Building the World

Manhattan Project and Atomic Energy Act, United States

Water and electricity – hydroelectric achievements like the Hoover Dam and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) harnessed liquid to let there be light. But a new form of energy was about to emerge, one that may have been among the first to command patent rights. Its power of destruction was what triggered initial development but led to a declaration promoting world peace. This new capability: atomic energy.


Albert Einstein, from Library of Congress at

Albert Einstein
Old Grove Rd.
Nassau Point
Long Island

August 2, 1939
F. D. Roosevelt
President of the United States
White House
Washington, D.C.

Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of this situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration…

Yours very truly,
A. Einstein

Einstein enlisted the help of economist and friend of the president, Alexander Sachs who delivered Einstein’s letter, an explanatory letter of his own, and a memo from Szilard summing up the current science on fission.


Einstein wrote the letter in August. But in September, Germany invaded Poland and Sachs did not see President Roosevelt, who became preoccupied with the eruption of war in Europe, until October. Two days later, Roosevelt sent a reply to Einstein.

President Roosevelt, From Library of Congress at

Washington, DC
October 19, 1939

My dear Professor:

I want to thank you for your recent letter and the most interesting and important enclosure

I found this data of such import that I have convened a Board consisting of the head of the Bureau of Standards and a chosen representative of the Army and Navy to thoroughly investigate the possibilities of your suggestion regarding the element of uranium.

I am glad to say that Dr. Sachs will cooperate and work with the Committee and I feel this is the most practical and effective method of dealing with the subject.

Please accept my sincere thanks.

Very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 From: Roosevelt Library:


Why was the development of atomic energy into a weapon named after a city in New York, miles away from the site where research was headquartered? There was a need for a code name; it was a secret endeavor. The project’s name stemmed from the fact that some preliminary research had been done at Columbia University, in Manhattan. In fact, however, perhaps the true name of the project should have been Chicago. For, it was at the University of Chicago that Enrico Fermi (who received the Nobel Prize in physics) achieved the first controlled, self-sustaining fission chain reaction.

Soon, plants producing fissionable material (uranium 235 and plutonium 239) were built in Tennessee (at Clinton Engineer Works, later called Oak Ridge) and Washington State (at Hanford Engineering Works). Much of the actual construction of the bomb was done at a new laboratory established in a remote location in New Mexico: Los Alamos.


J.R. Oppenheimer, from Public Broadcasting Service at

Then came the moment that changed our world forever. An explosion.  Then there was an intense light, followed by a blast of heat, then a powerful shock wave; a growing fireball appeared, giving way to a mushroom-shaped cloud rising approximately 40,000 feet (12,000 meters) into the atmosphere. Los Alamos Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer stood in shock and awe when the first test of the new weapon took place in the early morning of July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer said it reminded him of a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” It should be noted that the decision to actually drop a bomb to end the war was extensively debated amongst President Roosevelt, Robert Oppenheimer, and Leslie Groves (Roosevelt’s choice for director of the Manhattan Project; it was Groves who hired Oppenheimer.) Groves was charged with studying and planning where to drop the bomb, if that became necessary. But was it?

When a presidential advisor suggested Roosevelt tell an enemy country, perhaps Japan (while Germany may have started the war, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese that triggered American entrance on December 7, 1941), that America would be bombing a certain target and that everybody must be evacuated. Then, the U.S. would drop the bomb in the ultimate “demo.” The inevitable shock and horror would be sufficient to stop the war.

Why was this course of action not pursued? Roosevelt was concerned that if for any reason the bomb simply fell to the ground without exploding, the enemy would have a full-scale model to reverse-engineer and improve. Painfully, the decision was taken to use a real bomb but drop as few as possible in the hope of immediate surrender, ending the war. The actual bombing occurred in 1945, during the Truman administration.


