supervised the actual installation of our pumps and lots of other stuff. Well, we knew each other quite well then. I saw his name on the list, so I called his company and I talked to him.
He said, “Oh, Irv, come on over, let’s get reacquainted.”
This was about, at least five or more years afterward. So, I walked in there waiting to meet Harry Rehnberg in the engineering department, I thought. And, I walked in and the receptionist said, “Well, Mr. Rehnberg will be with you in a minute.”
And, I was ushered into the office of the president—that was Harry Rehnberg. He and I think Frank Raible had formed a construction company to compete with M.W. Kellogg called Scientific Design. It was a big company by then. They were building oil refineries and chemical plants. And, he was the president.
So, we sat and talked and he recommended me and I became a member of the Engineer’s Club and I was able to invite clients to have dinner or lunch with me there. So, the other members, I think I occasionally met them, I can’t remember the circumstance. But, that one I remember very well.
Kelly: That was a very well-placed acquaintance.
Sharpe: Right, right.
Kelly: Yeah, timely.
Sharpe: Yeah. Last time I saw him, he’s sitting there at Oak Ridge behind a desk, this line of men waiting to see him, big cigar in his mouth and barking orders. I think two of the other guys, I think I may have met them shortly after the war. I think it was, oh, I can’t think of the names.
These were the two guys who worked on vacuum measuring equipment. They formed a company of their own after the war, with a name that had vacuum in it, and it became a big company. They were listed on the New York Stock Exchange. I can’t remember the name of the company at this point, so some of these guys really made use of what they learned and they did very well.
Kelly: Sounds like you were quite an extraordinary group.
Sharpe: I think the group there was extraordinary. I was lucky to be there and to meet some of them. Because, I certainly wasn’t, I just was a dumb engineer trying to figure out what was going on.
Kelly: So, do you keep up? Are you part of IEEE, or EE?
Sharpe: Not anymore. I was part of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, since I was a mechanical engineer. But, I haven’t kept up with that. Because, I got into marketing after I left GE, but I formed a consulting company and we were doing marketing and marketing research on industrial products, everything from computer chips to turbines and generators. Because, I knew the language and my competition at the time were consumer companies who, when they got into that kind of research, they just didn’t know how to talk to engineers. But, I did and I’ve been doing that ever since. Now, my son is doing it, so he’s head of the company now. It’s still in existence.
Kelly: Fabulous. I always ask this question, which is to ask, looking back, how do you feel about having been involved in the creation of the atomic bomb?
Sharpe: Well at the time, and actually afterward, remembering that, as I mentioned earlier, every time I opened the newspaper, it was full of pages and pages of American casualties. I had friends who were flying planes or navigating planes. I had two brothers, one in Europe and one in Asia. So, I didn’t have any qualms about dropping the bomb. I thought it ended the war. There’s been some dispute about whether it was necessary, but at the time, I didn’t know any better.
And, in thinking about it, I think it really changed the world. We haven’t had a big world war, because everyone’s afraid of the Manhattan Project bomb ever since. We’ve had wars; we’ve had people killed. We certainly had lots of people killed recently, but nothing like the number that were killed during World War II. So from that standpoint, maybe it did good. But, of course, right now, with what’s going on with the proliferation, we don’t know that.
But, I can remember after the war when Russia had it, and we were building a house. We were talking about building a bomb shelter as part of the house. It was common practice, and the architects knew how to do it. We never did, but that’s the way we were thinking at the time. And, even today, who knows, maybe this thing will end up in some kind of a flash, but I hope not.
So, to answer your question: at the time, I thought it was the right thing to do. I still think, looking back at the time, it was the right thing to do. The problem was we thought that we had it, and never dreamt that the Russians would get it as fast as they did. And, of course, the proliferation since then.
Kelly: It was quite a remarkable thing to be part of.
Sharpe: I guess it was in retrospect. At the time, we were just working. You know, once you start, even though I knew what this was about, the day-to-day work, you never thought about that. You just thought about your job and what had to be done. And, it wasn’t until you started thinking or sat down with a bunch of the guys and talking about, that you thought about it.
Kelly: And, of course, in those days, you weren’t allowed to share or talk about this, about your work, outside of work.
Sharpe: No, that’s right. It had to be inside of work, in the office or we’re down in Oak Ridge at the guest house with other guys. We could sit around and talk there in our room.
Kelly: So, at the guest house, did you run into people then from Los Alamos or other parts of the project?
Sharpe: We may have. I wouldn’t have known them if I saw them. I didn’t know the people; I mean, the first time I met them was when the group came up to New York to the Woolworth Building. And, I didn’t know them at the time. It was only later and they certainly didn’t know me.
Kelly: So, when you were at Oak Ridge, did you ride the buses or did you have a special car?
Sharpe: I had a car. There was always an Army car that took me somewhere. I never rode the bus, but there was a bus I remember.
Kelly: There was a huge bus system for the workers. But, I guess you were a VIP.
Sharpe: I was not a worker.
Kelly: Right. Right, that’s great. So, you say you brought your wife down to see Oak Ridge?
Sharpe: After the war, I had to come down to Oak Ridge. I forgot the reason, but I got permission to drive and to bring my wife down. So, we had this nice drive down through Skyline Drive and into Virginia and then finally to Oak Ridge. And, she stayed in the town site in the guest house while I worked. I was there, I think, two or three days, and then we drove back. So, it was fun and she was remarking how dirty and dusty it still was.
Kelly: And, that was just a few years after the war then?
Sharpe: Yeah, it was still dirty and dusty.
Kelly: So, what do you think of this new Manhattan Project National Historical Park?
Sharpe: Oh, I think it’s great. You are apparently doing a great job, because it does exist now, doesn’t it. And, Congress has approved some money for it, so there you go.
Kelly: It needs to go further, but we got it on the books.
Sharpe: You got it going. I think it has to commemorate; it can’t commemorate the explosive part of it, though. I mean, it killed a lot of people. It may have saved the killing of a lot of people, too. But, really, somehow, it has to aim at what can you do for peace with it. And, that’s getting to be pretty difficult these days. That’s a bigger job than even you can handle. But, that’s, I think, the big problem today.