Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert R. Wilson
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Robert Wilson; November 18, 1980
ABSTRACT: The interview focuses on the creation of Fermilab. Also discussed: early origins of Wilson's involvement in high energy physics, Cornell University, Princeton, Los Alamos, Harvard and University of California, Berkeley.
Hoddeson:This is November 19th and I am speaking with Dr. Wilson on 169th street. I think it is, and Fort Washington Avenue in New York City. This is our fifth session and we are up to Oakwood and the design of the laboratory. Before we go into the details, maybe you could say a few words about how the idea of having such a workshop developed?
Wilson:A good question. I recall some time deciding that we should start the project on June 15th. I can’t remember why. It probably had to do with some schedule at Cornell, because I had an obligation to finish the Cornell machine before really starting the other machine, and that may have been one of the things. I’ve really forgotten what it was — near that date there might be some correspondence some place that clearly had to be after school — that would fit it around June 1st, and it may be that June 15th was at a time when all schools were finished, you know, some mechanical reason such as that. Another thing is that perhaps we couldn’t get into the (Oakbrook?) Oakwood headquarters before then. There had been quite a bit of an interesting discussion about where it would be. The AEC found us a place, I’ve forgotten what little town, north of Oakbrook. I think it was much cheaper, such as say $3 a square foot.
Hoddeson:That was the old school.
Wilson:That was the old school. Yes. Right. And there are photographs around that. And it seemed like perfectly adequate space, and even closer to O’HARE, and I remember that I guess I turned it down on the following basis, that the project was getting off to what appeared to be a very chintzy beginning, and the money had been cut back from $350,000,000 to 250 million. I personally had a reputation of being a cheapskate by the way that I built things, and also, the AEC was putting pressure on us to go into this crummy place. And it was crummy. I mean, the linoleum on the floors was sort of peeling. Since it had been a school, the main rooms I think would have been gymnasiums and they smelled like gymnasiums, and everything about it would have been crummy. And then to have people come to this crummy place in this crummy little town, it struck me that that was just exactly what the project did not need. For some reason that whole idea of Illinois was the one that just nauseated everybody, including me, and then, to have Illinois put whatever that, it seemed to me to set a precedent, that was just out of the question. So I turned that down cold, and made everybody at the AEC quite angry at me, because then they saw me as a sort of a wastrel. And I insisted instead on this Oakbrook Executive Plaza, of all places, just the opposite, because it was the fanciest building around, up on the top floor of it, and for some reason, that even struck me as being out of character, yet I felt that if we didn’t get off to a good start, really get a place where, you know, people felt good about coming to, that the whole project could die, and I felt that it was exceedingly important to start it off with a bit of style. And that the style should not be a penny pinching style, because probably the AEC would hold us to that, and just looking at all these other places — we had an agreement, I think we talked about it in a letter, to Seaborg previously, about architecture. Well, this place had a little bit of architecture, whereas the other place was absolutely devoid, and we might as well be making an announcement, by the way we went, the first place we went to, that it wasn’t going to be just some crummy joint. They finally grudgingly, somewhat grudgingly, agreed, OK, we’d go there. So that’s how that was chosen. But as I recall, it was something of a...
Hoddeson:...Just a story that came in by telephone.
Wilson:Just a name, I’ve forgotten, but it reminded me that he’d gone with me to buy the cyclotron. Remember, I (they?) Said, “Oh, Yerkes is sending such and such,” and I said, “oh yeah, you’re the doctor who is disguised as a doctor.”
Well, because we were going up to buy the Harvard cyclotron. I was a professor, instructor at Princeton, and General Groves sent us there to make this deal. There was a lawyer there and all these people were in the Manhattan Project, so they were soldiers, and the lawyer went disguised as a lawyer but ask a civilian lawyer, except that he couldn’t find the proper parts of civilian clothes, so although he had on a civilian suit, he had on a camp? Shirt and a black GI tie, and you know, he was about 50 percent civilian clothes and 50 percent Army clothes, and the doctor was dressed up in Army clothes except he should have had on, he was in the Engineering Corps, but in fact he had on the doctors snakes or something, insignia. That’s why I said he was disguised as a doctor. And we walked in, and Conant was not the president then, but — he was the president but the rep was a many by the name of Paul Buck? Who was acting for him, and Percy Bridgman was there. And I just practically died because here was the great Bridgman and he was my hero. I’d read all of his books, and he just represented the last word in physics as far as I was concerned, and if I could be like Percy Bridgman I would be a success. So I wasn’t going to tell Percy Bridgman any lies, no matter what. I couldn’t. We had been given some kind of a story to tell, and I just couldn’t bring myself to lie in the presence of Percy Bridgman.
So I just kept my mouth shut, whereas these other two guys lied their heads off about why we wanted that cyclotron to go to St. Louis to be used for medical research there, and so now, both Buck and Percy Bridgman knew why it was wanted because Conant was a big blabbermouth and just told them, and they’d have known anyway. I remember they just kept toying with these people and trying to get more money out of them. I recall that Buck would always begin every sentence, “Well, Harvard has dedicated itself to do everything possible for the war effort.” There would be a long pause. Then he would say — “But” — and then it would follow, it seemed to me, that he wanted an outrageous amount of money for this, and similarly, the — it would just keep going on with the price always going up, and Percy Bridgman asking, how many people sanctimoniously had put their lives into this machine, and how you put a value on such a thing as that, and he didn’t want it to go under any circumstances whatsoever. I didn’t say anything. I sort of watched all this go by. They finally did come to a deal about it. But I remember, the climax of it was when, I guess, Bridgman said to them, they kept sticking to their story, and he kept saying, “Well, you know, if you want this thing for, “every so often he would say, “If you want this to make an atomic bomb, take it and use it in good health,” but they kept sticking to this terrible story. Finally he just, Bridgman got very angry and said, “Look here, if you want that thing for what I think you want it for, then you can have it at such and such a price, but,” he said, “if you want this to make an atomic bomb, take it and use it in good health,” but they kept sticking to this terrible story. Finally he just, Bridgman got very angry and said, “Look here, if you want that thing for what I think you want it for, then you can have it at such and such a price, but,” he said, “if you want it for what you say you want it for, then get the hell out of here because you can’t have it at any price.” Well, that was terrible thing.
