Vigorously

Enrico Fermi, designer and builder of the very first reactor, died a dozen years after that event. He entered a Chicago hospital on October 9, 1954, and died at home on November 28. He pursued truth throughout his life, even, it seems from this newspaper report, just before death… A few hours before he entered the hospital, he called the only press conference he ever held on nontechnical. . .

Airbrushed from history

Our modern LWR reactors descend in direct lineage from Admiral Rickover’s submarine reactors. Few people realize that much of the original engineering and research work sprang from Walter Zinn’s Argonne laboratory. That is no accident. Rickover loathed the scientists and Westinghouse, the industrial powerhouse who took the design to world prominence, had a strong interest in cementing. . .

Still fun

The invigorating personal touches one finds in archives. Arthur Compton was pivotal to the Manhattan Project during WWII, leading Met Lab, which developed the first reactors and bomb materiels factories. After the war, he stepped back into academia at Washington University. At the end of 1954 he had just retired as chancellor and was writing a book, Atomic Quest, that is a treasure trove for. . .

Violation of instructions

W. H. McCorkle (I just discovered his first name was Willard) crops up a lot in the Argonne files in the early 50s, as a metallurgist who was a director of research. Walter Zinn tended to be blunt with him. I have had reported to me by a reliable source that there has been an occasion when CP-5 has been operating at full power and no operator was in the control room. This is in direct violation. . .

Lesser-known convention

October 1954. Did a smile flit across his face?

Dear Doctor Zinn, Knowing the heavy schedule you have at the Laboratory, I realize the extra demand the speech before the Convention of F.B.I. Agents will make on your time and energy.Cotter, Frank P. 1954. Cotter to Zinn, Oct. 28, 1954. “Argonne National Laboratory General Correspondence,” Box 4, Entry Series 1, RG 126. NARA, College Park, Maryland.

Lilienthal on Strauss

Lewis Strauss looms large over the first decade of postwar reactor history. He was a commissioner under AEC’s first chairman, David Lilienthal, also under the second chairman, Gordon Dean, then got the top job from new president Eisenhower. He attracted strong antipathy. Here is Lilienthal diarising about Strauss at the apex of power in late 1954. It is completely understandable that I. . .

Moderately humorous

One of the more interesting pioneers was Sam Untermyer (Samuel Untermyer, III) who, together with Walter Zinn, invented the Boiling Water Reactor, helped General Electric develop and launch it, and then kind of faded away. I found 62 pages of interview transcripts mysteriously dated August 1965, with no context or interviewer details. The interview is frank and fascinating. Here he is, describing. . .

Interesting times?

Walter Zinn used language directly, sometime ponderously, but often with flair. Here he is in 1954, writing to a scientist about to come work with Argonne for a month or so. Reading this, I ask myself: who informs Walter what is or isn’t “interesting”? I am delighted to know that you can spend June with us. It seems to me that the pattern we followed last year would be. . .

Nearly torpedoed

Our modern energy picture shows a strong tilt to a dominant reactor design, the light water reactor. Its history tends to be portrayed as a logical progression centered around Admiral Hyman Rickover, who, so goes the narrative, so resoundingly demonstrated the design’s efficacy with nuclear submarines, that when he built the world’s first fully commercial power reactor at. . .

Peculiarly wayward

Perhaps anyone at the center of history exhibits interesting characteristics when subjected to full scrutiny. Many of the reactor pioneers are fascinating beyond their official histories. England’s John Cockcroft was an extraordinary person but decidedly “Delphic,” as in “deliberately obscure or ambiguous.” Brian Austin, biographer of Basil Schonland, captured one. . .

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