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Interview of Harold Agnew by Stuart Leslie on 2006 May 22, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/38120
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In this interview Harold Agnew discusses topics such as: his time at the University of Chicago and Enrico Fermi; Columbia University; John Manley; George Weil; Los Alamos during World War II; Seth Neddermeyer; J. Robert Oppenheimer; George Kistiakowsky; Luis Alvarez; Bill Penny; National Science Foundation scholarship; nuclear physics; Laura Fermi; Richard Garwin; Don Hornig; General Atomics; Freddie de Hoffmann; Ed Creutz.
Okay, we seem to be in good shape. This is Stuart Leslie from Johns Hopkins University, and I’m with Dr. Harold Agnew, former director of Los Alamos and president of General Atomics. It’s May 22, 2006. I thought, perhaps, we’d just begin with some early background. I was intrigued with your years at Chicago and your early work with Fermi and how you got involved with that group. Back to grad school days.
Well, I went to Chicago; I guess it was in January or February of ‘42. It was sort of like “Take a number.” I was assigned to work with somebody called Enrico Fermi; I had never heard of him.
You’d never heard of him?
No. I had never heard of a neutron either, I don’t think; I’m not sure. I had been at the University of Denver, and my wife and I were joining up in the Army Air Corps, and the professor there said, “Don’t do that; we’ve got something you’d be better suited for.” So I went to Chicago and met Fermi, and immediately was sent up to Columbia. Actually, he was shuttling back and forth between Columbia and Chicago. Nothing really started much at Chicago then, but he was doing an experiment on a graphite pile in Columbia. I went up there with a man named John Manley and just worked with Fermi all day long, putting indium foils in this graphite, little pile they had, about an eight-foot cube. Had a radium beryllium source and we were measuring the slowing down of neutrons.
Did you have any idea why?
No. People would say, “What’d you do during the war?” I said, “Whatever I was told to do.” So we did this; we just worked on this. We had eight-hour shifts, and Fermi was right working with us. We’d radiate the foils and then run down and put them on a Geiger counter and some little pigs. The pigs had names from Winnie the Pooh; there was Piglet and Pooh and Heffalump, and all the rest of them. He would tell us which ones to use depending on how the background was on those days, on those particular little counting setups. Then we would get another foil and put her in a pile and cook it for the right enough amount of time and record the numbers. When we went back to the counting room, we had to count them, and we did this all day.
Was this considered formally part of your graduate work? Or this was just the job?
Oh no, it had nothing to do with graduate study. I was supposed to graduate to the University of Denver with a degree primarily in chemistry, an A.B., in June, but I had enough credits that I could leave in January with — his name was Joyce Stearns, who was Chairman of the Department. He became the Deputy Director at the Met Lab under the Director, who was a guy named R. L. Doan. The whole thing was sort of interesting, how the project was really put together. At that time, there were really three centers for nuclear physics: There was Lawrence, clearly, with his accelerators; there was Dunning and Fermi at Columbia, who were doing what we call nuclear physics; and Chicago’s emphasis was on cosmic rays. The tie-in with Chicago and the University of Denver was that the University of Denver had an observatory on top of Mt. Evans, it was a cosmic ray observatory, and they were in cooperation with Chicago. What had happened is that each of these centers, whoever was running the centers, whether it was Compton in Chicago or Lawrence Lab, at the lab there, they were told if they had any of their previous doctorates, they could contact them and tell them that they needed them. So they were pulling them all back at Chicago. Stearns had been a graduate at Chicago. Doan had been a graduate at Chicago. All the previous graduates were pulled back to those three centers, and then they were told if they had any warm-blooded students who could read and write, bring them along. That’s how I got involved.
When did you get to move back to Chicago from Columbia?
In about three weeks.
So it wasn’t very long then.
Things didn’t go very well at Columbia. I think the problem was two-fold: One, the graphite wasn’t very pure, and the little bit of uranium — well, you didn’t have any uranium, but the graphite wasn’t very pure. Fermi didn’t know what the problem was, and the first thing he did was he got the whole cube of graphite encapsulated in a galvanized iron can and pumped on it. He thought maybe the nitrogen was screwing things up. So the whole thing was evacuated, and it was evacuated when I got there. I actually got my tie caught in a fan belt on a sink hole pump; it’s a very interesting thing, going up and down, up and down as this wheel would go around, pulling my tie. I learned after that to don’t wear ties in a lab. I guess that’s why he put guards on rotating machinery, but we didn’t have any foolishness like that.
Anyway, he finally decided what we were going to do was fill the thing with hydrogen. That was straightforward. One of the people who was there, her name was Elizabeth Graves. Her husband, Al Graves, wasn’t there, but Elizabeth was. Al actually became test director at Los Alamos in later years. So Fermi ordered a bunch of butane tanks, and we were up on, like, the fourth floor in, it was either Pupin or Fayerweather, the building at Columbia. It was evacuated, so it was no problem putting the propane in, but they said, “Well, we can put it in, but how are we going to get it out? This is very explosive.” That brought a halt to things. Fermi called up people in Chicago and said, “We’re going to come to Chicago.” Now, the original arrangement was that at Chicago, the pile was going to be built out of what is now Argonne, but there was a strike. Even though it was wartime, there was a strike at Argonne, and so they decided they would put it in Chicago under the stadium. I gather that Fermi had called Sam Allison, who was sort of the chief guy there under Doan, but Doan had not been with the University; Allison was chairman at Physics. I guess Allison went to Hutchins and convinced him that there was no safety involved and this was important, so we moved to Chicago and started building what’s called CP-1 at Chicago. I just, again, did what I was told to do.