Wilson:Well, eventually, they couldn’t give themselves away. I wasn’t going to say anything at all, and being from Princeton there, it was a terrible insult to the people at Harvard anyway. Every so often they would point at me “And you’ve got the nerve to bring some physicist from Princeton University here to steal our cyclotron.” It was very funny. And finally they — I guess by not saying anything, they managed to but it. As they bought it I was just outraged at the amount of money that — I knew how much it must have cost and how much they got for it, it seemed to me like about ten times as much, and I thought, my God, you stuck those people up just horribly and it must bother your conscience to have charged them that much money, you couldn’t possibly — I remember thought it was a terrible thing to let them get away with it. But they said, “Oh, we were prepared to pay them, we were authorized and prepared to pay ten times as much. We really cheated them.” So you could take it one way or the other. All I know is that the next day, there was a meeting, an important meeting at the — Hotel, where Oppie and Bok (?), all sorts of people were gathered there to straighten out some of the problems, the main one of which –-
Hoddeson:In New York?
Wilson:New York City — the main one of which was, whether they were going to go in uniform, because Oppie wanted us all to be in uniform at that time and used to talk about a people’s war and we ought to be in uniform and shouldn’t have advantages over the people who were involved in the people’s war. And crap like that. Well, I think the rest of us wouldn’t have anything to do with the military. They could give an order and we’d be stuck, and that would be the worst thing in the world. We argued and argued, I think it was that day we argued, but I recall having to report to the General and my report came after these fellows had reported. I went up to the General and I said — I guess he came up to me and he said, “Well, Wilson, we certainly fooled them up at Harvard.” I said, “Yeah? Well, maybe we fooled them, General, but we didn’t fool them very much.” “Wilson,” he said, he was a gruff man, “we certainly fooled them up at Harvard.” “Yes, Sir, General,” I said, “we certainly fooled them up at Harvard.” Well, this man told me, the General every so often had him do all kinds of interesting things, having not only to do with medicine, and that he was writing a book about this. He’s now an emeritus professor, and that he wanted to give me, he called to discuss this incident with me and he said there was a lot background that I hadn’t know about it, and that he wanted to fill me in on the parts of it. He had read the article that I had written, and he said he wanted to fill me in on the previous things that had happened before that and happened afterwards, things apparently that I hadn’t known about, about that incident.
Hoddeson:Where was he?
Wilson:He was in Manhattan probably working at a university. I don’t know where he is now. He said he was going to get in touch with me and we’d talk about it. As you can see, he was very anxious to talk —
Hoddeson:You were on your way to Los Alamos at the time?
Wilson:No, I’d been out to Los Alamos a couple of times.
Hoddeson:But you were still at Princeton and had made the decision to go.
Wilson:I had made the decision to go. I had a group at Harvard? — no, that was before — so I must still have been at Princeton, and Oppie had me go to. I was already some kind of a big shot in that business, and Oppie had me going off to Los Alamos to inspect construction, and then I would make reports to him, and we were starting to organize further. And then I had been assigned by Oppie to go along to buy the cyclotron. Then after we bought it, then I was, I formed the group that I had at Princeton and we lived at ????? near Harvard. We moved it, got it on a box car, sent it out to St. Louis, then it was re-routed to Los Alamos where we put it together and made it work.
Hoddeson:I still don’t know how something of that size managed to get to Los Alamos. I guess lots of things of that size managed to get to Los Alamos without people realizing that there was something very fishy going on?
Wilson:This thing was shipped, re-cased and then re-shipped. And they kept the story about it going to St. Louis medical depot, that was maintained, in spite of the fact that the people at Ann Arbor of course knew better. It wasn’t a secret as far as they were concerned that there was such a project going. People in the recruiting end and all that told them, well, that it wasn’t St. Louis.
Hoddeson:Let me ask you a question. Would you like to spend an hour and we could take care of at least the outlines of the Los Alamos period?
Hoddeson:Since we started.
Wilson:Ok. That was the beginning.
Hoddeson:We have a big hole in the interview and some day we must fill it in, so —
Wilson:Ok. Well, we can do that.
Hoddeson:Since we started. I have no notes. We can just do it without.
Wilson:Ok. All right. It was interesting that he called at just that —
Hoddeson:— Yes, Yes –-
Wilson:It’s just that — at that point. As far as I know, I’ve never seen him since, nor heard from him, since we walked away from Paul Buck’s office. The other thing that I can remember about it is that while we were waiting for the interview in Harvard Hall, Paul Buck, who was the head or vice president, he was the provost I guess, but standing in for Conant, who was off on war business — we walked around, and we were looking at all these revolutionary types on the wall, walking around with these people who were with the Manhattan Project, and they were at a certain age, but they looked at it and here was General such and such of the Revolutionary War, age 21. And somebody else, aged 22, somebody else, aged such and such. Finally one of them made a very wise? bright? Comment. He said, “I didn’t know they had an Air Force in those days.” Because the air Force was full of young generals about that age, and if you were in any other thing like the Manhattan Project, you had to wait your turn before you got promoted. To me these guys were all like the Air Force, they were kids 21, 22 years old, and generals already.
Hoddeson:Let’s see. Actually, to go to — to fill in the hole maybe we should say that at Princeton you were instructor, then assistant professor, and you worked on the isotron? There?
Hoddeson:And that’s what caused, was it the isotron that caused Oppie to decide that you were the man for Los Alamos?
Wilson:Yes, it had to do with that, what happened was that the isotron was, I wouldn’t say falling, but that there was a competition between the isotron, which was a radio frequency electrical device for separating isotopes that I had invented, and the method that was being pursued at Berkeley that had been invented by Lawrence. It was called the calutron? This is pretty well documented in Harry Smythe’s book on, I’ve forgotten the name of it, the Smythe Report, and Harry Smythe was really the person in charge. I was a kid. I’d been there as an instructor and I suppose I was in my twenties, 28 years old, and never was — I’d had that idea and was in charge of the project of maybe 50 to 100 men, pursuing that method, this device, and we worked day and night trying to make it work. Then Ernest Lawrence — once we got going — would come out and see that niche group of people and try to close us down, so we got in terrible fights with Ernest about, he wanted us to close down and use the people to go out to work on his project. Were convinced — I was convinced that my method was a lot cheaper and a lot better than his method. Well, after a while, though, although we were going fairly well, we weren’t doing as well as? — Who was working on that project —
Hoddeson:What was he doing?
