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Interview of Merle Tuve by Albert Christman on 1967 May 6, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/3894
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Interview covers Tuve’s reflections on and involvement in the proximity fuze program and the initial atomic bomb program during World War II and the radar development program during the 1920s and early 1930s. Also covers Adm. Deak Parsons’s role and contributions to the proximity fuze program and radar development program.
One good place to start perhaps would be where you first met Parsons and any recollections that you might have of that Was this at Dahlgren during the testing phase?
It’s not awfully easy for me to call back all of the details of that period. It was a period, you know, of five or six years of real stress. I’ve lived another life since then. I’m not sure that I recall when I first met Parsons; I suspect it was down in Re of BuOrd. Capt. Shumaker was running it at the - well earlier than that it was. Let’s see. I’m not sure I can recall who was the chief, but Blandy was sitting at one of the desks there. This is back in 1940. War was declared in 1939. By February 1940 I just plain quit any scientific work over here in the lab and I guess I led my immediate colleagues, Roberts and Heidenberg in the same direction. There were a couple of young postdoctoral fellows in the lab and weren’t ready to quit, but I said, “Let’s not do any more research; if the Germans are going to inherit it. If those Nazis are going to inherit it, what’s the use. I think we’ve got to find out how we can contribute to stopping this conflagration.” And we cast about. I talked with Bush. The problem was how to mobilize so to speak the scientific and technical capacities of this country and get ready for what we felt was bound to come. Part of my efforts - may be prompted by Bush, although with him I was primarily dealing with the mechanisms. I agreed to represent the young Turks, so to speak, the young fellows and he was obviously the senior. We had this kind of agreement; I said, “Well I’ll try to feed to you all the ideas that I can from the younger group; and you go ahead with the other and let’s see how it comes out. It ended up in June or late May with a letter from Roosevelt to Bush asking him to organize the NDRC. I had prepared papers, which by other avenues it happened had also reached the White House. These proposed essentially mobilizing much more nearly with a government hand rather than by invitation from a government committee. Well I’m glad of course Bush’s method worked and it was accepted, but it just shows the way I spent my spring. The other thing I did was to explore what ordnance was all about, studied the books on ordnance that they gave the young officers at Annapolis for example. I went downtown and got one of those things and went through it and I got in touch with Re in BuOrd, that division. Blandy was a Commander and he was sitting at a desk in a big room with Mike Schuyler and the others. Now vaguely I have the impression - this was May, April and May, but especially May 1940 - you know it was a phony war; I’m trying to make sure of my dates right. There was a stalemate, maginot line business, going on that summer. Anyway —
It was definitely between the time England was in the war and before we were in.
Yes. Mike Schuyler was the lively one there, and I think he is still alive.
Yes he is.
OK, he’ll tell you more about the early history; he’s interested in that sort of thing. I’m not particularly interested in history. I in fact have a prejudice perhaps against this sort of thing because I think it is the picture of the whole generic human mind rather than individuals.
Well I think this is true.
And you can’t spot the way any one person makes a contribution.
I think this is true. I would like to stress this in this (our history projects) because my own feeling regarding Parsons’ life was that I never saw him work anywhere except as a team.
Well, we all do. People just don’t realize it.
And I feel this was really true of this whole effort, that there was a team effort. I know it will be stressed in this history. even though it may be pulled together through one man’s life. I do think you also find in many of these cases that if you just talk about programs that it’s hard for a reader to understand as well as if you pull in some personalities.
I don’t recall just when Deak became (active in the proximity program). Let’s see I’d have to -
Well I think this train of thought you were pursuing would help me in some general background here.
You see there was a whole series of things that happened. We didn’t have security clearances - because they trusted us. I got from Mike Schuyler and Blandy the general notion that if we people who knew something about electronics could make an ‘influence fuze’, that’s what they called it, that would be one of the most important things. The real problem was antiaircraft. So this helped. We didn’t know what the problems were that had to be faced but when we heard about the scores with ordinary fuzes and the fact that they were setting clocks you see in the gun. Good Lord! And that had to agree within fractions of a second. It was pretty clear that an influence fuze would be quite fancy. Well this was bootlegged but we were already working on the idea and thinking about it, trying to see what kinds of things would do. But then this clearance business came up - after Bush organized it - and we got under orders that we had to be cleared before we could come in on secrets. This was late in June, and Bush asked me to work with Dr. Tolman. He said, “As soon as your clearance comes through I’ll ask you to do some things.” So I went off to Minneapolis or St. Paul where my wife’s folks live, just to chew nails and read ordnance and wait for my clearance to come through, which came in late July. Prior to that however, and in fact an important part of this, A. V. Hill who was president of the Royal Society came over in late May and I had him at dinner at our house. I remember it was Maurice Hill’s, his son’s, 21st birthday, I would guess around June 4 or 6th, along in there, early June. He was down at the mouth because he didn’t sense that in the government there was very much sense of urgency or commitment or sharing. So I said, “Don’t kid yourself, those people are under orders.” But I said, “If you’d sense the temper of the people in this country, you’ll know that there are all kinds of people just like me that are determined that this thing has to be stopped and we’ll put our shoulders behind it.” Well, actually I think it helped him considerably to hear this. Then he went back and let’s see I don’t know who came over first, but anyway Cockroft came over in July. I wasn’t quite cleared yet so we weren’t allowed to talk until in August. My clearance came through, I don’t know, 26 July or something like that. So these were the happenings that summer and I don’t recall that Deak Parsons was involved in it until later in the autumn, let’s see when did he?