As it turned out, atomic devices were surprisingly economical. The overall cost was estimated to be $20 billion (in 1996 dollars) for Gadget (dropped on Alamogordo on July 16, 1945), Little Boy (Hiroshima on August 6, 1945), and Fat Man (Nagasaki on August 9, 1945), and a fourth bomb that was not used. War expenditures for smaller bombs, mines, and grenades cost $31.5 billion. Guns and rifles cost $24 billion, not including ammunition. Tanks were the biggest expense, at $64 billion. Therefore, the cost of four atomic bombs was actually cheaper than traditional equipment.


A train was about to leave Union Station in Chicago. Aboard were the architects of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. The team boss held a sealed envelope. For some time, those now seated in the railcar had been designing housing for a large group of undisclosed workers. The architects had drawn up plans for a specified number of housing units, requisite stores, schools, and places of worship. The team in fact had to design an entire town; they just didn’t know where it would be. Now, as the whistle of the train meant the sequestered team could no longer leak top-secret information, the boss tore open the letter: it said “Oak Ridge, Tennessee.”

Sign posted outside Oak Ridge 1943, from the Center for Disease Control at

There were several reasons why Oak Ridge was chosen. One was that the activities to be conducted would require enormous amounts of electricity, already available there as a result of recent completion of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Clean water was also abundant and there was a rail line, adequate roads. Land could be acquired at modest cost. However, some families woke up to find a notice nailed to their farm fencepost instructing them to move. In just one year, everybody was cleared away, and 59,000 acres were made ready.

The site was geographically advantageous as far as security. Oak Ridge was ideally situated for the five different plants that would be within easy transport distance but could remain separated by mountain ridges that afforded protection to the whole if one were compromised or damaged. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill had topographical maps showing the ridges, but they didn’t know where they were. Another geographical advantage was the Clinch Rive that bordered the reservation on three sides; on the exposed side, a patrolled fence was all that would be needed. Interestingly, similar considerations were present in the mind of Tsar Peter the Great when he founded St. Petersburg on an island in the Neva River called Lust Elant.


A huge workforce was needed. Oakridge was a natural choice for this reason. With the TVA recently completed, scientific and technical knowledge abounded. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville became home to many scientists who remained after the TVA. While the architects were building, scientists were recruited and drafted into the army in a special engineering division. Some had no military training but plenty of technical know-how. The army was well versed in fast recruitment. When President Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation Corps, he gave the job of organization and recruitment to the army. Within one week of his executive order, young people were enrolled and assigned to public-works projects. Oak Ridge filled fast. By spring, 66,000 people were working there, a number that later increased to 75,000.

It is noteworthy that the ability to work cooperatively was, of necessity, developing steadily in the United States. The Erie Canal was one of the first projects that saw work teams grouped collaboratively along a vast stretch of space and time. The Transcontinental Railroad similarly relied upon organizational coordination. Six Companies Inc. built the Hoover Dam, marking a point in U.S. management history when the affiliated companies worked so well together that they finished the job two years early. Likewise, the essential competency to work cooperatively on a large-scale was part of the success of the Manhattan Project.


“Guns to butter,” “swords to ploughshares” – these are stock phrases in English that speak of potentially dangerous things being turned to peaceful and beneficial use. The Manhattan Project opened the door to a new energy source for the world.

After the war had ended, Einstein’s description of “a new and important source of energy,” was fulfilled by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, providing guidelines for the safe and appropriate use of this potent new form of energy. It was perhaps for this reason that the Act discusses, in Section 11, Patents and Inventions. Later August 26, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson would sign the Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act, allowing the nuclear industry to own the fuel.