He was a graduate student and I just went around and told him he had to work on the project. What it had to do with life and death, war and peace, and now was not the time to be doing — he was working on some abstruse thesis problem — and that shouldn’t be doing that but instead here was a project that could have to do with winning or losing the war, and by God he’d better put his shoulder to the wheel and work on it. He told me to go fly a kite. Very characteristic way. But I told him, “All right, nevertheless I’m having an organizational meeting tomorrow at such and such a time and I damn well expect you to be there,” and he was there. Interesting. So I felt that I’d gotten him into the war work. And there were lots of people that I’ve been associated with since who were among that crop of kids who were too young to have been caught in the first wave — almost everybody was picked up and went to work in the Radiation Laboratory, radar project, but these were kids who were still graduate students and were a little too young to go off and work at the university.
So at any rate, he was typical of the very bright kids who happened to be around Princeton and such places that I could get for the project, and I did. So here we were, you know, just — I mean, I was the old man, and as I say, see, it was in 1941, maybe, and so I was born in 1914, I — so I was probably 27 years old there, or so, and I was in charge of the project. And — you know, the Old Man of the place. So we, well, we weren’t doing as well as we could, and he had started, Ernest had actually started his project down in… Oak Ridge, and he was just way ahead, had lots of momentum, and although I still thought our project was better, I could see that we didn’t have the chance of a snowball in hell or catching up. He was on all the right committees and he was the great Lawrence, and who was I? So I went out to see him and had a conversation with him, and, to tell him that it wasn’t a question of — I was very patriotic about the war, that it wasn’t a question of keeping the project going, that I wanted him to point out to me where it was better to be using those people for something else than what we were doing at Princeton, and explain to me why it was, in which case there wouldn’t be any question, we’d just all quit our work and go wherever we would be most useful. And he did. So I agreed with him. I mean, he pointed out that they had all this momentum, and how could I get any momentum going? You know, put the cards right on the table, very honest.
Hoddeson:What about the technical side of the equipment?
Wilson:Well, the technical — he said, “Well, about that,” that we had not been doing as well as we had said we were going to be doing, which was correct, and that he wasn’t doing as well as he had thought he would be doing either, but that, that was an unknown, but one had to push one scheme or another, and we couldn’t sit around playing Hamlet while we made up our minds which was the very best project. We had to pick one or the other, and here was one all organized with, The Manhattan Project behind it, with a new project opened up at Oak Ridge where it could be exploited, with some results, and that in his judgment, it was the best method, and it was better than my method, and that he was more experienced than I was, and I admitted that all of that was true, and said, “Ok, Ernest, you convinced me. We’ll quit.”
Hoddeson:This was your first confrontation with him, wasn’t it?
Wilson:He was a hero to me.
Hoddeson:Yes, and here you were, with your first big job —
Wilson:My first big job, and up to them, every time he’d come around — he’d tried to close it down several times, and I was fighting him as though he were a monster. And I was a tough kid.
Hoddeson:So then what happened?
Wilson:So we were available, and at just that time, then — it may have been an accident, I’m not sure, but then the next thing that happened was that Oppie came around to tell me about the project he was starting at Los Alamos, and he needed —
Hoddeson:That was in 1942, probably.
Wilson:Yes, that was in 1942, and he needed — early 1942, it might have been January — he needed the personnel — ‘42 or ‘43 — ‘42 maybe — he needed people, and first of all, he wanted me to come, and that he wanted — I’d known Oppie, he’d served on my committee, I’d known him back at Berkeley — we were fairly, on fairly reasonable terms — then he wanted those people that I felt were worth bringing, I should recruit those and bring them along. I think — had come out before him, but I know he came, and so I felt, I agreed that that was good, that was where we could be very useful. I pointed out that we had all kinds of equipment which we had ordered to make the isotron, and that that equipment was general and we could use it, ship that out there, and he pointed out that they wanted some other instruments such as Van de Graaf and cyclotron, and that they wanted the cyclotron, that one that wasn’t being used was the one at Harvard —
Hoddeson:That was considered the best?
Wilson:Well, there was another one that was better, but that was being used as calutron by Ernest, so otherwise this was the best cyclotron, better considerably than the one we had at Princeton. I agreed with that. And so, I got into the —, more and more into their - - there were only a few people on the project. I began traveling around with him on the recruiting of other people, and I went out to look at Los Alamos and found out that it was way behind schedule, and it was a very exciting time. I think I wrote that up in another little article called “The — Of Los Alamos,” for one of —‘s books.
Hoddeson:I think I read that somewhere.
Wilson:I know that I got into a terrible fight with Oppie because he seemed to not know anything about administration, and John Manley and I were the two experimentalists in the project at the time, the only two —
Hoddeson:MacMillian I gather didn’t —
Hoddeson:But I forget, didn’t he do other things besides experimental?
Wilson:I don’t know what Ed was doing then — he was probably working on —- (off tape) I don’t remember what Ed was doing before he came to Los Alamos. I was working so hard on that Princeton project that I wouldn’t have known, I would have just assumed that he was working at Berkeley, but I don’t recall ever seeing him when I went out there, or that he was playing any very vital role in what was going on with the development of the calutron, so he might have been some other place, some other project — he might have been working on one of those.
Hoddeson:At any rate, I can’t remember what I read about, when he arrived at Los Alamos — telling them what they needed about water and — all kinds of —
Wilson:Oh yes. I got there early, and there were only a few people. One of them was Joy Hoymans? from Minnesota, and he was a Canadian physicist, associate professor, who had been building Van de Graaf, I believe, at that time, at the University of Minnesota, and he was on the spot. I’d been there before but had gone away to move the cyclotron. When I got back, John was there, and he was in charge of the site, and Rose Bethe? of all people was there, and she was to be charge of housing. And I think there was one other young physicist whose name escapes me now.