Primarily, at the beginning, I helped moved graphite to build the thing up, and then I was assigned a job — Again, we were going to evacuate the thing if we needed to. Herb Anderson had ordered from Goodyear, our balloon people, a cubic balloon. We actually built this thing on it; would have been in the balloon, but the thing was folded back, so we didn’t have to put the balloon around it until we finished. But that was a two-shift operation with Herb Anderson ran the night shift and Wally Zinn ran the day shift, but Herb also worked all day. I was assigned to work with Herb, who was really Fermi’s closest colleague all through the war; later on, they built a cyclotron at Chicago. But we just did that, and then I got involved, again, more and more with Herb and built the first pressed radium-beryllium source. He just gave me a block of beryllium and told me to make filings out of it, which I did. Herb got beryllium poisoning, berylliosis, and died eventually from that, actually, at Los Alamos. Never bothered me. I guess the people at Los Alamos had determined that there’s a genetic connection — certain people, if you have a certain gene, are very susceptible to berylliosis; other people aren’t. Now they don’t want to test people because it has to do with labor laws, I gather; that you’d be precluded from working and all sorts of things. Anyway, I never had any trouble. We worked in Chicago.
Finally, one day, John Manley invited — my wife and I got married May 2 in ‘42. She had been asked to come back, and she came back in May when we got married. She came back to Chicago and was made… they called her an administrative assistant; she was the secretary to the boss, to Doan. We were there in probably September when John Manley invited Beverly and me over to his house for dinner one night with Elizabeth Graves and Jim Coon and his wife; there were the five or six of us there. He said that there was an opportunity to move, come the end of the year. Couldn’t tell us where, but it was out West. Since I was from Colorado and so was Beverly — I didn’t like Chicago. She liked Chicago, but I didn’t like Chicago. I’d say, “Fine. Want to go?”
So of course, in December, the 2nd, I guess it was, we were all working on the pile, and it was pretty obvious we were done. Fermi said, “We’re going to see what happens.” I guess it was on the 2nd in the morning. We got all set up, and he put George Weil down in the bottom. We were all standing up on the balcony, where one watches racquetball players play. We had counters up there. We had a mechanical recorder, which would go, “Clunk, clunk, clunk,” working through a 64 scalar. And we had a pen recorder. He would call to George Weil and say, “Pull out the control rod,” which happened to be a yardstick with a cadmium strip on it. There were other control rods; he’d taken those all out, but this was the last one. He’d pull it out a few centimeters at a time, and the recorder would go faster and faster. There was a radium-beryllium as a source in the center of the pile, and the pile, of course, had some uranium metal, mostly uranium oxide. The uranium oxide came centered in little like one-pound coffee cans. You open the can and once in a while it just burst into flames, so it was a scary business. All you did was put her alongside the wall — it was all concrete there — and ignored it.
Anyway, he would have George Weil pull the control rod out a little bit, a little bit, a little bit; the counter would go faster and faster. Finally, it went too fast for the mechanical things, so they switched over to the pen recorder. You could see the count was going up, and after each time, Fermi had a little six-inch slide rule and he would be doing a little calculation and a little bit more George. It was just about noon and Fermi said, “Well, let’s go to lunch. Put the control rod in.” Everybody was astounded. Just silence, you know? We all went to lunch. Actually, when you worked with Fermi, your little group, there would be about six of us, we’d always go to lunch together at the cafeteria at the Commons at the University of Chicago and talk about things. Came back after lunch; started where we were; had Weil put the control rod out to where it was. In the meantime, it was interesting. At the far end of the pile, up on a scaffolding, was Sam Allison and Warren Nyer, and they had a big ax. There was a rope, and the rope was attached to a couple of five-gallon carboys filled with a beryllium solution. They were to cut the rope if things got out of hand and crash the carboys on top of the pile and saturate the thing with this cadmium solution, and pretty soon, it’d kill the reaction.
It was pretty tense, but it was very silent. He just kept asking George to pull the control rod, and boy, finally, the thing was really going lickety-split. We were all looking at Fermi, you know, “Come on.” It was obvious the thing was non-critical. He finally said, “Zip in,” to George, and he put the control road in, and the thing died down. I never knew where the “zip” came from; he’d never used that before. Anyway, there was great cheering. I went back to where I was working in the lab, and then subsequently Gene Wigner, I guess, brought out a bottle of Chianti.
I’ve seen the photo of that.
But I didn’t share in that because I had already gone back to the lab. To me, there was no question in my mind that whatever it was, it was going to work. People say, “Weren’t you impressed?” and “Did you realize the implications?” No! Not at all. There was an experiment. We’d been doing lots of experiments; this one obviously had worked the way Fermi had thought. In retrospect, if there hadn’t been the delayed neutron phenomenon, the thing could have gone bananas. And we didn’t know about delayed neutrons, either. But Fermi, maybe from the way the reactor was responding — very slowly — as he pulled out the control rod, I gather he had the confidence and we weren’t going to go to Kingdom wherever. Anyway, that was that. Subsequently, my wife and I went down to the University of Illinois where John Manley, who’s the person to ask this, went on to go out West.
Los Alamos, yeah.
Had a Cockcroft-Walton machine. Our job, along with a man from the University of Nebraska named Ted Jorgensen, was to take it apart, pack it up, and ship it to someplace. Beverly came along, and she did all the manifests and put the tags on things, and then we had professional shipper who’d box things up. In those days, everything was put together. A lot of glass, and it was put together with shellac and glyptal. O-rings weren’t invented. People don’t realize how things were done in those days. Diffusion pumps were glass filled with oil. It was a messy job; we spent maybe a week taking the thing apart and packing it up. Then we went off to Lamy, New Mexico and were met there. Beverly went home because her brothers were in the Army Air Corps, and they were going overseas; one was going to Europe and one was going to the Pacific; she got permission to wait a week or two to go say goodbye to them. So I went to Los Alamos on my own and went into 109 East Place; Dorothy McKibbin was there. They put me in a Wilson transfer truck, a big, state-bodied truck, and on the back of the truck were the boxes of our accelerator. It was an interesting coincidence that we all came together like that. Rode up on the truck, sitting along with the truck drivers. In those days, the road was pretty horrendous. There were switchbacks, so you had to back up. You would go up one leg of the switchback and back up the next leg and then forward the next leg and back up the next leg. Very narrow dirt road to get up on top of the mesa. But I was just in hog heaven because I was home. I was back to sort of Colorado, but it was New Mexico.
