Archive for the history of technology Category

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes

Posted in history, history of technology with tags on December 27, 2009 by Matt

Dating from 1986, this is a massive (near 800 pages) popular history of the World War II atomic bomb project. The focus is on the American effort, though there are brief detours into German and Japanese nuclear research. There’s also substantial background material on nuclear physics beginning with J. J. Thomson in the 1890’s.

The book takes the stories of Leo Szilard and Neils Bohr as central threads in the overall story. Bohr’s importance develops from his philosophical idea of “complementarity”, by which he not only subjugated the wave-particle duality, but also other apparently contradictory but ultimately complementary ideas such as super weapons and world peace. Throughout the book, complementarity is a standard against which the ideas of other physicists are compared.

In the case of Szilard, Rhodes credits him as one of the first to recognize the potential power to be released by nuclear physics, and its possible impact on human politics. From early days, and taking his inspiration in part from H. G. Wells’ science fiction novel The World Set Free, Szilard advocated a world government (obviously never realized, but still promising as the books story closed in the 1950’s) as the only way to control the vastly dangerous new technology predicted to emerge from the atomic nucleus.

Of course, there’s also plenty of detail on the Manhattan Project itself. And, mostly to show that the Americans were much further ahead of their competition than they realized, a few glimpses at vastly smaller and less well-funded German and Japanese bomb programs. The vast effort needed to extract the fissionable material from endless tons of raw uranium could only have been accomplished by the industrial powerhouse USA at that time. And its (somewhat) comforting to consider whether even today a “rogue state” could actually accumulate nuclear weapons in any quantity, although its also a frightening thought how much technology might have improved in the past 60 years.

An epilogue describes the beginnings of the nuclear nonproliferation efforts of the physics community, as well as continuing weapons work following the war, up to the point of the first Soviet a-bomb explosion and the first American h-bomb tests.

The important role of the bomb in ending World War 2, the potential ramifications if events had come out differently (what if the first nuclear war had involved not two weapons, but dozens or hundreds?) , and the influence of the bomb on the remainder of 20th century history, make this an important history to understand. And indeed the new danger, mostly unforseen in 1986, of smaller states obtaining nuclear weapons means this history is still relevant today, and this book is an excellent introduction covering the topic in both great breadth and also substantial depth.


Edward Teller, the Real Dr. Strangelove, Peter Goodchild

Posted in books, history, history of technology with tags , on October 17, 2009 by Matt

Edward Teller is a giant in the history of the 20th Century. He is a central figure in the story of the Physicists coming down from the ivory tower to create the weapons that defined the second half of the century as the “atomic age”. Teller is maybe most commonly examined as an antagonist in the epic and theatrical tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer (about which, more someday…), and his attitude does reflect a contrary view to Oppenheimer’s, but his influence continued long after Oppenheimer was pushed off the stage.

Teller began his career as a brilliant physicist who collaborated with many of the early investigators of quantum mechanics, and contributing a couple of key results himself. Pushed out of Europe by the anti-semitism of the ’30’s, he came to the U.S., and when war came, he naturally and enthusiastically joined the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons.

In the Manhattan Project, Teller was somewhat sidelined because he hoped to bypass fission weapons and begin developing a fusion weapon (the H-bomb, or “super”) immediately. After the war he continued to work on the H-bomb project, although conflicts with his former colleagues at Los Alamos led him to push for the creation of the new national lab at Livermore, which he joined. Later in his career he became a political advocate for weapons research, weapons testing, and later for the SDI or “Star Wars” defense system created under Ronald Reagan.

This biography paints a portrait of a genius, committed to the security of his adopted country, but with two great flaws. Goodchild is really only explicit about describing the first of these, but he might have had both in mind as he draws together multiple threads of Teller’s life to demonstrate them both.

Continue reading

Oppenheimer bio on PBS

Posted in history, history of technology on January 31, 2009 by Matt

PBS in the last week aired a new documentary, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer, that captures well the great importance of Oppenheimer’s life in recent history, and how his story reflected the history of the world around him.

