|Imagining the Bomb
In 1932 Hungarian scientist Leó Szilárd read H.G. Well's The World Set Free in which atomic bomb-like weapons were first described. Impressed by Well's story,
Szilárd began to actively study nuclear reactions. In doing so, he was able to envision
a device which could create a blast from a nuclear chain reaction. For several years
the idea of an atomic bomb was largely ignored. Then in late January 1939, Niels
Bohr, a Danish physicist, announced the discovery of nuclear fission. Several days
later, American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was told of the discovery. He immediately
realized that fission - the process by which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller
parts, resulting in a large release of energy - could be used to create controlled
explosions much like the ones that Szilárd had suggested seven years earlier.
Through the summer and fall of that year, physicists in the U.S. and Europe continued
to experiment with fission. An explosive device like the one that Oppenheimer and
Szilárd had imagined was looking increasingly plausible. In October 1939 President
Roosevelt received a letter from Szilárd and Albert Einstein warning of a German program
to develop atomic energy. The physicists encouraged the president to begin a U.S.
research program into nuclear weaponry. In response Roosevelt asked Lyman J. Briggs,
the director of the National Bureau of Standards, to organize a committee to govern
preliminary research. The Briggs Advisory Committee on Uranium consisted of a small
group of scientists with a miniscule budget. Given the small work force, little progress
was made in the U.S. during 1940. Scientists in the United Kingdom, however, had
launched an effective program that led to the discovery of fast fission in Uranium-235.
In 1941, following the creation of the OSRD, the S-1 Uranium Committee was formed
with Lyman Briggs as its director. Researchers from the U.S. and U.K. were brought
in to begin work on a uranium-based bomb. It wasn't long, however, before the scope
of the organization had pushed it beyond the committee limits. Worse than the administrative
difficulties was the slow work pace. Vannevar Bush was becoming impatient. In order
to increase project efficiency, Robert Oppenheimer was asked to conduct the program's
complex neutron calculations. Despite his left-wing leanings and interest in radical
politics, Oppenheimer agreed.