Well, when did you start your test program? I think he probably became involved then.
Well, we started that without Dahlgren.
When they said let’s see if we can put a vacuum tube in a shell, I had Dick Roberts go and get some black powder; I didn’t know any more than that about propellants, - get some powder. I said, “Go over here in Georgetown, there’s a place that sells raw powder, go and get some and we’ll try it.” Well we tried various kinds of powder, and black powder of course just left nothing but powdered glass of these things. We potted some small vacuum tubes and fired them vertically on a friend’s farm over here near Vienna, Va. Garner Means, an economist, had a farm over there. And I just said, “Well let’s shoot them straight up and they’ll come down again, and the chances of them hitting us are very small. Well find out what happens.” We carried that through you know to the end.
Yes, that was the vertical firing.
We’d fire it up and then we’d hear a thump over in that part of the pasture, and we’d go over there and hunt for the hole and find it and dig it up. Then we would find out if the structures had failed and so on. Well that was the early thing. We at first just made a little kind of a gun. We couldn’t buy a gun, couldn’t get one so we made one with Shelby tubing and just bored out a hunk of steel and made a breech block that way. But then we got a mountain howitzer and this is what we used over on this farm. Later, it was quite a lot later before we went to Dahlgren. We went to Dahlgren first on the bomb tests. We were obliged to try for influence fuzes both for bombs and rockets and shells. And we started right away with the shell problem. Henry Porter, I brought, he was a friend of Dick Roberts, an acquaintance from Yale or someplace, anyhow I brought Henry in early September so he was the first man we had at the Carnegie staff. I assigned him the general problem of shooting these vacuum tubes. Meanwhile we worked on circuits, and we heard some rumors of circuits they were using in the rockets over in England, then they gave us the circuits, but I had already articulated the thing into the rockets, the bombs and shell, and the rugged tubes and the - oh let’s see - batteries or power supplies and two or three other things. Anyway these were T-l, T-2, T-3, T-4, up to T-8, - all these different things. And then I assigned them to people and said, “NOW you take charge and worry about that. Let’s push this thing along.” And Henry got whatever it was, T-6 or something like that, the rugged tubes. We got to testing the bombs and then of course the trouble was in vibrations in the flight and the vibrations in the tail structure and so on. We did it with acoustics. We tried acoustic bombs, electrostatic, the influence bombs, electromagnetic influence bombs. We tried ground control fuzes as well as influence fuzes, due to changing impedence of the antenna. Well, we had a lot of trouble with the noises produced by bomb tail fin structures etc. This is when we first got to know Deak. He was the proof officer or something down there. And of course he became an official for us at a somewhat later time, when - I suppose it was Spring or Summer of following year - it began to be too expensive. Bush didn’t mind spending $20 or 50 thousand dollars but when it started to get up to $80 and $120 thousand in a lump for a few months, he didn’t like to do that in his dual capacity as President and also Head of NDRC; so what he did was introduce the Navy which was supplying the money. He said, Well, you give me an officer that can be between me and Tuve, so that he will supervise the government’s interests in the expenditure of these funds.
That’s what I was wondering.
That’s why it was. This was because Bush had the dual role. He was my President although we were on full leave of absence; Carnegie just paid our salaries and provided a place to work, but there was no scientific work, nothing, except what we were doing toward the war.
Yes, actually I think a person sometimes loses sight of this. You would be aware of it here, but when others look back over the history it is not always obvious that Bush was not only head of the OSRD but he was also still at the same time head of Carnegie.
He didn’t want to have money coining from the government and going in large sums here without having somebody else in his stead certifying that that money was being spent for government and not for Carnegie. Carnegie contributed all of its income, salaries, and upkeep and everything throughout the war gratis to the government. It made no charges for salaries or overhead or anything else, and he knew that was the policy of the trustees. He didn’t want this messed up by the fact that the government was spending several million dollars at DTM. So that was the reason why Deak was introduced.
Well this would have also cleared a certain amount of administrative business from you too. Didn’t it?