Oppenheimer’s story is one of the great parables of 20th century history. He grew up in an environment that encouraged careful consideration of morality and ethics. He breezed through school, struggling only in the laboratories of Cambridge, and became a respected academic as a professor at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He read widely in philosophy and eastern religion, but was involved in politics mainly as a sympathizer with various “causes” of the time. Then, during the war, he was scientific director of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb, and advocated for its use in the war. After the war, he became a respected advisor to the government on nuclear and scientific issues. But, when he advocated diplomacy with the Soviets to regulate development of the “super” or hydrogen bomb, the H-bomb’s supporters dug up incidents from his past to paint him as a Communist, and drove him out of the government. I can think of no other biography that so clearly illustrates the hazards of attempting to live a life based on nuanced convictions; and the danger to society of losing its greatest potential leaders if we allow zealots and partisans of any kind to villify the advocates of a carefully chosen middle path.

Compared to the biography American Prometheus, one of whose authors is interviewed in the film, The Trials is naturally not as complete, since two hours of television can’t possibly deliver the same depth as a 600 page book. The documentary also puts substantially more emphasis on the difficulties of Oppenheimer’s personality, his vicious verbal put-downs of fellow academics and clumsy relations with women, all perhaps rooted in a hidden lack of confidence. The television film is also less sympathetic to Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, who is descibed as “an additional burden” during their years at Los Alamos.

The documentary does well at compressing the story of Oppenheimer’s youth, and detailing his early scientific life. It also gives a clear account of the reasons for his choice as Los Alamos lab director. In explaining the details of Oppenheimer’s feud with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss, the film is somewhat less than detailed about Oppenheimer’s position in relation to H-bomb development and diplomatic alternatives to maintain a balance of power with the Soviets without creating the super-weapon. Strauss’s and Teller’s enmity in the end led to his losing his security clearance and thus his position as advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission.

In addition to American Prometheus, there are of course many other biographies available, and in fact the transcript of the hearings that led to Oppenheimer’s dismissal from government was also published by the Atomic Energy Commission. Probably one of my dumbest shopping moves ever was not buying the transcripts when I saw them at BookBuyers used books in Mountain View. However, if you don’t have time for a book, The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an excellent introduction into one of the most important stories in history, and highly recommended for anyone interested in the history of science, World War II, or the cold war.

William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary

Posted in history, history of technology with tags , , , , on January 20, 2009 by Matt

note: Learned my first blogging lesson: Don’t post too quickly… after sleeping on this, I realized it could benefit from substantial revision.

Berlin Diary is a record of Shirer’s six years as a CBS radio reporter in Europe, as the Nazi occupation developed. It is also largely a history of Nazi propaganda and how it led the German people to war and villainy against the minorities among them. Americans often forget the history of the origins of the second World War, and of the first two years of the war, when America remained neutral. Here we see these years, until December of 1940, from the point of view of an anti-Nazi, but officially neutral, American observer.

As read today, the book chronicles an inevitable march of events, as the German support of the Spanish Fascists, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and the capture of the Sudetenland and Anschluss of Austria, without significant opposition from France or England (or the U.S.) leads to the eventual outbreak of war on the invasion of Poland, then months of “Phoney War”, and finally the invasion and collapse of Holland, Belgium, and then France. The book ends with Germany and the U.K. engaged in a war of bombers and propaganda, with Shirer leaving Germany feeling censorship had tightened to the point of making his position as a reporter irrelevant. Of course, when written, this was all current events, and part of the public debate in America on joining the war.

Shirer gives us a view of the Germans’ reactions and attitudes as this history unfolded. He also highlights the role of propaganda in forming German public opinion. Shirer shows how even when people don’t trust their news sources, knowing they are providing only propaganda, they are still influenced by them. He shows how the Nazis led Germans to believe that violence was justified in response to any slight against Germany, but that other nations were foolish to defend themselves with force against German invasion.