Hoddeson:What did he do?
Wilson:He was just an assistant. He perhaps had come from Minnesota. John had brought him along to do whatever he told him to do. And then I appeared, and that made four of us, plus whatever people happened to be there, the store keeper, people who had been associated with the school, and the —? To the lady who was the dietician for the school. She was running the cafeteria.
Hoddeson:So, we were in the middle of —
Wilson:Our problem then, the guys had not gotten to Los Alamos, they were still out at — my gang, my cyclotron group, were still at Harvard, packing up the cyclotron, and some of them were at Princeton, packing up all of the stuff there to be taken to — out to Los Alamos eventually. And that was very, was a life safer, because there was a box car or two full of stuff. There were screws and resistors and everything you needed on a project. Had that been ordered, it wouldn’t have come for a year, or wouldn’t have come at all because of the war going on. And just because we’d been very energetic in getting stuff, why —, we had a complete stock pile of everything you needed for a laboratory. So we could get Los Alamos really going very rapidly, which was quite an important matter. But mostly what John and I were doing was, getting that damn lab —
Hoddeson:This is John Williams?
John Williams — getting that damn lab into shape so that when the people came, they’d have a place to work and live. And the Army was dragging their feet. If anybody was any good, he was out fighting the war, and anybody who wasn’t very much good, they were shipping them out to this place, which, in the minds of the military, was the place, you know, for putting dumb people who had nothing to do with the war and it was a good place to get rid of them. So there were just a lot of people who were second rate, I’m afraid, who were there, and anybody who was there hated it, because what were they doing up on top of a mountain, with a bunch of what they considered longhairs, and telling them what to do —? And it had absolutely nothing to do with getting the war on, getting on with the war, and these were all soldiers, they wanted to be out fighting. Especially the guards who were around. They just hated us, because they wanted to get on — it was different from the Vietnam War, in the sense that people then were very ferocious and wanted to get off and start fighting, and this was just universally true. So in any case, we immediately, they considered us the enemy. We considered them the enemy, the people in uniform, and we fought like cats and dogs. They would want to do things their own sensible way. Anything that we wanted to do, they considered to be nonsense. So it would end up in just a big fight, about, you know, whether the wires were big enough, or whether the facilities were good enough, and what was necessary and what was not necessary. And they were Engineers Corps, and they didn’t recognize physicists as knowing anything, but in fact we knew a hell of a lot more than they did, and we would get into just awful fights. I remember, one in particular — I got into a fight with a lieutenant colonel about, well, about the wires not being big enough to run our cyclotron with, just little wires he put in, and obviously the power needed was just much greater. So I was trying to get him to put in bigger wires, and he told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I’d talk about the line drop, and finally he said I hadn’t even considered the frequency drop there was going to be in the wires, and this dumb dodo thought there would be a frequency drop in the wires, as a voltage drop, and he had the term, he put it in writing somewhere, some way, because all those fights always escalated to the point where he put in, to get rid of us. His idea was, he was going to get rid of me, you know, and he put in this report that I hadn’t even attempted to know about the frequency drop as well as the voltage drop so how could any stupe like that even know enough — It came to, this thing got bucked up to a high level, where he was insisting that I be thrown out of the project, which meant that I’d go off to the war. I was in turn insisting that he was an incompetent and certainly should not be solving hard problems of electricity and magnetism. Well, Oppie went to — I came to him — Oppie went to bat for me — I remember, he wrote me down as one of the great electrical geniuses of our time, that I was absolutely indispensable and under no circumstances was I to be shipped off to some other place. It turned out, this guy was shipped out to the South Pacific, which made him happy, it’s where he wanted to go anyway. I was perfectly happy to stay and work there. It was typical of the kinds of fights that we would just have every day with the military people, you know, trying to get things done. And it did get going.
Hoddeson:What were some of the — if I’d known we were going to talk about Los Alamos, I would have brought a few Los Alamos things with us. Do you remember who the main people in your group were and what some of the problems were that you were working on?
Wilson:Yes. Of course, what happened was –-
Hoddeson:— I’m also curious about, why wasn’t Lawrence at Los Alamos?
Wilson:Lawrence had his own project. He was pushing a project that was separating the isotopes, and he would regarded that as the principal problem. There were as you know two ways of doing it. One was to make the reactors, to make the ???? plutonium. The other was to separate the isotopes, and so from his point of view, if you didn’t have, once you’d separated the isotopes, you had the Uranium 0-235, then you would find a way of putting the thing together, and he was absolutely right, because Ed MacMillian came to that project with the problem all worked out, which was to have a cannon, you have one part uranium at the base of the cannon, the other in the shell — you fire the two together, and it would go make an atomic bomb and go off, and that solution — Ed essentially knew before Los Alamos started. It was the one that was used at Nagasaki, I believe, no at Hiroshima, and —
Hoddeson:That was the gun?
Wilson:The gun, yes, and the whole project, I mean, Ed’s group — he had enough, he had a few people, he had some guy from Tennessee who belonged to the Tennessee Smooth Bore Rifle co., who was sort a hillbilly type.
Hoddeson:Now I remember.
Wilson:Olmstead? Was his name.
Hoddeson:I think he worked on the gun assembly.
Wilson:Yes, and Ed worked on that, and they had that worked out the first few weeks. Ed knew about it before they came out. They had made this thing, tested it, and it was a question of learning how autofrotage? guns, and whatever, and they did all of that, and it didn’t require any Los Alamos whatsoever. Los Alamos could have just not existed and the bomb would have gone off, probably the first one, as far as I know, not counting the one over the desert, and there would have been no necessity for all of that.
Hoddeson:Then you need to explain what this contributed.
Wilson:Well, very little because —
Hoddeson:— to the bomb, and also what the theoreticians contributed.
