Travel expenses of reactor pioneers

It’s fun to catch a glimpse of times and individuals’ attitudes from archival research. Many of the world’s reactors descend from initial work done at the Argonne Laboratory over the late 1940s and 1950s (and onwards). An enormously talented group of scientists and engineers found their way there. During the summer of 1951, Winston Manning, head of the Chemistry Division, complained to pioneer Walter Zinn about Zinn’s imposed travel expenses regime.

Zinn memo

I didn’t grab Manning’s original complaint when I visited the Chicago archives, but here is Zinn’s characteristically spirited response.

I appreciate receiving your comments on laboratory travel and I believe such a memorandum, although it represents to some extent a misuse of your time, can be valuable to the Laboratory.

That’s setting out who is boss, yes? Now Zinn points out how politically vulnerable Argonne was at the start of that Cold-War-anxious decade, how vulnerable to attacks from Congressmen keen for Argonne to shift from peaceful power reactor development to a nuclear weapons focus:

Please be assured that my only interest in reminding the Division Directors of their responsibility in connection with travel was to be reassured that the Division Directors are aware of the problem and are aware of the fact that care in the use of our money is necessary to protect our research program. . . . Sometimes I feel that we are being required to be perfect in everything, whereas I used to think that a decent performance in research might be enough to earn us our bread and butter.

And then, finally, the judgment:

The last sentence in your memorandum can be answered by saying that no change in the method of handling travel arrangements was or is contemplated at the present time.


Zinn, Walter H. 1951g. Zinn to Manning, Aug. 6, 1951. “Reading File, August 6, 1951,” Box 42, Laboratory Director’s Reading File, 1949-1957, RG 326, NARA-GL, Chicago, Illinois.