The main thing it did was to provide us a direct channel into the Navy structure, and it gave the Navy confidence. It was a typical thing, a wise thing that Bush did as an administrator. He just saw that this would solve the whole thing for him and for the Navy and for us and for everybody. I was still Chairman of Section T and reporting through his structure to Dr. Tolman in Division A, and at the same time the Navy was supplying the money to Carnegie Institution to out department. Dr. Flemming, who is director here, was nominally in charge of that but he did exactly what I asked. I said, “Please appoint this man,” and so on and so on. One of our biggest problems was security and I just boldly said, “If we reach out in the United States and pick people the probability of getting a traitor is awfully, awfully low; it’s a one in ten million or something; I don’t worry about that. The only people I worry about is people who come to us. So we’ll only pick people that are initiated from here,” and this is the system we followed and Flemming took the responsibility; he cleared them. He said, “As the contractor I am certifying this man should receive Secret data and so on.” This took a lot of mutual agreement, and that was a real responsibility in those days.
I read some old letters from Dr. Lauritsen the other day in some of the old archives. It must have been early 1940, and he was writing to somebody about this problem of getting clearance. He said, “You know there are only 60 of us that are cleared.”
Yes, it was an awful small bunch, and you couldn’t get this government clearance, only the chiefs. I was cleared and so on, but that was a big cumbersome procedure. Even emergency procedures took many weeks. But the only way we could build our staff here was to have the contractor take the responsibility. Flemming did that, with Bush’s authority of course. And I was the one that certified them to Flemming. We started by asking our own staff, Dick Roberts and Heidenberg and myself and so on - “Who do we know that we can bring in?” That’s how Henry got called right away. And then these men as they came in, we asked them too, “Who do you know that would fit in here?” And that was the way the entire thing was built up. In about two years we had 118 men in that one little building over there. It was really something. Of course e had the field operation going on and various people at factories and back and forth. This little building, the cyclotron building was really full. Deak Parsons, of course I was extremely fond of him as a person. Our first impressions of him were simply that he was very receptive and understanding about the technical requirements in our test programs at Dahlgren, and so it was with just plain enthusiasm that we all welcomed the fact that he would come and spend his time as a Navy representative to the OSRD for the Section Tuve activities, which he did. Now there was never any difficulty. They gave me, if anything, too much leeway I suppose. But you just had to barge in and accept your own limitations and try to do something, and that’s what I did during the war. It was only because people understood, let’s say, the genuineness of this effort that they put up with the way I treated them. Although I think it was always gotten in a somewhat jovial spirit, I said, “I can’t see what’s coming up ahead, but here’s another challenge, here’s another direction, let’s go. Here we go again boys!” That was it; I’d give a laugh and assign somebody the task. The main thing was to articulate it, to make clear that people knew exactly what they were really supposed to be emphasizing, and this is why a good many changes were made in the organization, also to keep people fresh so that a discouraged man didn’t you know slump.
Go down and pull himself even further than that.
And when it was too difficult, why we would give additional help. Deak, I’m sure, helped in keeping everybody feeling that whatever disruptions were happening, whatever abrupt changes of direction or emphasis were happening, were in his view also necessary and wise. I’m sure he helped me in many ways in handling the gang, but there was never the slightest interference. If anything I had too much authority, and I saw nothing to do except to try to share it in discussion so that I kept the channels open for anybody to comment and to criticize. This is again, Van Bush who in the middle 1930 in the Carnegie Institution said, “Criticism and information can come up through any channel and all channels, but orders go down, authority goes down only one.” That’s the line, and I try to follow this very simple principle, but the biggest job was to keep everybody informed as to what the present situation was and the aims. So my job was to keep the direction very clear to everybody, the immediate direction of where they were going and also to have a small group of a half a dozen or so who were looking beyond that to say, “Well really what’s the over-all balance and possibilities here?”
Well it must have been a pretty dynamic group there and people apparently didn’t hesitate to share their ideas.
Not at all, and not only that, none of us felt qualified. This had never been done before so we didn’t know exactly what a high-class, full-scale man was. I said, “I don’t have any measure of a man; contribute what you can, that’s all.” It was entirely by invitation and not by orders. The only orders were, “Make it clear as to responsibilities assigned.” And insofar as that was an order it was up to the man himself to do what he could. The only thing I did was to make it quite clear how it was articulated and then to try to- well, I did a great many things, but it wasn’t run by orders; it was only run by invitation. I know many of them felt, well, I’m not qualified for this kind of design work, I never did anything like this before. And I’d say, “OK then you are a third of a man; we’ve got three of you- by God that adds up to a man and we going to go to the top. All you need is enough men to solve this problem. We’ll let the future worry about itself.” We kept it articulated to small problems that could be grasped and solved.
You’d keep breaking it down.
Yes, breaking it down and keeping it very clear where they were going - that was my job essentially as a leader, not a boss, making it very clear what the direction was that we all needed to go and what part each man carried. The whole thing was a matter of mutual confidence.
Well now you must have had some problems though when you got outside of your own lab. It wasn’t just a matter of handling it all in your own lab. You had an awful lot of problems there when you went to get this thing into production.