Wilson:No, the theoreticians didn’t contribute anything, because again, it was known how to do this ahead. They might have figured out how to do it a little better. That is, that whole group, if they hadn’t existed, would not have made any difference, except there would not have been the implosion plutonium bomb, which was very subtle and had many difficulties, and to which our group contributed a lot, contributed a lot to. But the bomb would have gone off, in its own fashion, very much the way Ed had in mind, I’m convinced, had no one gone to Los Alamos, had there been no Los Alamos. I think all of this is absolutely correct. And Ed Macmillan therefore, in spite of being a scoundrel much of your life — actually he’s one of my great heroes — he really, I think, is one of the great men, considered one of the great experimenters in the United States and in the world, of all time. Los Alamos could have just not existed and the bomb would have gone off, probably the first one, as far as I know, not counting the one over the desert, and there would have been no necessity for all of that.
Hoddeson:Then you need to explain what this contributed.
Wilson:Well, very little because —
Hoddeson:— to the bomb, and also what the theoreticians contributed.
Wilson:No, the theoreticians didn’t contribute anything, because again, it was known how to do this ahead. They might have figured out how to do it a little better. That is, that whole group, if they hadn’t existed, would not have made any difference, except there would not have been the implosion plutonium bomb, which was very subtle and had many difficulties, and to which our group contributed a lot, contributed a lot to. But the bomb would have gone off, in its own fashion, very much the way Ed had in mind, I’m convinced, had no one gone to Los Alamos, had there been no Los Alamos. I think all of this is absolutely correct. And Ed Macmillan therefore, in spite of being a scoundrel much of your life — actually he’s one of my great heroes — he really, I think, is one of the great men, considered one of the great experimenters in the United States and in the world, of all time.
Hoddeson:Now, did Ed figure out this gun thing, or did Serber, didn’t Serber —?
Wilson:I don’t know who figured it out. It could have been Serber. But it was an obvious way of getting two things together, and my guess, — and this happened before Los Alamos — it was figured out I think at a meeting that was held in Madison, Wisconsin, which Oppie had been the head of, and perhaps he’d done such a good job at that meeting, where mostly they talked about the hydrogen bomb, that he was chosen head of the thing, because he was a very unlikely choice to be chosen director of this project. Especially by the General. This man’s going to fill me in on that.
Hoddeson:Oh — Ok, then, maybe what did you start working on at Alamos?
Wilson:The first thing that happened was, you must have hear that, that there was a meeting to get things going, and we sat, all the physicists and some of the people who’d been recruited came. They filled up a room. Maybe there were 50 people in the room, I’ve forgotten just how many. I’m sure there are records, of that. And Serber was just sitting there, five minutes ago, before you came in —
Wilson:He came into see me. Bob Serer was the principal lecturer, and he gave lectures every day about what they had done before, because he had been working on the theory, I guess with Oppie, perhaps at Berkeley, and because of these summer workshops that had been held at — which I think were at Madison, Wisconsin. I’m not sure where that was held. I hadn’t been to it, but there were meetings. In any case Serer then outlined the general methods, and then he was constantly interrupted by Oppie and by other people, I knew that Fermi was at this meeting. At that meeting we decided — I mean, not only did we look at the past, but then we looked forward, to the future — what kinds of problems had to be done. And I think it was at that place where Seth Neddemeyer may have had his idea about implosion. And I know I had several ideas during the course of that meeting which I got patents on. One of mine was an autocatalytic divide where you would have, let’s see, boron stuck inside of absorbing material, stuck inside of kind of a spherical bomb, in cones, so that when the bomb, when this thing was assembled it was below criticality. Then you would shoot off an explosion, I think it was an implosion type, and that would compress it, and the boron being lighter than uranium, would squeeze out, leaving just pure uranium, and as it squeezed out, then that would make a bigger explosion which would squeeze it out faster, and that was called an autocatalytic bomb. That’s something that I invented then and I think I got a patent on this terrible device, which was a lousy idea.
Hoddeson:Was it ever built?
Wilson:No, it was never built. As far as I know it probably wouldn’t work. I don’t know why. You know, that was the kind of ideas that were being passed around, and that was the time that I had that particular idea, which was discussed quite a bit as an example of an autocatalytic, that was called an autocatalytic kind of a scheme, because as the bomb went off it would go off more and more, which was sort of a new idea, rather than blowing itself apart, because it would be blowing out, the first thing that would get blown off was the boron, which was preventing it from going off more strongly.
Hoddeson:To go back to the concept that Los Alamos might not have been needed at all —m it’s my impression that the critical mass wasn’t known yet —
Wilson:— yes, but —
Hoddeson:— that that type of work was worked out at Los Alamos.
It was worked out at Los Alamos. But it was worked out at Los Alamos largely by getting separated material and piling it up into a pile and watching the counting rate go, and you could see when, it was determined experimentally, as fast as the stuff would come in you would pile it up and get a counting rate, and you extrapolated, the one doling the counting rate extrapolated to zero — that was what would be critical mass. Up to that time there were lots of — and that’s why we spent most of our time was, trying to find out what the critical mass was, measuring the critical constants. But — But there were always lots of variables, about what was the spectrum of the fission, how much of it came out instantaneously, — there were all kinds of questions that had to be resolved and did — For example, it might have turned out that the neutrons were delayed more, for some reason, more than we knew, in which case the gun method — or no method would have worked. And that was one of the first problems that we approached with the cyclotron method. But mostly we were measuring such things as, — it was not know how many neutrons came off in fast fission as opposed to slow fission. You could make fission go off slowly, then you’d get a certain number of neutrons.
That was known by then. That was known from reactors having worked. But it wasn’t known, how many came off instantly, fast fission, the fast —- and that was something that we measured there. Problems of that general kind. Then, how many neutrons came out of plutonium as compared to say uranium -235, that was not know. That had to be known. That was something that was measured in those early days. And then we would mock up various kinds of geometries, and from the way slow neutrons would interact and multiply in those, we could figure out the fast neutrons, how they would go. Bob Serber had worked out a method so that we could use our experiments, interpret them, and then get the critical mass and various things. But as I say, had we not had any of that — well, one would have gone on just separating the material. After all, all of the stuff was in place to do it. You wouldn’t have stopped doing it... And just taken that material as you got it, piled it up, and made a determined what the critical mass was, put that much in the gun — it was known, enough to have built the gun — it was just a question of some fine adjustments in the gun, and dropped the gun wherever you wanted to, attached to it — certainly that would have made a bomb without any of the — Now, we might have found some things along the way that would have told us that we were wasting our money. Then we would have just stopped the project. At Los Alamos, many of the experiments that we did, my group, were of the kind that might mean that the bomb wouldn’t go off at all, for some reason, some kind of physics.