What were your impressions of Los Alamos at that point?
It was just a madhouse of construction. Everything and everybody was moving. First place I met was a guy named Ben Diven, who was telling trucks where to go, where to deliver the stuff. We went to a place called the Z Building, which is where we installed the Cockcroft-Walton subsequently. We spent several months installing and getting it going again. And then for all during the war, most of the time, I spent the time in cross-sections using the DD neutrons. I really think one of the reasons I was asked was because my wife had been secretary to the Director at Chicago, Doan, who came from Phillips Petroleum, but had been a graduate at Chicago. We had, for the first time, security in science. This was done by the science, not by the military. She sort of started that system at Chicago. She had trained to be a schoolteacher. But anyway, she did this payroll and did the security and handed out badges. If you read Edward Teller’s book called Memoirs, he says that one thing he remembers about Chicago was this very nice, very pretty, young, blonde girl, Beverly Hagman who gave him his first security badge. It’s in his book as a footnote, which I thought was very nice of him to remember. He had an amazing memory.
Anyway, we measured cross-sections. Just two shifts a day, measuring every conceivable element because they were interested how these materials might work. The disks were about a foot in diameter and about an inch thick. I remember we had solid gold, we had solid platinum, we had uranium metal — finally, that came. Lead, aluminum, beryllium. We would just do transmission experiments using the DD source and all these elements, just day after day after day. Then finally, it was probably in June, it was pretty clear that we were getting enough —
Oh, one thing that was interesting is that Fermi really — Oppie was in charge. As I was mentioning, one of the reasons I think I went was because Oppie had met Beverly in Chicago and knew what she was doing there. He had his own secretary, Priscilla Green, who eventually married Bob Duffield, who subsequently was Director at Argonne. But when we came to Los Alamos — I went first. One thing that clued me as to why maybe we were there was… it was on a Sunday, and I had just arrived. I was walking down on the pass, and there came Oppie in the other direction. Now, I met him maybe once or twice indirectly at Chicago. He didn’t really know me at all. But I sort of puppy dog-bounded up and it’s, “Oh, hello, Dr. Oppenheimer.” He just sort of looked at me and said, “Where’s Beverly?” That was sort of the clue to me as to why I was — you know, I was just a grunt. I didn’t know anything about anything.
I guess you had no clue that you were going to spend so much of your career there.
I know it — from there on out. Anyway, it was probably in May or June that it was clear that we were going to have a test sometime. Fermi, again, as I mentioned, was really a key player. The whole emphasis at Los Alamos in the Metallurgy Department was purifying plutonium because we had planned on using a gun for plutonium and for uranium. It was going to be a gun. That’s why Admiral Parsons or Captain Parsons had been sent there, because he was an expert on ballistics, and he had his own team. He wasn’t involved in any of the nuclear work, nor was Ashworth, who was his gopher, really. But their job was to design an assembly using a gun. Well, guns are pretty slow in assembling, and there was worry about pre-initiation with plutonium. If you add any light elements, because of the alpha background in plutonium, you’d get neutrons. So the whole effort was on purifying plutonium, getting rid of all the light elements.
But then one day, Fermi — again, Fermi — said, “Well, the plutonium, we’ve done experiments on from Berkeley. It’d be quite different on the plutonium we get out of a reactor because the reactor plutonium’s been sitting there a long time, subjected to a neutron flux. Maybe it’s absorbed one of these, and then it might readmit the neutron. You might get a spontaneous fission, so we better check that.” There was sort of, “Oh, my God.” He got together, and they got a few milligrams of plutonium from Hanford in a hurry. He set up a group in a remote canyon away from all the automobile ignition noises and set up a counting apparatus, all on batteries, under Emilio Segrè and Owen Chamberlain and Clyde Wygand and George Farwell. They worked around the clock, looking at this small amount of plutonium from Hanford. Lo and behold, yes indeed, it fissioned spontaneously. That meant you could not use plutonium in a gun. At least, that kind of plutonium. So it was a real, real hiatus on everything.
The gun work went ahead for uranium, but since the material we were really going to have coming out of our ears was plutonium, the work that Seth Neddermeyer had tried to promote — and was laughed at by Parsons and the gun people — was to do an implosion. He was working with cylinders using primer cord, and was getting nowhere because you had to cut the primer cord to the right lengths. The primer cord wasn’t uniform in its composition. He wasn’t really getting anywhere and everybody was laughing at him. But Oppie let him continue his work. But then when it was clear that we couldn’t use plutonium in a gun, the emphasis on implosion really took hold, and he got Kistiakowsky in to take over the explosives work. Fortunately, the British, who had just arrived, had brought a paper showing that you could make a lens out of high explosives if you used two different burning velocities of explosives or detonation velocities. If you used two different ones, you could put them together and form a lens. This was a paper that they had brought, and it’s actually, in Los Alamos, unclassified. It had been printed, and they had used it to do shape charges, and they had used this lens. So that was the key to making an implosion. Plus the fact that von Neumann, although people say somebody else, von Neumann had suggested that if you could compress material, the pressure could be less. So the combination of the implosion plus compression led to the Fat Man, the Nagasaki bomb.