Well that came somewhat later, and that was harder in certain ways. I suppose there were two or three key problems, - one was the rugged tubes. The major factor of life there I learned from Lawrence Marshall who is head of Raytheon, a small company at that time. They were making hearing aids, and I was a greenhorn as far as production procedures were concerned, but he said, “Listen” - when I gave him a tentative order for $10,000 worth of hearing aid tubes; that seemed very big to me of course. We were driving in my car to lunch and he said, “You know Tuve I am going to have to try to introduce you a little to the facts of life in manufacturing. Whenever, we make a tube we throw away the first 100 or $200,000 worth of those tubes. We grind them up; they don’t meet specs. You have to run a procedure and develop a quality control, but the individual technicians make mistakes until it’s gotten into a routine- and especially when you are handling small things like these hearing aid tubes.” And I would not have dreamed if you’d told me at the start that we’d have to spend $150 or $200,000 and just throw them all in the grinding machine; I would have said well what kind of crazy person do you take me for, Well, that was quite a lesson. We worked with Bell Labs and Raytheon and so on - some of the critical things there, the Mousetrap spring for example which was evolved by Ray Mindlin and Van Allen, which really solved the problem of both breakage and microphonics in the filament structures of these tubes- and so on. Well that was one thing, whether we could ever make rugged tubes and probably the biggest uncertainly was whether we had to match the triggering pattern to the fragmentation pattern of a shell. In other words there is no use blowing up the ammunition too soon or after it’s passed the airplane. It’s got to trigger and explode in such a way that the cone of fragments which are flying forward- see it essentially blows sideways if the shell is standing still, but if the shell is going 2,000 ft per second forward, why then it’s a cone of fragments. The vulnerable parts of the airplane furthermore must be within this cone. Well we didn’t know this for sure - well, we didn’t know it hardly at all. We just hoped that it was more or less in the fragmentation cone. We figured we were going to have to match this by some tricks of antenna design, radiation pattern. We didn’t know this until- my goodness when was that, the Paris Island experiments. You can look it up in there. It was I think May 1941, along about there. Dick Roberts took some shells down to the Marine Base and they tried them out on an airplane that was hanging from a cable and it was in the fragmentation cone.
Well was Parsons of much value in this general area of work. Was his knowledge of the military requirement helpful?
Oh sure. He was valuable in so many ways; it’s very difficult for me to pinpoint them. Of course the main thing he was valuable for was he gave us confidence that we were on the right way. We trusted his knowledge of the over-all military situation.
The significance -
Right, the over-all military situation. Well, we knew already in the important things, you know, just the very poor antiaircraft the scores were one thing. The question of bombs and rockets, rockets were greatly emphasized by the British in the early parts of the war and that was less clear except as a, you know, as a method of antiaircraft, but the mere fact that we had a qualified experienced officer with us right in the actual work knowing every detail gave everybody confidence that this wasn’t just a silly exercise invented by some civilians, and this was vital I’m sure. It was extremely important to me, and I’m sure it was important to everybody in the outfit because they knew that we had a direct channel to the best technical people in the Navy, and the Navy was as good an arm as we could find in the United States. So this coupled with Deak’s general modesty and demeanor; he was always so open and friendly that you couldn’t associate him with a hard boiled military situation, but he knew his onions. He just knew every technical fact as well as you know the tactical things, both technical and tactical.
If they had assigned someone here who had really not too much interest in the technical area or capability, he would have been of rather limited value to you. Of course you met people like Blandy and Shumaker, you were hitting pretty much the top grade officers anyway.
Yes. They knew the needs and they also knew the trials and tribulations of research and development. Primarily its development, not research. They knew that things in the laboratory stage can be promising, but it’s a long cry before it can be practical even for prototype work, and then they also gave us plenty of warning. -Although I’m still unsympathetic with the kinds of troubles you have in going from pilot line into production. Now I think these are exaggerated. I thought so then; I still think so.
Well there is not a simple solution for them though is there?
No, but there again Deak and Carroll Tyler, who was a very different kind of a person, but at the stage when he came to take Deak’s place, his personality was essentially well suited to that too. My, we got it 100% in our dealings with the U. S. Navy. Those two men were just superb choices. Deak knew the ins and outs. Let me tell you that later, I don’t know just how much later, but after we came to know him a bit, I discovered that he was the one responsible for putting the secrecy order around radar. So our contacts had gone back - although I hadn’t known it - to when he was a young Lt. jg assigned to Naval Research Lab. See Breit and I started pulsing the upper atmosphere in 1925.
Oh yes, 1925?
Actually we started in the autumn of 1924 and were successful in the spring and summer of 1925. What we did was use the Fleet transmitter at NRL. We’d have the receiver right here on these grounds, but we transmitted with antennas that shot vertically down there and we got both the direct ray, 12 miles, and the reflected ray coming down from the upper atmosphere after it had traveled 120 miles, a couple hundred kilometers, and we then compared the direct delay between the direct wave over the ground and the reflected one. This was actually just a pulse radio. We went on with those experiments, and among other things in 1927 I was doing a complicated experiment with Dahl (?) down there called ‘echo interference’. We had set up our receiver right on the roof of the main administration building at NRL, the transmitter was over in the gallery over there in the shop, and we could still see their crystal. They keyed of course in the later stage in the transmitter one of the power tubes. The crystal was on all the time and that gave us a phase reference at our receiver, so we had a little level coming in all the time from the crystal but when the main power would go on of course we would be in phase with the crystal transmitter. When the ‘echo’ got back we had a phase reference. What this amounts to is that we could tell within one wave length, which was 40 meters at that time, we could tell the motion of this up and down. Only damn trouble was that airplanes made this same kind of thing and every time we had an airplane come in we got confused between echoes and primary - and we got Doppler reflections off this small emission from the crystal. Well Deak Parsons heard about these experiments. Literally we’d have to stop for-
Let me switch the tape. What year was this about 1927?
