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The Manhattan Project:: Beginnings

Why did the U.S. Government Decide to research the contruction of Atomic Weaponry?

During the First World War, many major changes occurred in regard to the way in which wars were fought. These were mainly due to technological breakthroughs- The invention of automatic weapons, the construction of tanks, and the invention of aircraft. The Second World war started at a similar place the First World War had left off- although the weaponry was more powerful and better refined, the planes flew faster, and radio communication was more reliable, there was no actual ground breaking new weapons. Not until the very end of the war- and that was perhaps the most influential weapon ever constructed. So what made the U.S. government decide to investigate atomic weaponry- a thing that many thought would not even work? This will be discussed in this section of my research.

At the same time as the beginning of the Second World War, there were some major breakthroughs in the physics world. Leo Szilard, a physicist in Britain, had patented the Atomic Bomb, as he called it- Leo had been researching 1932 had discovered the existence of the atomic "the neutron". Seven months later he had worked out that a huge amount of power could be utilised to generate power, or . He patented the bomb in Britain, not to gain recognition for it, instead he "so that it could be classified and protected under British ".

World War II erupted at a moment when the promise of atomic energy had progressed from being possible to being probable. This was highlighted in a letter drafted by Albert Einstein in conjunction with Szilard, to President F.D. Roosevelt. (A copy of this letter can be veiwed by clicking here). The first section of the letter clearly stated that the use of nuclear fission as a weapon was no longer science fiction, and would probably be achieved in the near future. The second section consists of Einstein's recommendations to Roosevelt about how best to research this new form of weapon. It is also made clear that Germany had already taken steps towards obtaining Uranium for such a weapon. The letter was a success- Roosevelt set up an "Advisory Committee on Uranium" only ten days later.

However, over the next two years official support for the project dropped. Many important discoveries were made on a research front, including a proposed scheme for the production of U-235, and the discovery of another super-heavy element, plutonium. By 1941, the project had been all but forgotten in the USA. That changed, though, in the later half of that year- on September 3rd, the British Chiefs of Staff agreed to begin development of an atomic bomb. After the horrific attacks on Pearl Harbour, the Unites States also started a project to investigate atomic weapons.

The initial stages of this project occurred at the University of Chicago and was headed by Arthur Compton and a team of scientists he had been working with on the earlier atomic research project.. The research made monumental leaps with the injection of this new funding, however it became apparent that a full-scale industrial organisation system would be needed if the project were to progress further. A project manager was needed. Col. Leslie Richard Groves was chosen to lead the project.. Groves seemed an obvious choice, as he was outgoing and experienced, and had a short while beforehand overseen the construction of the Pentagon in Virginia.

The decision had been made to invest government funds in this very new and very frightening area of weaponry. No one was yet sure just how powerful the bomb would be, and many still did not believe that the Americans would be able to construct the atom bomb before the war had ended. Even german physicist Niels Bohr was reluctant to commit to the project, saying that the task 'can never be done unless you turn the United States into one big factory". However, the project government took the project very seriously-and, as you will see in the next section, the United States did exactly what Bohr had said.

 

Pike; John, "Invention and Discovery", http://www.fas.org/nuke/hew/Usa/Med/Discfiss.html (The High Energy Weapons Archive)
"The Mahattan project", http://www.em.doe.gov/circle/manhattn.html (The Center for Environmental Management Information, 1995)