When it became clear that this was going to happen, Luis Alvarez had convinced Oppenheimer — Luis was a most amazing man — he convinced Oppie that we ought to do an experiment. We ought to try to measure the yield over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Well, it had happened that Charlie Lauritsen and Pief Panofsky had developed a targeting system, which was trailed behind an airplane that people shot at. They also used a streamer, and they would look at that and count the holes. But this device was very interesting; it had a condenser microphone in it, and if a bullet came close — and there two of them, one on each side, put in back to back, and it was trailed behind an airplane — it would record, depending on the amplitude of the shockwave of the bullet going by, how close the bullet was to hitting this condenser microphone set up. Luis had heard about this, and he got hold of Lauritsen and Panofsky and asked to have some of those sent to us, calling out for volunteers to join him in doing this experiment. It turned out I was their only volunteer. It meant going overseas; nobody’s going to go overseas. Well, it so happened that Luis had been working on detonators at Los Alamos; he had come from the Rad Lab, and he brought with him Larry Johnston. So there were the three of us: Larry Johnson, Luis, myself and a man name Bernie Waldman, who had been chairman of the Physics Department at Notre Dame. Bernie volunteered to work with the group.
We set about adapting these little condenser microphone gauges to be used to measure the pulse and amplitude from a nuclear explosion. Well, we had to change the time consonant of the microphones, and we had to adapt power source, and we had to drop them by parachute, and we had to develop a telemetric system to come back to our airplane where we received it. We did all that with Luis taking the lead and Larry Johnston, who also was pretty expert in electronics. I designed the gauge and the microphones and how to calibrate them. There’s something called an “Agnew box” in the literature, and I haven’t a clue what the hell that is.
But it’s got your name on it.
It’s got my name on it, and it’s how we calibrated the things. All of our notebooks were taken by Groves; I don’t know what ever happened to them when we were overseas. I don’t know what happened to them. Anyway, when the time came for the mission, Larry and I and Luis wanted to go first. So we hopped aboard, and we went. I took a camera and got some black-and-white movies. When I realized nobody had taken movies on the Nagasaki mission, where we drew straws, nobody wanted to go. Larry Johnston got the short straw, so Larry went with a GI, a man named Walter Goodman, I believe, went with him. Bill Howell set a movie- cameras with colored film in with the tail gunners, and that’s how we got the Nagasaki, which are in color. It’s a long story how I got them back without Groves taking them away from me. It was very difficult and very devious, but I did it. It’s a long story.
I’m going to turn over the tape.
After working in Los Alamos, you went back to Chicago? Is that right?
Yeah. After the war, I stayed at Los Alamos. Well, the war was over in, like, August. We had to stay out there; they wouldn’t let us come home until the peace treaty was signed in case we had to do some more missions. Then I came home and talked with Fermi and said I was going to go to graduate school — Actually, the person who talked me into continuing — I was sort of odd by having worked with all these people that knew so much, and I wasn’t sure I was going to go to graduate school. But a man named Bill Penny, who was part of the British mission, who actually became Lord Penny, who was the first head of the British Atomic Energy establishment, he really convinced me. “Go on. Go back to graduate school.” So after we came back to Los Alamos, Fermi was there for a while. I said, “Could I go back with him?” and he said, “Fine.” He arranged to get me a National Science Foundation fellowship. So my wife and I went back. Actually, during this time, during the war period, I guess it would have been in ’44, we had a daughter, so I had a child and a wife, and we went back to graduate school. The fellowship was crucial in this.
The only argument I ever had with Oppie was an interesting argument. In Conant’s book, she’s got it somewhat wrong. The craftspeople were paid $500 a month. I was paid $125 a month. In her book, she said it was a week. If it had been a week, I’d been a rich man, but this is a month. $125.00. So I got a bunch of the guys together, and we had an audience with Oppie. We said, “How come the craftspeople get $500 a month and we get $125 a month?” Because if we need something built or a motor hooked up or whatever, we did it. We had our own little machine shop and we made our things, we made our gaskets, we did everything. He stood in front of this whole group — there were about 15 of us grunts — and said, “Well, gentleman, there’s a difference. You know what we’re doing, and they don’t.” He turned around and walked away, and we all nodded and went back to work. He really charmed us, and that’s all there was to it.
After the war, Beverly and I and our daughter went back to Chicago. She stayed home for a while I tried to find a place to live. I had a terrible time; I couldn’t find a place to live. Finally, Fermi said, “I’ve got a big house. Just Laura and I and the two kids, but we have, I don’t know, umpteen bedrooms. It’s on University Avenue.” Laura hasn’t seen her sisters in Italy since he got a Nobel Prize in ‘38. That’s how he got out of Italy. If he hadn’t gotten a Nobel Prize, he couldn’t have gotten out. But he just kept going. Actually, it’s interesting; there’s correspondence at Columbia, which shows he had been trying to arrange for a position. All the return correspondence to him, he had asked that it not be sent to him; it was sent to a third party because evidently his mail was being censored. But it was interesting. All these letters and everything, they’re in a little book that Columbia has put together. It’s very interesting.
So you actually moved in with Fermi?
Beverly and I and our daughter, this would have been in ‘46, so she was two years old, moved in with Fermi, and the arrangement was that we were the au pair. Beverly did all the cooking and everything and took care of his kids, and Beverly and I and Enrico. He always ate lunch at the University, and I did, too, but for breakfast and dinner, for about six weeks. And finally, I found a place to live, but I could have stayed there until we found something.
I’m not sure I want to be that close to my adviser for that long.
Well, he just knew us. Actually, as far as advising, I was an experimentalist and I was putting together a beta ray spectrometer, and so there was no advising. It was just, “Get the goddamn thing to work,” and I had an idea of how to look at the lower-end spectrum and seeing if there was something anomalous. So I was just working down in the basement day after day after day. The University had arranged for getting some radioisotopes such as cesium and a bunch of things that I had measured the beta spectrum on. Then finally, when I got it all done, he agreed that that would be sufficient, and I got it typed up. Then we went and had our —
Well, before all this happened, the University of Chicago had an interesting system. Anyone could come, providing they paid tuition. There were no exams or anything. But, if you wanted to go on for a master’s or if you wanted to go on for a doctorate, you had to take an exam. It was a three-day, written exam. Well, I was terrified. Really terrified, because since that time, in my class, there had been four Nobel laureates in physics. These guys all had master’s degrees and were physicists; I wasn’t, but I would take classes with them. I was just terrified to take the exam. But Laura Fermi — this was after we had a place — she said, “Go take the exam.”