Hoddeson:What you really did was, you developed confidence, in believing that the thing would work.
Hoddeson:More than anything else.
Wilson:And kind of plugged up holes, for some — and those things were brought up at this conference, where people tried to think of reasons why it wouldn’t work, or why — or better reasons for making it work — or some of these details like, are we going to blow up the whole world? And there was always this slight possibility, that if you were to set off a nuclear bomb, that the atmosphere would catch, the nitrogen in the atmosphere would catch on fire, but some mechanisms that we didn’t know.
Hoddeson:But then — calculated that it was Ok, that the — of the atmosphere —
Wilson:It could have been —
Hoddeson:I haven’t had a chance to talk with him about it.
Wilson:I see. I always thought that it was —
Hoddeson:I found the calculation.
Wilson:You did. I see. I know that several people calculated —
Hoddeson:— I can’t remember — (Crosstalk)
Wilson:? — calculated I think –-
Hoddeson:(crosstalk) — calculated together —
Wilson:I always think of it as, Chris Katinsky? was a very retiring kind of person, personality, whereas Henryk? — was much more outgoing, so the two were making calculations, and you heard about it from Henryk, lots of fanfare, and he never just enjoyed physics and enjoyed talking about physics.
Hoddeson:He probably did work with that. I think he was in Teller’s group, but the calculations were certainly —
Wilson:— that could well be... I didn’t know that. And I think that Rickey? may have made such calculations too, about that, and possibly even Fermi might have made that calculation, because it’s one of those things — I mean, however remote the possibility was — because, one, you didn’t (would?) Want to hit from various different directions —
Wilson:Although all the calculations indicated that this was impossible, it was still, you know, how smart are you? And if there was some mechanisms, some idea that no one had thought about, that this was Doomsday Machine that you didn’t want to set off under any circumstances.
Hoddeson:Did you think it would work? I’ve talked to people who said they weren’t certain, right until the moment —
Wilson:I suppose. There’s one measure of that. You know, there was a pool, won by a man — funny how the treads go — won by I. I. Rabi, who just called me, and most people in this pool — this seems like a terrible thing to be doing — to be betting, with such a heinous possibility, but people were betting on this pool, and Rabi I think got, 30,000 tons or 25 thousand, he won the bet. Most people bet around, the bets were around 10 tons — in other words, it would be 10 tons of explosive, at least five or ten, so it would at least be that, so that’s why there were none less, and some people would bet 25 tons, some people 100 tons, and most of the experts were — these were recorded, these bets, and most of the experts got less than a thousand. There was practical no bet more than a thousand. I’ve forgotten what Vicky? Dicke? Bet, because he was one of the people to collect all the factors that described about what the bomb looked like when it went off, and that there was a sort of — Value such as 10,000 tons expected, the most expected. Now, I’m pretty sure that I bet 50,000 tons. Now, what I’m trying to remember is, did I bet that because I thought it was going to go off? Or was I just being a smart aleck? And I can’t remember, because I know I wanted to have the highest bet, partly because I knew everybody was betting low. I always felt that you ought to bet on what you’re doing, bet on yourself. That was just a matter of philosophy... And I guess I did bet that it was going to go off and that it would go pretty much as we expected. He just gave the memorial lecture at Los Alamos about the Oppenheimer Memorial. He’s a physicist who is a very, he’s one of the best speakers that we have, a colleague of mine at Connell, and I can’t remember his name. It’ll come back.
Hoddeson:It’ll come back. I can find out who gave the —
Wilson:Anyway, his wife, from whom he’s now divorced, and Hawkins wrote a history of the project.
Hoddeson:Oh yes, the (crosstalk) I saw it mimeographed — (interruption...)
Hoddeson:We were talking about the Los Alamos period. You were telling me —
Wilson:Phil’s first name, I cannot get his last name —
Wilson:Phil Morrison, of course, one of my best friends. That’s what happened if you —
Hoddeson:He wrote something recently?
Wilson:No, I was just thinking, it was Emily who wrote the — participated at least in the writing with Hawkins of this book that you know about, and it seems to me, in that book, they might have —
Hoddeson:— I don’t remember seeing —
Wilson:Or in the materials of the book, I’m sure they would have —
Hoddeson:Maybe — It may be in the classified version, which I haven’t read yet.
Wilson:Oh, I see.
Hoddeson:I don’t think it — but I can look it up, I have a copy of it at home.
Wilson:It might have that in it.
Hoddeson:It might. It might — (crosstalk)
Wilson:— they were a little bit serious about it, and they might not have put such a trivial matter in, but I’m sure that the list still exists, because a few years ago someone was referring to it.
Hoddeson:Did Janey Jay? Know what was going on?
Wilson:No, she didn’t.
Hoddeson:She really didn’t?
Wilson:I’m not sure. She knew enough about things in the early days, before there was a project. I made a point of not talking to Janie, and she claims not to have known too much about what was going on, although...(off tape)
Hoddeson:I was asking you about Jane, what she knew of the Los Alamos project.
Wilson:When she saw the headlines, she said to her mother, — they got off the street car, and she bought the paper, and she knew, I mean just looking at the headlines, “Hiroshima Bombed” or whatever it was, atomic bomb, she knew that that was the project. She certainly knew what we were doing and, and there certainly was lots of conversation that tended to go on about her but I think she was sort of tuned out of technical things. She was an English major, took little interest in physics and technical matters and did not want to know. I think in a general way she knew what was going on, but tried not to know — and might not have known whether we were building a reactor — she probably did not know we were building an atomic bomb, not a reactor. She did know we were building a reactor — I’ve forgotten just how much — but I was surprised how little she claimed to have known, afterwards, given that people would tend to speak a little bit, you know, when we were speaking tete-a-tete, even off the project, the technical area. But we tried not to. We tried to be social in our —
Hoddeson:What did you tell her?
Wilson:You mean, when we were going up?
Hoddeson:When you were going up or when you were there? At Los Alamos at the end of the day or whenever it was.