This was in 1927, yes. We did increase the experiments in 1926 and 1927, but in 1927 and 1928, Dahl (?) and I did a good deal of our work right there at NRL instead of out here. We brought the receiver out there and made these experiments where we were close to the crystal of the transmitter. And we had to stop every time an airplane would come into Boling Field and this got to be quite a nuisance. Malcolm Hanson was one of the flying officers at that time and I remember we dealt back and forth with this and I’d wrangle to try to get them to come in at more or less you know together so that we wouldn’t have an airplane always interfering. They’d bother us for 20 miles, or 15 miles. We could tell an airplane was coming in, and we had to stand around there for about 4 minutes until he’d get landed and then we could get some more echoes and then we’d stand around and wait.
Well I never heard this story.
Deak heard this in 1930. There is a fellow by the name of Ruble, I think it was - Gee, where did these names come from, that’s a long time since I’ve thought of that, Ruble, yes, I think he was some kind of higher officer, and Deak wanted to get a secrecy order. He finally succeeded in persuading him that this was worth a secrecy order so they clamped an order on, I don’t know exactly the formulation of it, but it covered the idea that pulse radio might be useful in detecting the approach of airplanes. This was 1931 that he got this letter approved up at BuShips I think it was; they had charge of radio at NRL.
That must have been about the time that he was sent out to NRL.
It was the beginning of radar, yes. It was when he was first assigned back in 1930 and 1931 as a young Lieutenant. Well I heard that from Deak, you see, and Ruble had been a bit obstreperous at times so I had known his name when Capt. - almost had his name too, Capt.- I can’t think of it - the boss man.
In the Bureau?
No, at NRL.
No, this was before. The first Captain. He was there about four or five years, started in 1923. I think he came very soon after that. Oh dear, well anyway he was an awfully nice guy.
Real forward looking type.
Oh yes, but he was a quite senior person at the time. I saw him here about three years ago, - still alive living in Florida, quite an old man now.
You actually didn’t have any contacts with Parsons himself?
I didn’t know this, no. And in fact this came after we had pulled our apparatus back here and stopped. Then Parsons came in. But there was still enough discussion of the way these things happened. He wrote it up as a letter. That’s how alert Deak was to technological needs.
He was just a Lieutenant then.
Sure, but he pushed, and in spite of some opposition and some cynicism he got a secrecy order placed on the use of pulse radio-this is really the beginning of radar. To us it was a nuisance, but to him it was-turn it around and use it the other way. There was a fellow wrote up the history of radar from down at NRL. He shouldn’t have struggled so hard because that’s a good enough story. They tried to get it earlier than our pulse experiments and they talked about Doppler radar. Well that isn’t really the beginning of radar. That’s radio detection all right, but the pulse radio was the essential part, and Deak spotted this and saw it.
Well in this area of spotting things like that -
Well, the British you know - Watson Watt claims he invented radar in 1935, so he was a year ahead of everybody else. Perhaps they had it even on the battleship NEW YORK in 1934.
Somebody ought to straighten that history out. I’ve heard various things; I’m completely in a muddle myself on it.
Well they just have to look at the dates and know something about it. But the British government; we don’t want to fight with the British, They’ve struggled hard enough about things so -
We11 one thing I do know that Parsons said, and I’d like to get your opinion on this. In a memorandum after the war he wrote this to Compton and it was on the subject of “Cognizance” - this idea of certain people being in charge of certain things and protecting their province. He gave some examples of this and included the proximity fuze program of how well it worked, but then he talked in terms of the radar and he said that we could have had, in his opinion, radar two years earlier if it had not been for these cognizance mind people who wanted to control the whole ball of wax in their own assigned areas.
Well, I don’t know. Actually, a need generates a development. The key ideas were there 10 years earlier, but you see it required the development of magnetrons before it could be reduced in bulk and the size of the antennas could be reduced to the really useful dimensions. You have to have very high bursts of power and very short wave lengths, ordinary vacuum tubes wouldn’t do this. So the early radars were mattresses you know. They were 40 centimeter wave lengths and 80 centimeter wave lengths.
I suspect his was influenced by the fact he’d gone through the proximity program and then through the A-bomb program. You know there was really no massing of resources on the early radar work like there was on these later programs. For example, how long would it have taken you to have done the proximity fuze program if at a certain point you didn’t really -
Oh it would have taken a very long time; there were plenty of discouragements to stop you and you see radar - yes, it was a gradual development all through the 1930. Notice that in 1930 Deak heard of it and in 1931 he got this secrecy classification for it, but it was the middle 1930’s before they had the mattress antennas for one meter wave length pulses and did some radar on the big ships. Those antennas were so big it took a whole battleship to carry it, you see.