So I did take it, and I found out subsequently that Dick Garwin, one of the smartest guys I know, was also terrified. At least, that’s what his wife, Lois, said. She said he couldn’t sleep. But hell, he would finish up maybe two hours before the rest. We had a fixed time each day, but he would finish and leave. Evidently, it was a piece of cake for him. Anyway, we took this exam, and the rules were: There are no names on your paper. You were given two numbers. Tear it in half, put one number on your thing, and you gave them the other number. The way it worked was, you either failed, goodbye; or you passed enough to qualify for a master’s; or you did well enough that you qualify for a doctorate if you could find someone to take you on. After maybe a week or ten days or two weeks, a list was posted with the number. Fortunately, I was on the list to get a doctorate, if I could find a sponsor. But there was no Shenanigans because it was by the numbers, and they didn’t know who the numbers were. If your number was there, then you went in with your piece of paper and said, “Here’s my number. That’s the number, and this is my name.” So then I went to Fermi, and that’s how I got on the spectrometer. He said Herb Anderson had started to build this thing; why didn’t I finish building it and make it work? Then I could do this, and I had an idea, which was somewhat different, which we incorporated. Anyway, it worked fine.
Tough system, though. Wow. That was tough in there.
It was a very scary system, especially with the people who were there. To me, it was very scary.
So how did you find your way back to Los Alamos?
I always wanted to go back. There was no question my mind that I wanted to go back to Los Alamos.
What was it compared with the job at Brookhaven or a University?
It’s actually interesting. Fred Reines, who ended up Irvine and actually got a Nobel Prize along with Clyde Cowan for discovering the neutrino. Fermi asked if I would like to stay on with him as part of his group. And Dick Garwin, the two of us. Dick did, and then he subsequently joined IBM. But I said, “No, I want to go back to Los Alamos.” I gave a talk at Irvine many years later. Fred said he never understood me. He says I was unique because as far as he knows, I was the only person who ever turned down a chance to be part of Fermi’s team, which is true. I just wanted to go back to Los Alamos. I didn’t like Chicago.
Was Argonne up and running by that point?
Yes. See, at that time, they had built a cyclotron. Herb Anderson, Bob Duffield, and a bunch of guys had built a cyclotron; it was running. It was just the day of the particle physicists coming into being. Anyway, it didn’t interest me. I wanted to go back to Los Alamos. So I went back to Los Alamos and I went to work in what was called the pi meson on the Van der Graafs.
What was so appealing about Los Alamos? The quality of the people?
It was just in the West and the people and the experiments. I didn’t like Chicago. I didn’t like the city. Anyway, Beverly worked part-time. I got interested in the weapons work and in testing, and I did that. Eventually I was asked to go overseas to be scientific adviser to what’s called the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe — SACEUR. The reason I got sent over there was I had gone over in Europe with the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy — the first trip that anybody from the lab had ever gone to see what was happening with our weapons, which were over there on a thing called QRA, quick-reaction alert.
What year would this have been?
This is probably 1960. Maybe ‘58, ‘59. It’s in that period. We had our weapons deployed over there, and I was just astounded, because we had all our weapons at that time when I went; there were Mark VIIs. They were carried externally on F-84F aircraft. At all the NATO airfields, there were four of these aircraft on a five-minute alert with these bombs on them. The one that shook me up most was the German. Here I’m looking at these airplanes with this big cross on them, this big Nazi to me, black cross, with German pilots, and standing guard as custodian was a U.S 18-year-old Private with a rifle. I thought, “Holy cow, this is really scary.” So I wrote a long letter, which is now declassified, saying this is pretty bad. There is technology where — When I came back, I talked to a fellow at Sandia named Don Carter. We agreed that we could make some technology so we could put a lock in the firing circuit using a coding switch, mechanical at the time, so that the pilots couldn’t use this thing unless they had the code. So I came back and gave a demonstration to the Joint Committee with Don Carter. Didn’t work, but they didn’t know it didn’t work. Instead of my saying, “Turn on the green light,” I say, “Okay, Don.” He’d turn on a light, and whatever it was, I’d say that’s what it was, whether it was or wasn’t. The Joint Committee was very much impressed and said, “That’s what we need to do.” But the military was violently opposed to it. They had two reasons: First, there was an implication you don’t trust us. Of course, this is just at the time when Dr. Strangelove came out. And second, their argument was, “What if we don’t get the code?” Of course, we said, “Well, if you don’t get the code, you’re not supposed to go. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a code or whether it’s a message. If you don’t get it, you don’t go.” Anyway, they opposed it.
I went and talked with Kennedy’s science adviser, Jerry Wiesner, or Don Hornig. I can’t remember which one it was. Maybe it was Don Hornig. I told him about this, and he said he liked the idea; he would talk to the President. Kennedy made an edict that we would do this. Well, because I had been the bete noire on this, I was sent as scientific adviser to SACEUR to Norstad to explain this to him. Because in Air Force, the four-star, Supreme Allied Commander, he’s sort of a prima donna guy anyway. The Army guy that was sent to implement it was a four-star general named Bert Spivey, a wonderful person. When I went in to see Bert, he said, “I could kill you for this. Everybody hates this, and I have to do it.” Anyway, I convinced him it was a good idea. There was one person there, a major general, Air Force, named John D. Stevenson, who was head of the nuclear Air Force weapons. He liked it. The reason he liked it was, with this system, he felt he could deploy his bombers to various places in case of a crisis, and he wouldn’t have to worry about them using them unless they got the message. So to him, it was a tactical deployment scheme, and that’s why he liked it. So he supported it, and if it hadn’t been for him, I think it would have been rough to get the thing implemented. But we implemented it, and now, of course, we have the PAL, as it called, Permissive Action Link. The Russians have it, and the Chinese have it. I don’t think the Brits do; they never liked the idea. Anyway, that’s how that whole thing started.