Wilson:We wouldn’t talk about it.
Hoddeson:You simply wouldn’t talk? She accepted that?
Wilson:She accepted that. She knew it was a secret project, and I think you would have to ask her what — but I can’t remember. When I came home there were other things to talk about. There was lots to talk about, gossip, and — it was a much more benign place than one might imagine, given all of the different people thrown together in this place — nevertheless there was plenty going on that you could talk about that, you, fights between people, what was Kitty Oppenheimer doing, that would set Jane off for hours — and things of that general kind. But I would not talk about, I wouldn’t talk about the project at all. And she had no particular interest. She never asked me questions about it. Except I might say, “I’m going to have to go off and work for a week, hard. We’re going to be hitting things very hard at this time. Don’t expect to see me very much.” I would, you know, be away all hours of the day and night, working.
Hoddeson:You told me something about your interaction with Serber. I was wondering what the interaction with other theorists was like at Los Alamos.
The interactions with Bob of course were very — he lived next door to me, the Servers, we used to say, were our neighbors? unnervers, and both Jane and Charlotte Server were great friends, hit it immediately. They had very similar personalities and were very dear friends, and they had horses and we had horses, and we’d go off riding together, and you know, get into big fights, all out, in the way of very good friends, and make up, the way good friends generally behave. And because of the Servers, too, — well, then, I was a good friend of Oppie. I was sort of the middle echelons, and Oppie and I were particularly good friends. I think he respected me partly because I was an experimentalist and he wasn’t, and he used to ask my opinion about many things. The other thing was that the — oh, I myself wasn’t much of a liberal. He was supposed to be quite a liberal, Oppie, and was — radical, I should say. I was, as a boy from Wyoming, the farthest thing from that, from a radical. Nevertheless the group that came from Princeton were all, really were a bunch of red hot radicals, and we, and as their leader — you know, you have to kind of stay in front of your troops, as well as — I would champion them, and I know that they were interested in social problems having to do with the way the site developed. They were interested that there be equality in the way the houses were given out, and in the way wages were paid, and I managed to take their point of view pretty seriously.
I had, for example, was interested enough in those things, I know, that I was a member of the first town council, it was called. The first town council was appointed apparently and the head of the first town council was a man by the name of somebody Will, a philosopher, and a wonderful person, and I liked him. We were great friends. But he went back, I think out of conscience. I think he felt he shouldn’t be there, and went back to Berkeley to teach philosophy to the students. The other philosopher was Hawkins, who was partly a mathematician, who was there, and he had to do with social problems, but he was administration. I remember I was always having fights with him because of I was then — it’s interesting that, he was also presumably a very radical, and again, I was a very non-radical conservative, because I came from Wyoming, where everybody was conservative. Yet I was always confronting him. He was the establishment and I was — it was an interesting reversal of roles — and I was always hitting him up for social equality, and things of that kind. In any case, the first time there was an election, it was decided that the town council wasn’t representative because it wasn’t elected. The first time there was an election I got the most votes, which made me the chairman or the mayor. I was the first chairman of the town council. We had all kinds of problems to bring up, and I was very fierce in taking on Oppie or whatever, when I was a member of the administration, about getting social conditions improved. There were all kinds of interesting problems coming up. One of the dorms turned out to be a whore house — what we were to do about that — it was put off limits when it came to us by the Army so that represented a kind of social problem, I imagine, and just what to do about that. It was quite an education for me.
Hoddeson:Who were the whores?
Wilson:Well, they were girls who were there to —
Hoddeson:— were they Army people? Or visitors or ?
Wilson:They were secretaries. They were secretaries, and people who I guess were maids. Most of the maids, though, were people who came up from the villages, Indian ladies, but there were some people who were just living there, and secretaries and — well, —
Hoddeson:I’m not even sure where the secretaries came from.
Wilson:Well, they came — I don’t know really where they came from, but there were some lady physicists living there. There were all sorts of ladies doing odds and ends jobs, or keeping the grocery store, all kinds of sort of positions that were being filled by odds and ends of people who were hired, and the females stayed in the female dorms, and there were a number of female dorms. One female dorm, they were sort of split on the basis of tactical — that is, ladies who were physicists, there were quite a few, and secretaries lived in one of the dorms, but those doing more menial tasks such as taking care of the grocery store, and such things as that, I’ve forgotten completely, lived in one of the other dorms. I think there were two or three such dorms. And one of the dorms one day was closed. It wasn’t closed, just, a sign was put on that it was off limits to the military. So there was a complaint from the ladies, whenever there was something happened, the ladies complained by coming to the town council. So they came complaining that their dorm had been put off limits and this was a terrible insult and that it wasn’t true and so on. And so we had then to straighten out this whole question, of whether it was or wasn’t, and in what respect, and so, it turned out that there was some, enough, quite a bit of truth to it. Then we had to make up our minds, well, you know, was this something we were going to put up with? Or were we not going to put up with it? We decided, I remember very well, you know, the whole town council thing — we decided this was a fact of life and the God damn Army could take their sign down, but that it was something we were going to put up with. I think we also decided that the ladies ought to be inspected from time to time. I’ve forgotten just how — it was a real hot potato. I remember as a young man of 29 I was having somehow to make a judgment about this, sitting as the chairman of the town council, deciding what we were going to do, and it struck me as kind of funny.
Hoddeson:Who were some of the other chairmen of the town council? Was Vicky? (Dicke?)
Wilson:He certainly was on and he may have been chairman of the town council.
Hoddeson:Those are other papers I should look for some time.
Wilson:Yes, who were the members of the town council.
Hoddeson:That would fun to –-
Wilson:It would, because it was the first town council, and that you could certainly find, which was appointed. And then the second town council, the one which was elected — which I remember being, the one who got the most votes then, as I recall, we decided was the chairman of the town council, the mayor of the town, and I’m pretty sure that I was that, although this philosopher Will who had been the previous chairman, whether he had won the first election or not — and then left — and then I inherited his job, or not, I can’t remember. Because he had been appointed. They brought to some of us, essentially to him, social problems. He was particularly good at doing these things. A wonderfully nice man, took everybody’s part. But there were lots of trivial questions of the kind you can imagine coming up, that did come up, that eventually got sort of straightened out in this manner.
