Sign posted at the front gate of the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore.

The Legacies of Lawrence, von Neumann, and Wheeler

In this next blog, we’re going to see how Lawrence’s passion, combined with a series of events occurring first with the discovery of nuclear fission and culminating with a Soviet test of an atomic bomb, led to the founding of a second nuclear weapons laboratory for the country. If you’re interested, you’ll have to reach back to previous blogs to understand why the laboratory ended up in Livermore. I understand what you’re about to read may differ from histories you may have read before, which makes this blog somewhat controversial, but it is what it is. Here, I am going to highlight just a few of the points I bring out in my “hopefully” upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin:

On the day after Labor Day, September 2, 1952, the second nuclear weapons laboratory of the United States opened its gates. A sign posted on the front gate of the former Livermore Naval Air Station proclaimed the site to be the University of California Radiation Laboratory (Livermore), but to most, myself included, it is simply called the Laboratory. This was the Livermore adjunct to Lawrence’s Rad Lab. Most of the scientists and engineers pulling up to the Laboratory’s main gate that first day had commuted from Berkeley—about an hour’s drive.

For those young professionals, it was a commute where they left breezy neighborhoods overlooking San Francisco Bay, with temperatures in the 50s, and drove inland, east over the Oakland hills to a different climate, where the temperatures could be twenty to thirty degrees warmer. This had to be an exciting time in their lives; they were starting new careers.

The central character in this narrative is without a doubt Lawrence, and just as much as the Rad Lab and the MIT Radiation Lab were products of his leadership and energy, so too, the Laboratory is his creation. At this time, there was a passing of the baton of sorts to a new generation. Lawrence still led the Laboratory; truly, for the first two years of the Laboratory’s existence, he was its director. But handling the day-to-day challenges facing these young scientists and engineers, that job fell to Herb York and his lieutenants. They were upstarts, not in the sense of causing disruption, rather in the sense of setting out on a new course to lead the nation to defend itself against a grave new threat to its security, indeed its existence. York and his upstarts were inspired to accomplish that challenge by the way Lawrence had led the way through a world war; that is just one of Lawrence’s legacies.

The Livermore valley can be hot in the summer, with temperatures in the 90s and with the sun shining unremittingly without a cloud in the sky. Opening day for the Laboratory was hotter than usual; by afternoon the temperature went above 100 degrees. As the Laboratory’s new leader, while preparing the site to open, York chose to make the old air station x-ray room his office. It had lead-lined walls that could deaden sounds, so he felt he could safely have classified conversations there. This was a classic case of unintended consequences, for lead-lined walls hold in the heat. Harold Brown told me that he went to see York later in the day, and found him sitting at his desk looking exasperated, perspiration streaming down his shirt.

Approaching the Laboratory along East Avenue.

The Laboratory is located about two miles east of the town of Livermore, which at that time was a dusty cowboy town. When I arrived there some years later, I walked down its main street, First Street, and saw a few antique stores and a few saloons. I read the local newspaper; there was an article where a local rancher came into town and entered the Livermore Saloon. She had just arrived after shooting some transformers that PG&E had placed on power lines on her ranch, and she was still feeling pretty good, because on entering the saloon, she took out her six shooter and shot out some glasses sitting on shelves. Then she placed a few hundred dollars on the bar and departed for her ranch. That story made it to page three of the newspaper.

I’m afraid I’m not painting a pretty picture of Livermore; if this blog gets around, I don’t want the mayor to come banging on my front door for trashing his city. So, I’d like to add the pioneers of the Laboratory back in 1952 would hardly recognize their city today. Livermore has tree lined streets and a public theater that showcases fabulous acts. I got to see Doc Watson play his blue grass guitar for two hours there, as well as seeing classic operas and symphonies. Many of the saloons have been replaced by upscale ale houses. Livermore now boasts fifty-six wineries! Want a fancy restaurant? Name your favorite country cuisine and there’s a restaurant with an outdoor patio to serve you. Okay, the mayor should feel better, and I feel safer now.

The Laboratory’s buildings were the old barracks that occupied the Naval air station. There were no air conditioners for the summer months, and no central heating for the winter. Draftsmen had to make blueprints of devices for nuclear testing, and in the summer heat they found their blueprints were soaking wet from their perspiration. AEC inspectors showed up at the Laboratory, and the engineers complained about the lack of air conditioning, but the inspectors felt purchasing air conditioners would be too extravagant for taxpayer dollars. (Some of you might remember at the time, air conditioning was usually restricted to movie theaters.) The head of engineering scheduled a meeting of the inspectors for August, and got the inspectors sit in the drafting room for a few hours. After that episode, the AEC finally provided funding for air conditioning.

Among the upstarts who came to the Laboratory those early days were Harold Brown, Johnny Foster, and Mike May. We’ll have opportunities to learn more about them, but for now let’s talk about Mike May. He was born in Marseilles, France in 1925, where his father was a medical student. The family moved to a suburb of Paris, Paris-en-Fleck, where the father established a medical practice. Then he accepted a position to teach surgery in Hanoi, Vietnam, at the time, a part of French Indochina. Mike enrolled in Hanoi high school.