That’s very interesting. Now at Los Alamos, you must have watched, at least from a distance, General Atomics being formed.
We saw a lot of good people being taken over by Freddie de Hoffmann. Freddy was very interesting during the war. Freddie de Hoffmann and a man named Shapiro actually made the bombing tables for the Fat Man and the Little Boy. They took the test results and put together the bombing tables that the bombardiers used for dropping the bombs. But Freddie had become very close to Teller and helped him in declassification matters, and then he had this idea — He was the most amazing guy; you’d never know it, being with him or talking to him, because he was very quiet. Not the image of an entrepreneur at all. If you shook hands, you had the feeling he was dead; there was no muscle in his hand. But it was sort of interesting. He came out to Los Alamos when I was there; I was Director. I was having a fight with the president of the University of California, a guy named Dave Saxon. I just didn’t get along. He was against the weapons program. He was a theoretical physicist. I guess a very bright guy, but I just couldn’t stand the guy.
Finally, we came to odds. I wanted to pay some people as much or more than I got, which was $60,000 a year. Big deal. But there were people, I thought, were more critical to the nation’s program than I was. I wanted to pay them, but he wouldn’t me. He wouldn’t let me pay administrative people, and some of those were very key. Some of the problems I had at Los Alamos were just because some of the administrative people just weren’t very good. Well, I had a superb guy, and I wanted to pay him as much as I paid some of the other key people. Saxon said no, and I told him to shove it. Well, all hell broke loose. The regents called me and offered to triple my salary. I said, “No, that’s not the issue.” I wrote a letter just saying that I didn’t think the president of the university was sort of worth a damn. Or I disagreed with him; that was all. Anyway, they got rid of him eventually, and MIT took him on as president, which is very strange because I don’t think he was very good at Berkeley. Maybe he was better at MIT.
Anyway, when I said I was going to resign, I got two calls, both from La Jolla. One from Bob Beyster at SAIC, asked me would I like to join SAIC, and the other from de Hoffmann. Now, Freddie had come a couple of times to Los Alamos —
What year would that have been?
This was in ‘79.
Okay. So, General Atomics had been up and running for decades.
Oh, yes. I had come out a couple of times at some of the General Atomics things and some of the study things and things like Orion, which I thought was nuts.
What was your impression of it as a place?
I was just amazed at the facilities and the caliber of the people that were there. Ed Creutz and… Just absolutely first-rate people.
An awful lot of Los Alamos veterans in there.
They all came. Beyster came from Los Alamos. Set up an accelerator for them, which, until a few years ago was still running. What they were doing was irradiating topaz and turning it blue. The crappy kind of turquoise, they would just turn it just as blue. Made beautiful gemstones out of it, and then they were shipped to Thailand, where they would be cut and mounted.
Did you ever worry about losing talent like that from a national lab out to a place like General Atomics?
No, not once we were established. You see, Freddie did it at the right time. It wasn’t clear whether Los Alamos was going to continue. Bradbury had been asked to stay on and see if he could hold it together until they decided — It wasn’t clear that Los Alamos would continue at the end of the war, and that’s when Freddie sort of grabbed these people, or started grabbing them. Anyway, that’s sort of it.
I’m curious. You said de Hoffmann had talked to you about coming to General Atomics.
When he heard that I was considering retiring — He liked cookies. He had a tremendous sweet tooth, and Beverly made, I think they’re called “Kniffens.” They’re primarily just butter and almonds or pecans and sugar. God, Freddie liked those. When Freddy would come, Beverly would always say — Anyway, he talked to me about coming out to General Atomics. I hadn’t realized that he was stepping down from General Atomics and was starting the Salk Institute, or working to start it. We had purchased in Santa Fe, and we were going to retire to Santa Fe. Everything was all set up. And then he convinced me that I should come to do this. The salary was more than I was making at Los Alamos, and then I decided it was probably a good idea to get away. Otherwise, you know, there were always people — No matter who came in, the previous fair-haired boys, I figured, would be coming around, and I’d have to punch their card. It was probably better and fair to the new guy, who I happened to like, and sort of made sure he got the job. Don Kerr, who’s now head of all overhead surveillance for the CIA or something. He’s a good guy. It wouldn’t be fair to him for me to be hanging around, so we decided we would leave. They said they would pay our way out here and everything.
When we came out here, the house we had purchased in Los Alamos we had purchased for $11,000. Well, we had paid considerably more than that for the house in Santa Fe, and we were all set to go. But I said, “Okay, we’ll try it for three or four years and we’ll hang on to our property in Santa Fe.” When we came out here, of course, we had the shock of our lives at the housing prices. Good God. There’s a house at the end of the block, which is 1,700 square feet, and it sold for a little over a million dollars. It’s ridiculous! Anyway, we bought this. We looked and looked and looked, and finally, we had one last house. Said, “We don’t find anything, we’re going home.” But we found this, and we were able to eventually pay for it. We’ve been very happy here. After moving here and working at GA — I stayed for four years, which is what I said I would do. And that was it.
Ed Creutz had already stepped down, right?
Creutz wasn’t involved anymore. But I had known Creutz from Chicago. He and Tom Lanahan had been the first guys there to make uranium metal. Actually, Spedding and Ames had beat them to it, but Creutz is a most amazing guy. Really.
I’ve met him. We’ve had a talk.
Really amazing guy. Really smart in all kinds of fields: chemistry, metallurgy, physics, astronomy — doesn’t matter.
Did you feel you were inheriting a strong lab when you came out here?