Hoddeson:Are you getting tired?
Wilson:A little bit. Not too bad.
Hoddeson:Shall we just go to the end of Los Alamos, and then I think we should —
Wilson:We can go a little bit farther, yes.
Hoddeson:Ok. You’ve got to tell me. Since we are on Los Alamos, and some social issues, I remember coming across some memoranda about informal meetings that eventually led to the Federation of American scientists.
Hoddeson:That you were active in.
Wilson:Yes, I was extremely active in —
Hoddeson:— I guess Manley was on the list. I’m trying to remember who else was on the list.
Wilson:Well, one thing in the way of background that I should have said about it, about Jane and myself, was that we knew, because of my age, I was younger than most people, so we knew a rather young group of people. We went to their parties and so on. Yet, I was something. At first I was a group leader and then I was a division leader. I was division leader of the research division, which meant that I was one of five or seven top management. Therefore, I sat in on the top meetings. The other thing was that the — I was very popular with the forum group.. The forum group consisted of the Bethes, the Fermis, Wiesskopf? And the Brechers? And there was a whole contingent of people that we called the forum group, the British people, the — for example, and they were very — hum? and Fuchs, yes. That son-of-a-bitch, he used to hang around my wife.
Hoddeson:Really? — (Laughing) I didn’t know that –-
— anyway — well, such people, and they were very social. So we went to their parties and got to know them, and get to be extremely good friends, more especially the — And the Bethes, and got along with everybody though, we were quite — but we were about the only Americans who were part of that group. So that gave me a rather broad base with them, and I don’t know why, but in some sense, well — Oppie was not terribly popular with that group of people, and yet I was popular with Oppie too. And then there was a group such as the Williams, that I talked about, he was a group leader, a popular and powerful person, and there were the Bachers, they were very good friends, Bacher and the Ellisons and so on. These were a more — influential group than was I, because they were older, they had the ear of Oppie and they had more to do with the implosion device then I did, had to do just with physics. And there were the MacMillans I was very friendly with and the Christies and a group such as that. We used to play poker together, and with Alan T? Once a week, and the Serbers, and we were popular with that group. Then there were people like Dave — and — young and sort of with it people, and we were part of that group too. If there was a dance we’d always go to the dance, if there was a party we would go, we were inevitably invited. So we hit it off with about every social level at the site. We managed to participate and it made it a particularly rich experience for us and lots of fun. Then we were invited over at Oppie’s whenever anything social occurred there and that was like all the time, and when somebody like Rabi, or someone from the various communities would come in, when they were being entertained, we were always invited over to help entertain them. So that was rather nice, in that we had access. It also meant that in the discussions that were going on, I participated on a number of levels, because I participated partly as a radical Princetonian.
I was considered to be one of those radicals. Whenever you said the Princetonians, that meant the group that came from Princeton, and that was almost the same as saying, the radicals, and I was identified with them as a radical, for some funny reason. And I became, perhaps because of my association with the group, I was supposed to be a radical, I became more of a radical. I read radical books and I took the NEW REPUBLIC, and things of that kind, and I guess Jane was much more of a radical during that time, and perhaps I had become something of a radical when I was at the University of California, which was going through a very radical phase then itself, so you couldn’t walk through Sather Gate without some kind of a demonstration going on, and all my friends were Communists, to put too fine a point on it, and in spite of all that I was conservative. On the other hand, you can’t keep p a conversation with a friend and not move toward, you know, without falling out with him, without moving closer to his position, and so many people might have considered me even a Communist. I always considered myself as a champion of individualism and freedom. I mean, as a cow hand, that was practically a religion there, that you didn’t join a union, that you didn’t do anything that anybody told you to do, that anything that impinged on any of your rights and freedom was out, and that, in a sense, I was partly becoming a physicist because it was the frontier, it was the place where you could do as you damn well pleased. Fundamentally that’s always been my philosophy. Nevertheless, there was another figure there who was of great importance, that was Uncle — that is Niels Bohr, and I became great friends with Niels Bohr too.
Then another person who came, who was in my life, was — became, it always seemed to me these people came near the end — but who was there for quite a while, was Frank Oppenheimer, and he was one of my best friends, and had been a very good friend in Princeton days, and I just love Frank. Frank, as it turned out, was a Communist. Well, he was my best friend and we had long soulful conversations about politics after the war. Then of course I knew Phil Morrison very well, as another classmate of mine from Berkeley, and he was there. And people like Hawkins I saw a lot of Vicky, I saw lots of Vicky, and just generally all the people I knew, they were constantly — and the reason we weren’t discussing, in a sense, technical matters with the women was because we were so much engrossed in talking about political questions, not having to do with the Bomb, until after it went off, but political questions, period. Lots of the time, they were political questions having to do with the bomb. That’s why it’s hard for me to realize that Jane — I think she just tuned out when anything technical came on. I think she just felt, that wasn’t for her, and tuned out, and she wasn’t interested, because I’m sure we discussed, were discussing what should happen on the use of the bomb, before it went off. Now, I had many discussions with Bohr, in particular, about — he was sort of the spiritual leader of the group, and about what should happen, and I was greatly influenced by him and by his ideas. The other thing that influenced me —
Hoddeson:Wait a minute — Bohr had the idea that the bomb should just be made and be available —
Wilson:should be internationalized, and that there not be secrets kept, and that somehow, that it be made a, that there be an international agency. He was not specific. He was always very fussy. It’s very hard to know exactly what he did think, but what he did mean is that, in a sense that there not be secrets about the atomic bomb afterwards, and that it, or if there were secrets, that, I’m not quite sure how he felt about the secrets, because he also didn’t want bombs just being built by anybody, — but that somehow it be controlled on an international basis, after the war. I would have to — because I didn’t know we were going to talk about this — I would have to think pretty hard about what it was he actually had in mind. Mostly he would talk in a manner that was inaudible, and if you — after you did understand it, you — you know, what the words were — then you didn’t understand what the meaning was.
Hoddeson:Then how could — You said that he had an influence on you?
Wilson:Well, he still had an influence,
In what way? (.....) (Interruptions...)