extracts from a speech* by Edward Teller on the history of the H-bomb.
Now, let me give you a brief history. It started
Fermi who bombarded all elements with neutrons and produced, thereby, what
was believed to be transuranic elements for which he got the Nobel Prize. He deserved it, but not for transuranics because what he produced in the main
turned out to be fission products. That was discovered years later in the
Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute under Nazi Germany by Hahn and Strassman.
had a good friend, one of the most ingenious people I have known, and of course a
Szilard. He thought for years on how to utilize nuclear energy, and
then when the discovery came from the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute, he said,
"That's it!" Leo Szilard could do anything except he could not drive a
car. I drove Szilard to the summer
place of Albert
Einstein. We asked a nice little
girl, eight years old, if she had heard of Einstein. Leo Szilard said, "You
know, that nice old man with the long white hair."
Einstein was a democrat in that he invited not only Szilard in for a cup of
coffee, but also his driver [me]. So, I was there when Leo Szilard took out of his
pocket the letter addressed to
Roosevelt. Szilard told Einstein, "Here it is. It can be done. It
will change everything, sign it." That was the second of August, 1939 and World War II had not yet started. Einstein read the letter carefully, and he
said, "Well, that will be the first time that nuclear energy will be used
by us in a different way than by getting it indirectly from the Sun." He
signed and gave it back to Leo Szilard who gave it to a friend of the President, a
banker by the name of Alexander Sachs.
The President saw the letter at the end of October. He convened a
meeting, and I was responsible for bringing Enrico Fermi.
But Enrico Fermi did not want to get involved in anything and he would not
attend. The Army was represented by a colonel who did not see any
possibility in this harebrained scheme. I
said that I had nothing to say except that I had a message from Fermi. The
message was that the first thing we had to do was to make a nuclear reactor. We knew
the people that could make one who were from the universities. We would not need support,
just materials - very pure
graphite. And to buy graphite, we needed $20,000. That is what we got. Leo Szilard almost murdered me for not having asked for more money!
However, I was innocent - I
only repeated what Enrico Fermi said. We got it, and we got started. Leo Szilard and Enrico
did not get along very well. I was on
good terms with both. Therefore, I was needed. I was there from the
very beginning in 1939.
We made the bomb, not without difficulty, but very much on time.
I was working in Los Alamos, Leo Szilard was working in Chicago. I got a letter from
him saying, "The Nazis have surrendered, we need not drop the bomb. It is sufficient to
demonstrate it. Get signatures to support the petition." I wanted to,
however, I could not do that without asking the permission of our very popular
Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer said, "Absolutely, not. We don't know
enough. People in Washington ought to decide." He persuaded me, in
principle, that he was right. However, what I did not know was that Oppenheimer
was chairing a very secret committee. It consisted
of him, Fermi, Compton, and Ernest
Lawrence. Robert Oppenheimer persuaded the others
(who were reluctant) to recommend to drop the bomb right away.
Was it a mistake? Should we have
done it? I will give you a very complete, clear, and correct answer. I don't
know. It is true that the Second World War killed 50 million people.
The atomic bombs killed 150,000. Had the War gone on for another month, more
people would have died. Yet, could it have been possible to demonstrate? Start
the atomic age in a much more peaceful, much less controversial manner?
History of the Atomic Bomb
Development and history of the atomic bomb and The Manhattan Project
Edward Teller was born in
Budapest, Hungary in 1908, Dr. Teller received his Ph.D. in physics at the
University of Leipzig in Germany. Although his early training was in chemical
physics and spectroscopy, Edward Teller has made substantial contributions to such
diverse fields as nuclear physics, plasma physics, astrophysics, and statistical
mechanics. Dr. Teller has published more than a dozen books on subjects ranging
from energy policy to defense issues, received numerous awards for his
contributions to physics and public life, and has been awarded 23 honorary
"What we should have learned is that the
world is small, that peace is important and that cooperation in science ...
could contribute to peace. Nuclear weapons, in a peaceful world, will have a
limited importance." Edward Teller in CNN interview
Photo Credit: Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory - Edward Teller, LBL News, Vol.6, No.3, Fall 1981 | Edward Teller
Description: What could the
Laboratory do to help the nation meet the latest Soviet threat? Lawrence,
Alvarez and others decided to put the Laboratory behind Edward Teller's program
for a thermonuclear weapon, or superbomb, which had withered in the shadow of
fission development and international control.
LFT & E Conference: "10 Years and Counting"
Sponsored by: American Defense Preparedness Association
Hosted by: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
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