Well, no, it was sort of a funny place. It was living on government support. Los Alamos, we had a mission. That’s what I liked. I liked the competition with Livermore, I liked the competition with the Russians. We had a mission and understood what it was. Here, well, to me, they had done some dumb things. They had Peach Bottom One, which Bob Duffield had really worked on and designed, and it worked beautifully, using the high-temperature gas-cool technology. It’s 40 megawatts. Had the best performance, I guess, even today, of any reactor. It was only 40 megawatts, so it wasn’t viable for a utility, but it did run an appreciable length of time. It did some interesting things. Now when we ran on pure uranium, it also worked on uranium thorium, and it also burned pure plutonium. So there’s a precedent: If you want to get rid of plutonium, the best thing to do with it is to burn it, not to mix it with uranium to make mocks because that makes as much plutonium as you burned. Anyway, they had built Fort St. Vrain, and they had done a couple of dumb things. In order to get it going, Gulf Oil and Royal Dutch/Shell, who had owned GA when I came on board, had previously made an arrangement with Public Service of Colorado that if it didn’t run, whatever the power it was supposed to generate, some 400 or 500 megawatts, they would pay them for it. So, there was no incentive on the part of Public Service of Colorado to make it run or to do improvements. Just didn’t matter to them. It didn’t run, they just sent the bill to Royal Dutch/Shell and Gulf, and they paid it for the electricity that it didn’t produce.
They had a real design flaw. They were being very clever. There were circulators that circulated the heat amp. The bearings were water-lubricated, but all the controls for the bearings were the same. All of the circulators were under the one control. Clearly, the clearances were different, so when one would start to leak water into the reactor, they couldn’t do anything about it but shut it down. Unfortunately, the reactor had no drain. So water would get into the reactor, and the only way they could get it out was to pump it. It’s a great big thing. It’s not as big as this house, but trying to pump the water of it took days. It just kept happening, and they wouldn’t put the money in to putting in either oil bearings or putting individual controls on each circulator. If they’d done that, the reactor would behave beautifully. But the problem was water getting into the system because of the non-control of the bearings on the circulators. That’s the only problem they had. Otherwise, it behaved beautifully.
What about the fusion projects that were going on at that time?
At that time, of course, people were interested — This started at Los Alamos in 1950.
I didn’t realize that.
It started with Jim Tuck, and the Perhapsatron was the name of it. In 20 years, we were going to have fusion power. Okay, what is it, 2006? To me, it’s nonsense. It really is nonsense because what you’re going to do is… if it’s DD, you’ve got 14 MeV. You get two or three million whole neutrons. If it’s DT, which it’ll never do, I don’t think, because of the tridium required, but you 14 MeV neutrons, 20 MeV per end. But what you’re doing is converting the kinetic energy of the neutrons into heat. Kinetic energy. In each fusion reaction, as I said, it’s either three or four MeV or 20 MeV. But in fission, it’s 200 MeV. So it’s much better to use the neutron, to me, in fission at 200 MeV plus the crack than in 4 MeV in a DD reactor. It’s just nonsense. Now, I could see the fusion machine has a breeder to make neutrons, but reactors do that very well. So to me, the whole thing, the argument, you know, it’s seawater and you’re…
So if you had a chance, would you have cut the legs out from under the fusion?
As long as the government was paying for it. It was very interesting physics, and the government paid for it all. They still are. Actually, it turned out that GA has made the best contributions to the theory. The other labs are very good; Princeton is the lead lab. But the configuration, which is going to be used in here, if it’s ever built, is similar to the doublet. It’s the “D” which Tihiro Ohkawa at GA conceived, in which is the way the GA machine is. It’s the D configuration, which Ohkawa and the General Atomics people, in cooperation with — You know, we had a big team of Japanese at GA when I was here. They had about 50 Japanese, and they helped fund it cooperatively with the Department of Energy.
I’m going to talk to Ohkawa tomorrow.
Do. Just tell him I said he was a hero. [Laughter] I don’t know what happened. He had a falling out with the president of GA. Anyway, he retired. But it was his leadership and drive —
When I talked to people at General Atomics, they said, “Well, we don’t really think of ourselves as an industrial lab. We think of ourselves like a federal lab.”
Now they said that?
That’s nonsense because under the Blues, it’s been a most amazing transformation.
For the good, you think?
Oh, for the good. They are the most amazing entrepreneurs. The Predator, as an example, which is done by Aeronautical Systems, was done entirely on private money. No government money. The government has put in close to a billion dollars in to Global Hawk with Northrop — doesn’t do a damn thing. It’s a substitute for the U2. Okay, fine. There is a role there and it’s doing that, but that’s all government money. Predator was all private money. Every cent was private money. It was just the belief that there was a need on the part of Neal and Linden Blue, and they put their money in it; they brought a small group of people who had been working with aircraft like this. But the satellite uplink/downlink, all this idea and everything, was all conceived by them, and they hired an amazing guy to put it together, a guy named Tom Cassidy, a retired general, and a man named Frank Pace, who does the design and is the engineering and aeronautical expert. The two of them put this thing together. Do you know who was the first to buy a squadron of Predators? The Turks, to watch the Kurds. That was the first sale. That’s what got the capital to keep them going. Now, God, there have been 150 Predators built.
That part of it is doing very well, but how about the physics part and its funding?
They’ve hired two guys from Livermore. Amazing guys — Mike Campbell and Mike Perry. They have this photonics division. They’re doing extremely well in the laser business.
Is that also federally funded?