Tragic use of this powerful energy as a weapon, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945 spurred adoption of the Atomic Energy Act dedicating the future to world peace. But even as a fuel, there are dangers, as proven by Chernobyl, Russia or Three Mile Island, United States for example. Additionally an offshore earthquake created a tsunami to inundate Fukushima, Japan, on March 11, 2011, causing an unexpected failure at a nuclear power station; one year later, tuna in a California harbor carried radioactivity. Announcing those radioactive fish, some newspaper headlines cheekily described a “hot tuna melt.” Even as the situation improves there are lessons and questions. Former Prime Minister Naoto Kan stated on May 29, 2012 “I would like to say to the Japanese and to the world – the safest nuclear policy is not to have any nuclear plants.” (Tokyo, May 29, Energy Resources, “Japan to decide on nuclear power restart,” Yet nuclear power promises great potential.

Document of Authorization


For the development and control of atomic energy

Research and experimentation in the field of nuclear chain reaction have attained the stage at which the release of atomic energy on a large scale is practical. The significance of the atomic bomb for military purposes is evident. The effect of the use of atomic energy for civilian purposes upon the social, economic, and political structures of today cannot now be determined. It is a field in which unknown factors are involved. Therefore, any legislation will necessarily be subject to revision from time to time. It is reasonable to anticipate, however, that tapping this new source of energy will cause profound changes in our present way of life. Accordingly, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the people of the United States that, subject at all times to the paramount objective of assuring the common defense and security, the development and utilization of atomic energy shall, so far as practicable, be directed toward improving the public welfare, increasing the standard of living, strengthening free competition in private enterprise, and promoting world peace.

No patent hereafter granted shall confer any rights with respect to any invention or discovery to the extent that such invention or discovery is used in the production of fissionable material or in the utilization of fissionable material or atomic energy for a military weapon. Any rights conferred by any patent heretofore granted for any invention or discovery are hereby revoked to the extent that such invention or discovery is so used, and just compensation shall be made therefor…such compensation be paid in periodic payments or in a lump sum.

U.S. Code, Title 42, Ch. 23, “Atomic Energy Act of 1946.” Also can be found at Please see Building the World, pp 491-514.

VOICES OF THE FUTURE: Discussion and Implications

Promoting World Peace: Atomic energy emerged from the power of destruction to be explored as a new form of energy “promoting world peace.” How have we done so far? What needs improvement? Can the goals of the Atomic Energy Act inspire a new stage in the nuclear discussion?

Fire in a Jar: Discovery of fissionable energy led to laws concerning future patents. In each case, if the “invention or discovery” was found to have military weapon implications, the government had the right to rent or lease the capability and pay royalties (later this provision would be dropped). Is this one of the first times in history that energy has been patented? What are the best ways to patent new forms of energy that may be discovered in the future?


To read the complete chapter, members of the University of Massachusetts Boston may access the e-book through Healey Library Catalog and  ABC-CLIO here.  Alternatively the volumes can be accessed at WorldCat, or at Amazon for purchase. Further resources are available onsite at the University of Massachusetts Boston, Healey Library, including some of the following:

Building the World Collection Finding Aid

(*indicates printed in notebook series)

Dyson, Freeman. Weapons and Hope. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Nitte, Paul H. From Hiroshima to Glasnost: At the Center of Decision; A Memoir. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.

Persico, Joseph E. Roosevelt’s Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage. New York: Random House, 2001.


For President Lyndon Johnson’s remarks upon signing the Private Ownership of Special Nuclear Materials Act, August 26, 1964, see:

For a timeline of nuclear treaties and agreements from 1963 to 1966,

For a nuclear power timeline:

For a nuclear time line in the 1940s, including links to video and audio clips from December 7, 1941, from CBS News, see:

For an overview of the nuclear age in the 1940s, see

For the organization chart of the Manhattan Engineer District, see the Society for the Historical Preservation of the Manhattan Project, see:

For information about Clinton Engineer Works (forerunner to Oak Ridge),

To learn more about current Oak Ridge Laboratories, see:

For nuclear toxic effects in the event of accidents: “Radioactive Fukushima tuna cross Pacific.”, May 29, 2012.

For Chernobyl radiation in UK sheep:

For radioactive tuna in California one year after Japan’s nuclear disaster:

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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