Discouraged the Admirals a little bit with that.
Sure everybody made fun of it. Well, now it depends on what you mean by radar. That was a slow development because the 1930’s were peace time remember; not only that there was a depression, and so the real steam behind radar came after the war started or was imminent. I think that the magnetron, which was simply a device for getting very big pulses instead of continuous power at short wave lengths had been invented way back in the 1920’s by A. W. Hull, but the development of very big sudden burst emissions came by reason of the needs of radar and that was done by (Marqus L. E.) Oliphant and his team in England, and that was what was brought over and gave the big burst to radar. So I would just say that as a general principle, needs governed the rates of development, but germ ideas happen much earlier usually and by accident in some other arena, not where the need is required - unless it is military.
What was Parsons’ point of view in regard to the use of the rugged version of the proximity fuze? Wasn’t this held back from land use early and wasn’t he pretty influential in that kind of a decision?
I don’t think we ever had any great differences of opinion.
Well not that - I’m just trying to establish what the feel was in the laboratory or was this decision completely in the higher echelons of the Navy?
We had to take their judgment about this. They were very anxious not to have the thing compromised by enemy discovery and that’s why they would only shoot it over water during the first year or so. Although the Army, once they got wind of this thing, they wanted it not only for antiaircraft but for antipersonnel. They gave us Colonel Morton (?) to push on this aspect of it. And there were enough problems trying to fill a pipe line that it staggered us to think of making them by the million. During 1944 we were busy building things for the Army and we weren’t anxious to have them use them because what’s the use of firing a few hundred, well say 100,000 fuzes, if you use more than that in the whole pipe line. It takes more than that to fill the supply line.
Actually I guess a good part of those larger production problems came after Parsons left?
Yes, that was with Tyler.
Is Tyler around Washington these days?
No, he lives in one of these retirement cities, Sun City, or something like that. What’s the name of this?
Del Webb’s City out in California.
He ran you know the Proving Ground, the Nevada proving ground activities for a long time, the AEC test program. He retired from that about three years ago.
I go by there; I might be able to drop in.
He dug all these holes in Nevada where they fired atomic-
Yes, out there in the Jackass Flats area.
That’s right. I had a Christmas card from him.
This isn’t concerned directly with the Parsons story except that on that story I have a beginning of the Manhattan story. Weren’t you involved with some of these early discussions there on the Manhattan Project?
Oh yes, sure. I was a member of the original uranium committee set up by Roosevelt, actually before Compton and Lawrence were added to it.
Can you give me just a little of that general background there?
Well I’ll see if I can refresh my mind on it. Actually what happened was that we had shown Bohr and Fermi fission. The first time they saw fission was 3 or 4 days after it was learned by telegram. We had this meeting in theoretical physics jointly between our department and George Washington University, gamma (?) office down there. Bohr and Fermi attended, and talked about the possibility of the splitting the uranium atom; that’s the only way the barium could have come. This was the information. So we set up and did it and a day or so later we showed them the ‘splitters’ they called them down here in the basement. So I was tied in with uranium fission from the very beginning. In fact Dick Roberts who is over here in the lab - he worked with Parsons of course and me all the way through - he’s over in our biophysics group. That cyclotron building over here is where all this happened for two years. It got to be too much money for Bush to spend under Carnegie, so he asked me to get another sponsor and we asked the Johns Hopkins trustees to do it. Well Dick Roberts discovered in 1939 the delayed neutron from fission which is the only way you control fission in your atomic pile. If there weren’t any delayed neutrons it would either blow up or not. See? Well they were discovered (this) right here - over here in the basement. So we had been connected with uranium from the beginning. This starts in - oh let’s see - January 1939 was the discovery and we were tied in with uranium then until February 1940 when I stopped all that. I said now we’ll stop the thing. What’s the use of doing any research, but this meant that we were identified very closely with uranium.
Well, when Szilard and some of these people were really pushing this thing, what -
—arranged for Einstein to write the letter to Roosevelt. Roosevelt then appointed a committee with (Lyman J.) Briggs of the Bureau of Standards as Chairman and asked me to be on it. I was on it with about 4 or 5 others, (George B.) Pegrain, Fermi, Jesse Beams - who else sat around that table? We would meet at intervals over here at the Bureau of Standards, and then that was constituted as - then it was given some money. I don’t remember all the details. I simply remember this that Oliphant raised a stink. He wanted to go after it in a big way, and he came over from England in order to do this. He criticized the activities of our group, it ought to be done with a half a billion dollars, not just whatever (small amount we were getting). I resigned from that Uranium Committee. I said, “I don’t believe it. I want to do something that relates to this war, not something that’s way off in the future. I don’t think the Germans can spend that much energy and effort on this kind of a chancy thing; I don’t believe they will. Anyway I’m interested in atomic power, but not in explosives.” And I resigned in November 1941, just a month before the reactor worked.