No. No, it’s all private. The only federally funded, I think, is the fusion thing. The rest is all private. All patented, all entrepreneured on the part of the Blues. They’re still trying, and they put in a lot of their money into the HTGR, initially with the Russians. But the lobby against HTGR, of course, is the light-water reactor people. And they’ve got Westinghouse as a lobbyist coming out to here. The only lobbyists we have are Linden and Neal. They go in and talk to congressman, Linden primarily, and talk to people. They have a couple of congressmen who are supportive of their objectives. You know, there are a few guys who believe in nuclear power. They have an office in Washington. I guess they have a guy who’s a lobbyist; I don’t know who he is. We used to have an office. A guy named Norve(?) Kerry ran it when I was there, and he had contacts with [???]. But when I was connected with Gulf and Royal Dutch/Shell, pretty much all the funding was government. We would go in and testify before Congress both for fusion and for fission. That was our primary objective at the time. It was almost all government-funded.
Eventually, when I left, well, there were some things. We had a system that had been invented at GA for recovering catalysts for the oil industry. I don’t know if we had the deicing. One of the things that the Blues have, I think that was their own, they do all the deicing of all the commercial aircraft. They owned that company, or whatever the service is. That’s all private.
But sort of different from its founding ideal.
Oh, it’s entirely different. It’s strictly from the Blues’ standpoint. They believe in technology, they believe in service to the country, and they believe in doing more than breaking even. And I believe they are doing that.
I guess it’s family-held, so it’s sort of hard to know.
Yeah. It’s private held. But see, they bought that company from Chevron. Chevron didn’t even know what it had. They knew they had a lot of land, and they kept that, and that’s been a goldmine for them. All the land around GA, we owned. We had our soccer field and everything up there, helicopter landing post. We had everything. Freddie was a big spender. One of the things is they really believe in nuclear power. It’s uphill. One of the things they inherited from Chevron was the uranium business. All the uranium contracts that Gulf and Royal Dutch/Shell had, and they went to Chevron and Chevron then gave them over or sold them over to the Blues. So they’ve got extensive uranium holdings in Australia, in Canada, in the United States. That’s a big business. At times it’s been a headache because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just has the ridiculous rules. It’s cost them a boodle, but they’ve stuck with it. They really believe in nuclear power for the country eventually. They started a program with the Russians on their own. Spent, I don’t know, a couple of million dollars on it. That’s when a ruble was a thousand to one or something, so they got a lot of labor cheap. They were well advanced on a very neat system; whether it all happened, I don’t know. I hope so.
Last question, what it was like to be the president of that lab. It concerns, actually, the architectural design of it because when I talked to Ed Creutz, he said the first design they brought in, Pereira was the architect. He said, “Well, it was fairly conventional. It looked like a campus.” And he said, “I didn’t like that. I wanted something so that there would be much more interdisciplinary —”
Yes. I wondered how well you saw that working out in practice as president of the company.
Well, I don’t know how well that worked. The fusion people are completely separate. They had an office on the upper tier, but all the stuff was down on the canyon there. My system was different. The person that had preceded me was a good guy, but he was an oil guy. My way of working was always walk around in the labs, see what guys are doing, maybe have a suggestion.
Was your office where the Blues’ office is now?
Yes, that was there. Where Neal Blue is at was my office, but I would spend a lot of time just walking around, trying to ask what the guys were doing. They seemed to like that, and everything went very well. My job, of course, was to keep the money coming.
Which, I guess, was tougher since it was all renewable government contracts.
Right. It was rough. Of course, we had Gulf and Royal Dutch/Shell behind us, but actually, when I left, I had somehow accumulated about $12 million or $20 million, which we had. Somehow, I guess, it was part of the package that Chevron got. So we were actually making money. We cut down a lot on people, and we saved money.
One of the intriguing architectural details is putting that doughnut in the middle there and having the cafeteria and I guess the library is there.
Well, that was another thing they did. When I first came on board, there was a very fancy restaurant across the street. The senior people would go over there for a lunch. They would also have clients, and they’d take them over there for lunch. They’d pretty much all come back snockered, and the bill was really expensive. So what I did was said, “What we’re going to do, we’re going to fix up our own cafeteria. We’re going to eat there, and you’re going to lunch with people here. We’ll have a nice private dining.” We have that now, and it’s worked out very well. We’ve gone through a couple of cooks; they’ve retired. But I changed that. It was a culture. As another example, when I first would go back with the person from Gulf Oil, who was a very senior Gulf Oil guy, they made a lot of money; they would have a limousine. And so you’d go to Congress in a limousine with these people on weenie wagons. You’d get out, and then you’d go in there and get on your knees and plead for money. I just thought this was ridiculous. So as a soon I became president, we would take a taxi or the metro, and that was it. None of this. It was a different style.
It was in the de Hoffmann tradition, though. He loved those fancy cars.
Oh, no. That was a Freddie tradition, but was it wasn’t mine. I think the troops like it. I know the people in Washington, they had liked the limo and everything, it all got paid for, but I think way down deep they thought this was better. I think they were more comfortable with the fact that we were going in there and we were making our pitch, and we weren’t telling the driver to come back for us in half an hour or something.
One final thing. How did you find it running a private lab like that compared to running a national lab?
Or was it the same?
Look, on the national lab, you’d have to go back before the Joint Committee and make a pitch for the budget and explain what you were doing and why it was good, and you’re competing with funds with Livermore and with Sandia. We’d all come in together, and each would make his pitch. So in a way, it wasn’t a lot different.
So for that era, it was kind of like a government lab.
Right. Our major projects — —the high-temperature gas-cool reactor and the fusion program — were all government-funded. You were competing with the Westinghouse and the General Electric on the reactors, and Princeton on the fusion. So it wasn’t too different. It was a different set of congressmen that were all new to me. The Joint Committee, I was very comfortable with, and then it went down the drain when they got rid of the Joint Committee. It got divided up into energy.
Did you ever learn to take the architecture for granted? It’s considered sort of a classic bit of architecture. What do you think?
No, it never bothered me one way or the other.
Los Alamos or here is what I’m saying.
No, Los Alamos — Originally, our building was all one long and was all a straight thing. It wasn’t in a circle. But if you went from one end to the other there, where you crossed the street to where the theorists were, didn’t matter to me.