TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Re: Enrico Fermi and the First Atomic Bomb Test Explosion

Re: Enrico Fermi and the First Atomic Bomb Test Explosion
13 Jul 2007 07:12:09 -0700


I hate to be a wet blanket on this discussion, but I'm not sure if the
part on the local phones is true. Here are my thoughts on it:

1) The test, code named Trinity, has been extensively written about by
its participants. I don't recall anyone suggesting that the town's
local telephone operator caused any delay. (It's been awhile since I
read up on this stuff. If anyone is familiar with a published source
that describes this, please share it with us.)

2) The town hosted an important air force base. I suspect wartime
telephone traffic may have been high enough, even late at night, to
keep an operator somewhat busy.

3) Unattended switchboards with light overnight traffic were purposely
equipped with very loud bells to wake or fetch the operator when a
call came through. (Unless the operator forgot to turn on the bell
when she went to bed).

4) The writings say the army used its own radio communication system.
The histories describe the army laying its own communication lines,
and then needing to lay them again as other equipment accidently torn
them out. Thus, I don't think they were dependent on the civilian
telephone system.

5) Fermi was not an active participant in the test, but rather an
invited special guest. He and other guests were at an observation
point some distance away. Had he been delayed the test would still go
on. Fermi's claim to fame on the test was that he used a very simple
method to estimate the weapon's yield: he dropped some torn papers to
the ground and measured the distance they travelled before hitting the
ground, from that, his estimate turned out to be pretty accurate.

(Fermi's major achievement was the development of the nuclear reactor
which was first built in a handball court in a stadium. No shielding
at all.)

6) The test was on hold on account of the bad weather. Again, this
has been extensively written about in great detail. The time picked
for detonation was based on predictions of when the storms would leave
the area. I believe the time selected was decided long earlier and as
such, couldn't have been affected by local telephone service.

Some other comments on Trinity:

1) I don't think any local or state officials were told of the test.
There were plans to issue various press releases depending on the
results of the test. If the test was a dud, nothing would go out. If
the test worked, a press release that flare magazine ignited at the
air force base. If the test spread dangerous radiation and people
needed to be evacuated, they had prepared for that as well.

2) The test did produce some dangerous radioactive fallout that fell
on some ranchland and the army reacted to that. However, the army did
not expect fallout to be a problem in actual use since the weapon
would be detonated high up as an air burst, rather than close to the
ground where it would pull up the earth and irridate it.

Some scientists (like Fermi) died at a young age from a rare cancer,
but others lived to old age. It's hard to do a proper medical study
since back then there were many chemical and industrial pollutants
freely spewed into the air and almost everyone smoked. For example,
today we know that PCBs and asbestos are dangerous, but back then
those products were seen as beneficial and very widely used.

3) Some of the sand at grand zero got fused by the great heat into
glass crystals. Scientists took them as souvenirs, not realizing they
were radioactive. The attitude of radioactive safety back then was
drastically different than today. That is, back then they assumed a
human could safely tolerate much higher doses of radiation than is
known today. They did have extensive medical checks and safety
precautions for radiation, but scientists tended to be cavailier about
safety due to pressure from the war. Ironically, it was only until
after the war that two scientists at Los Alamos sadly died from
radiation posioning in lab accidents due to unnecessarily sloppy work.

4) The Manhattan Engineering District (it's real name) was the second
strictest military secret of the war (cryptography was the highest).
Security rules were strictly enforced. The army believed in
"compartmentalization" in which every worker was told only what he
needed to do his specific job and nothing more. Scientists chaffed
under these restrictions. The project had three major sites, Oak
Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford, plus numerous minor ones. At the major
sites workers and their families lived in special spartan housing on
the site under strict military control. The needs of families and the
military often clashed and many articles and books have been written
about life on the reservations.

But the Soviets penetrated the project with several effective spies.
Opened archives have subsequently shown that the Rosenbergs were
indeed quite guilty as espionage leaders (they spied on other
activites as well). They were offered a chance to avoid execution if
they cooperated but they refused.

5) Mrs. Fermi and her descendants have written a variety of
interesting books that I recommend. Rachel Fermi wrote an excellent
book, "Picturing the bomb : photographs from the secret world of the
Manhattan Project".

6) The Hanford Works was a pioneer application of industrial use of
CCTV. Cameras monitored highly radioactive processing chambers where
workers controled the units by remote control. (How the cameras
themselves were serviced and how well the fuzzy image quality of that
day allowed remote control work I don't know.)

7) During the war the workers' homes did not have telephones. A few
years after the war they were put in, a necessary amenity to attract
workers to stay with the projects.

The Los Alamos site was served by only two forest service lines.
The army demanded, without any explanation, that the local Bell
company install more lines and internal service. The local Bell
office and to search to find wire and parts as by that point in the
war nothing was easily available.


There are a great many books written about the project. I do not
recommend those books with an agenda, such as preaching the bomb was
wrong, since such books over criticize the hard work of the project's
participants or army life. The project was unprecedented in that it
took leading scientists, locked them up behind barbed wire, and had
them focus on a single project. The sociology and administrative
aspects of such life are very interesting and something we can learn
from even today.

The lifestyle and attitudes of Americans in war in the 1940s was
very different than that of today, and using today's human relations
standards to judge life and work in those days is foolish.

I do recommend:

1) "Now it Can be Told" by General Groves. Groves was the tough non-
sense head of the entire project. He gives the history and why he
made the decisions he did and does not pull any punches. A good
insight into the military point of view.

2) "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman! : adventures of a curious
character" by Richard Phillips Feynman. Feynman was a scientist at
Los Alamos who did not like authority and had a strong sense of humor.
Tells how Feynman learned to crack safes.

3) "Manhattan Project; the untold story of the making of the atomic
bomb" by Stephane Groueff. This book focuses more on the industrial
side behind the scenes. It's the only book that I know of that covers
that area so thoroughly. The author is a bit preachy, though, heaping
generous praise on the inventors and engineers for their work (though
perhaps it is deserved).

4) "Dark Sun" by Richard Rhodes. This is mostly on the hydrogen bomb,
but it has some chapters on espionage using newly released secret US
and Soviet government archives. (Rhodes also wrote the definitive but
long book on the project.)

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