These elements of the story are probably the most valuable today. They show how dehumanizing our neighbors enables us to act horrifically, and they probably apply to every international (or civil) conflict that has lead to war since Shirer’s time.

Shirer also discusses the censorship he had to work under as a broadcaster. For instance, at some point the Germans realized that the term “Nazi” had acquired a negative connotation in the U.S., so they forbid him to use it in his broadcasts. Once the war had started, and British bombers were attacking Berlin regularly, they supplied the broadcast studio with a special “lip mic” that required Shirer to talk so close to the microphone that the outside sounds of falling bombs and anti-aircraft fire could not be heard, thus avoiding the perception that England could successfully attack them.

One omission seems strange today: the status of Jews in Hitler’s Germany is mentioned only obliquely. Shirer did investigate, and report on, Nazi exterminations of the mentally disabled, but events such as Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, in which Germans rioted across the company and tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps, are utterly ignored. Shirer only seems to notice the flood of refugees attempting to leave Europe (and finding few safe harbors) as the German army pushed outward. Was Shirer unaware of the extent of Nazi persecution, or did he think these crimes were so monstrous they could not be believed by his audience in America? Did he think that emphasis on the fate of Europe’s Jews would not be received sympathetically, and thus engaged in a bit of propaganda himself by downplaying it in the book?

In a much less momentous aspect, the book is also fascinating from the point of view of history of technology, because it goes into detail about the difficulty of broadcasting with the technology of the day, and some of the innovations Shirer (with colleague Edward R. Murrow) introduced to radio news reporting. At the time, broadcast facilities were limited to only a few stations in each European country, and Shirer had to have the cooperation of the German broadcast service to transmit his “talks” to the CBS New York station by shortwave for re-broadcast in America. Before they were invaded, Shirer made a point of encouraging Czech and Polish authorities to complete their own shortwave facilities to enable communication with the west in the event of war.

In the methods of broadcast news, Shirer also describes innovations made while he was in Berlin. For example, when he was hired, CBS’s policy was that its own news employees would not speak on the air, but only invite others, mostly newspaper journalists, to speak. Shirer (again, with Murrow) realized that in the event of war the newspapers would not scoop themselves by allowing their reporters to give their stories on the radio, and so managed to get the CBS rule changed at roughly the time of the Austrian Anschluss.

All-in-all, this 69-year-old book is still engaging, illuminating both the brutal consequences of propaganda-fueled nationalism, and, in a secondary thread of history, the technical means of carrying the news across continents. The Nazis may have employed propaganda in its most extreme forms, but this book should remind us to step back once in a while from everything we read, most importantly from news reflecting views we believe in ourselves, and check if we’re being manipulated by emotional words, selective reporting, or even outright lies.

Lick observatory anniversary

Posted in history of technology on January 3, 2009 by Matt

According to Wikipedia, tomorrow, Jan 3, is the 121st anniversary of the first observations by the 91-cm telescope at Lick Observatory.

To make raisin wine

Posted in history of technology with tags on January 1, 2009 by Matt

Here’s a garbled signal, found browsing Google Books.

From The Art of Cookery… By Hannah Glasse (1774):

To make raisin wine

TAKE two hundred of raifins, ftalks and all, and put them into a large hogshead, fill it up with water, let them fteep a fortnight, stirrng them every day; them pour off all the liquor, and drefs the raifins. Pour both liquors together in a nice clean vefsel that will juft hold [?], for it muft be full; let it ftand till it has done hiffing, or making the leaft noife, then ftop it clofe and let it ftand fix months. Peg it and if you find it quite clear rack it off into another veffel; ftop it clofe and let it ftand three months longer; then bottle it, and when you ufe it, rack it off into a decanter.

Once you get over following the old style “s”s (which come through the OCR as “f”s), this recipe shouldn’t be difficult to adapt for use today. Anyone ever try a raisin wine? Would we consider it drinkable today?