That’s what I was wondering.
It was natural then later in the war to call on me to help with the fuze program both because we were doing this sort of thing and because I knew all about uranium anyhow. So they told me what it was for and asked me who we could transplant from my group over to the fuzing on that problem. They were going to ask for Deak and they asked me about him and I said, “You couldn’t find anybody more intelligent in handling that sort of thing.” And who should go along with him? So I said, “Well Bob Brode ought to go,” and I picked out about 4 or 5 others, and we transferred them.
Who were these people talking to you?
Well Bush was certainly a major part of it, don’t suppose I remember who - Bush was the only one authorized to talk about these things, Bush and Conant.
I know Bush was the one who talked to Groves as far as Parsons’ transfer to Manhattan was concerned.
Sure, sure. This was all arranged among us. I had known Groves. In fact, he called me abruptly at a time when I didn’t know him from Adam down to the Pentagon - or down to his office I’ve forgotten now just where it was - in order to interpret a letter, a cable he’d gotten, - I’ve forgotten just what it was - anyhow the letter ‘B’ occurred and I said, “Well I think that means Professor Bohr.” Bohr had escaped from something or other and was in transit. How they could get him here and so on. Groves said, “Oh, is that what it is? Oh, sure, that’s what it is.” I said, “Well, I’d take a good bet on it anyhow. Why don’t you assume it’s true and take the bet.” Well it worked; it was Bohr (laughter) Well, so I had known these people and it was natural that they would call on me. Although I didn’t spread it at all in this organization.
I notice in some of the early histories they talk about this early work and then they say that Roosevelt when they began to assign this thing that he pretty well said, “Keep the Navy and NRL out of this thing. Were you aware of this?
What was this? Was this a personal thing or?
Oh not at all, it was so simply overwhelming if it worked that they had to have it in one pocket. You see Groves wasn’t reporting to anybody in the Army; he reported to the Secretary of War. But the Manhattan District had been organized on a completely secret basis, compartmentalized and all the rest. I knew about it.
The thing I couldn’t understand though here is NRL and yourselves over here who had been doing a lot of the pioneer work - the only groups that had been doing any work - and yet when they set up the program you were not in that program.
Oh, well, that was by choice. It was by choice. For example, leaders in each case knew about it; Gunn knew about it. He was part of the Uranium Committee. I knew about it, and Beams knew about it. It was our judgment that these things had to be completely separated, so the metallurgical laboratory at Chicago and I have forgotten what we called it up in Columbia; they were focused around individual people and there wasn’t any - NRL had its hands full anyway and was expanding rapidly in many urgent directions. I don’t think there were any personal things that entered in these things. (pause) Mine was a personal choice that I didn’t want to spend my efforts and attention on atomic bombs. (garbled)
Well, I talked with Dr. Gunn about a year ago. There seemed to be some dissatisfaction somewhere with the way things had gone there, and I didn’t really know what the problem was except that I knew that there probably were people like yourself who would have been pretty close to the situation.
Yes, well he was fairly close - but he wasn’t able to turn over a you know a really very secret thing. He would have had to leave NRL. He wanted to do isotope Separations. But that was essentially what we - what was assigned to Columbia. We assigned - I didn’t do anything in the assigning - this was done by Conant and Bush, consulting with Groves and so on. It grew out of our committee. The committee that I resigned from.
Yes, well I got you off the main track, but I was curious on that. What about the relationship of Bush and Parsons? This must have been a pretty good one, although I’m sure there wasn’t much time for everybody to chit-chat around in those days.
No, no. But Bush was a very good judge of men in my opinion, and I’m sure that just meeting with Parsons for 20 minutes Bush knew that he could have confidence in that kind of a guy, and this continued to be confirmed. He put Parsons in position directly to carry the whole responsibility for the expenditures that I called for as being valid and approved by the Navy. So he handled the paper work for me, and also took the responsibility - which was very nice as far as I was concerned because I had somebody I could talk to all the time. Bush was a little hard to reach. I could go down there when I was in trouble, but otherwise he was detached. So it was much better when I got Parsons than when I was dealing just with Tolman and Bush because they were not immersed in it the way we were out here. But Parsons became one of us. He was immediately in touch all the time with all of the activities that were going on. He was the authorizing man. Later we had authorized representative for the trustees at Hopkins, Luke Hopkins, functioning to handle fiscal responsibilities. We divided it up because it got to be millions of dollars. I ran the technical things and he accepted responsibility for the trustees, so when we would sign $180,000 contract I would ask him to sign it because his signature carried the money, this sort of thing. On the other hand that was all done under the - with the immediate and local approval of a Navy officer. Actually Parsons was involved in part of this. I think he was with us while we made the transfer to Hopkins and then not too long after that Carroll Tyler came, but this meant that we had a three-way thing. I was from Carnegie on leave but my pay was all from Carnegie, just my regular salary as representing the NDRC and the government. I was a dollar a year man so to speak - or zero dollars per year, but I was acting as a government official including the technical direction, and Luke Hopkins carried the contractor’s fiscal responsibility, and Carroll Tyler or before that Deak Parsons carried the responsibility of the Navy - that this was what the Navy funds were appropriated for, that’s all. It was a very satisfactory arrangement.
Well it certainly, I think, has been pointed out as a pretty ideal program in many ways.
It’s just an illustration of the strength of the democratic principle. We did this entirely by inviting people to contribute what they could and not by bossing them and telling them what they had to do. That was entirely the way it happened, and it had remarkable strength. It is just astounding strength. And what kind of astonished me is to find later in the war, and at the end of the war, that this is actually the way the armed forces run too. This is why we have effective armed forces - it is because criticism can come up from anybody, any level and it affects the judgment and the orders of the people who normally are giving the orders. Sure you get line orders but those orders are wisely given because everybody had contributed to them. You take on the other hand the German system where every man knows his place - they kept on making the same dumb mistakes all through the war because they weren’t informed. They didn’t invite people to contribute to the whole thing. My job was for example to paint the whole picture so that anybody could do as well as possible. Imagine what he had to do; he had to contribute his own creative initiative throughout.
But he had to understand what the problems were, or he couldn’t understand that this little thing he was doing over here might upset the apple cart.
That’s right; he wasn’t just told to do a little thing. He was told now here is the problem; now we think so and so has got to be solved, that’s your job, but here is the problem. If that isn’t the right way to formulate it, you formulate it better; tell us about it, but solve it; here is the problem. In other words you invite people to contribute the best they can do to reach the immediate goals. Well, that experience illustrates it.
I’ve read a lot of the background on the program but I don’t really get much feel of how you must have felt when these things really started working.
Well kind of relieved, kind of relieved, - but if we couldn’t make this go something else - but of course you don’t quit.
- There is always another problem ahead somewhere.
Well there was always - yes, there are always different things to be done, but our job was antiaircraft and then of course later the antipersonnel, that was a bit harder to swallow. I’ve never visited Germany there are too many - too many orphans over there on my account. We killed-
Well let me tell you this. (tape off, while interviewer related first hand experiences in Battle of Bulge related to the use of proximity fuzes and the thousands of American lives saved by employment of this weapon.)
We’ve organized our societies in such a way that mass murder like this is maybe a necessary thing, but at least it’s condoned.
Yes But my own feeling is that until we find a way to -
Yes - we had to stop it.
Yes, that’s right, and as long as we have to send our young boys and put them out there in a hole, we’ve got to give them the best that we can.
Oh sure, oh sure - we had to stop those Nazis. When you learned afterwards of the Jewish killings; we had heard some rumors of this even during the war, and we realized these were wild men. You must take power over people like that.
You can’t just shrug your shoulders, you know.
But it still pains you. For years after the war Van Bush would wake screaming in the night because of the - he burned Tokyo. The proximity fuze didn’t bother him badly but - and even the atomic bomb didn’t bother him as much as jellied gasoline. Oh, yes, we all suffer scars you know, I don’t know how we’d help it. Deak was a very warm human being. He comforted me I know just by his forbearance, his general confidence that we were going forward, his generosity with our mistakes. There aren’t many people that measure up the way Deak did all the way through, but of course I know it hurt him too that he was on that - what’s that Gay?
Enola Gay. He never got over that.
Did he ever talk to you about any of that? (long pause)
Yes. Let’s see if I can recall - fair enough. Essentially he took kind of - well, he was a gentle person. “I was under orders,” this is his response, a kind of a lame thing to hang onto, but that’s all he had. “I had no choice, I was under orders.”
Which would indicate that he had some feeling about this.
He had some feelings that, you know — orders can be wrong too. You kind of wish it hadn’t gone that way. I’m sure that it hurt him. See the big question was whether we should use the bomb at all or simply demonstrate it and the decision was to use it. Deak didn’t participate in that decision.
Yes that was out of his -
But he sure participated; he triggered it and that hurt him. I don’t know anybody less fitted to that assignment by his whole personality. But it was a technical operation and he gave them that help. Yes, well it’s hard to recall.
Well I think you’ve done very well. I can’t express how much you have helped.
……short legged donkey running ahead of a bunch of race horses - this was what I was doing all through the war! (laughter) That’s the way we were going - over this way, climb up this rock - and boy I had to run fast. They were all very warm, but the key to it is this invitation thing and I just can’t I can’t subscribe to the emphasis that is given to individuals; emphasis to ideas, yes; the key idea of leadership versus bossmanship; that’s a very important thing. That can’t be over emphasized; the demonstration, the whole World War II was a demonstration of the relative ineffectiveness of bossmanship.
An excerpt from Dr. Tuve notes of 9 Sept. 1941 are attached as End. (1) as they give additional information related to the needs of the project for closer military liaison.
Robert Watson Watt
Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi
Reference to comment on page 1