Mike May, circa 1963

The family made friends with a Seventh Day Adventist missionary whose last name was Verndon, and he often praised the quality of life in the eastern part of Washington state, especially the town of Walla Walla. He said it had views of the Cascade Mountains and had good schools. When the Japanese empire joined Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to become the Tripartite Pact, it became obvious life in a French colony in Asia would not be safe, so the family planned to evacuate. Inspired by Verndon, they moved from Hanoi, Vietnam to Walla Walla, Washington, and May completed high school there.

He joined the Army and, even though he is fairly small in stature, Mike volunteered to be a paratrooper. His regiment trained to be part of Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan, but the two atomic blasts ended the war and Operation Olympic was cancelled. When Mike and I spoke about this, I mentioned those two blasts probably saved his life, because combat casualties among paratroopers were very high. Mike thought about it, smiled, and said, “I guess so.” Mike is a naturalized citizen, and he kept a distinct French accent, which gives his speech a flair of elegance.

After the war, he went to Berkeley to get a PhD in physics. During his graduate studies, he became a teacher’s assistant to Herb York, who was teaching a class in quantum physics. When Lawrence asked York to run operations at Livermore, York immediately asked May to join him, and May accepted. Mike had gotten married, and by the time he left Berkeley for Livermore, his wife Mary was pregnant. Some realtors, seeing an opportunity with the opening of the Laboratory, built a bunch of cardboard duplexes along East Avenue, which was the road that connected the Laboratory to the town of Livermore. Along with many others, the May’s rented one of them for about $80 a month.

The Laboratory soon became a gathering place for many distinguished scientists, among them John von Neumann and John Wheeler (you remember these guys from earlier blogs); more about them later. When any of the great men visited, a coterie of young Laboratory physicists gathered around them, and York asked Mike to be the lead escort. After a week or so, Mike felt like inviting von Neumann over to his place for lunch, and von Neumann readily accepted. When Mike told Mary that evening that the great Hungarian mathematician was going to be their house guest the next day, Mary wondered what to serve. After thinking it over for a while with her husband, Mary finally decided, “Well, since he’s Hungarian, we’ll have liverwurst sandwiches.”

* * *

John von Neumann is not often, if at all, connected to the laboratory in Livermore, but he had a profound effect on the institution. He convinced Lawrence, and York, and Teller, that it would be impossible to design a thermonuclear weapon without using a computer. His argument was persuasive, and one of the first acts of the new Laboratory was to order the UNIVAC-5 computer from the Eckert-Mauchly plant in Philadelphia. A key figure in getting the computer operational was Chuck Leith. I met Leith when I first started working at the Laboratory, his office was next to mine. He was quiet and studious, and you could tell that when he settled down to address a problem, he focused his mind to it.

Von Neumann urged Leith early to create computer programs, called codes, and as a result, Leith wrote the earliest computer codes at the Laboratory to design a thermonuclear warhead, and he did it at a time before there were compilers, like Fortran. Instead, he had to write complicated codes in machine language, which is excruciatingly difficult. Leith became a leading computer scientist in the country, and after some years, he developed a yen to model the earth’s atmosphere, which he accomplished in the 1960s. Considered an expert in atmospheric science, in 1970, he helped to create the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado.

Chuck Leith, circa 1990s

It was von Neumann’s practice to button-hole physicists involved with thermonuclear weapons and guide them to write computer codes, and Mike May was no exception. One week after settling down at the Laboratory, May was tasked with writing a code to do radiative transport calculations. Radiative transport is the science that was born from studying stars. When astrophysicists, physicists who study stars, are doing their thing, their problem is to figure out how a star not only creates energy, but how it can efficiently radiate away that energy and stay in one piece. They become experts in how heat is transported from a star’s center to its surface, and that is why the science carries the catch phrase radiative transport.

Now, as we saw two and three blogs ago, the way a thermonuclear weapon works is for an atomic device to ignite and raise the temperature of thermonuclear fuel and compress it until that fuel undergoes fusion reactions and releases more energy. Knowing how energy, or thanks to Ludwig Boltzmann, heat, transports itself from the atomic device to the thermonuclear device is a prime example of radiative transport.

So, thanks to von Neumann, Mike, fresh from college with a PhD in physics, set off to write a computer code to model a thermonuclear device! He went into his office, sat down, pulled a book from a book shelf, and wrote a code using basic physics principles. The book he pulled down was the textbook Radiative Transport, written by the Indian Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, a textbook that like other physics students, I became acquainted with when I took an astrophysics course at MIT.

I remember saying to Mike, “Man, writing a thermonuclear code; that’s a job for a crew of physicists, let alone one guy with no experience writing computer codes. How on earth did you do it?” Mike said to me, “Well, I had a brand new PhD, and I thought that’s what PhD physicists were supposed to do.”

Looking back when I was doing my research for this history, I noticed nearly every physicist who became an associate director or director of the Laboratory in the years to come, had one similarity in their careers. Their first assignment at the Lab was to write a computer code. First, they created a computer model of a problem, and only then did they experiment to test the model. A culture evolved in the Laboratory that I call a “computer culture,” and it is a legacy of John von Neumann.

* * *

From the very beginning, RAND analysts arrived and took up residence. Among their number were some of the greatest political science thinkers of the 1950s, men like William Kaufmann, Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Andy Marshall, and Albert Wohlstetter, among others. Because the Laboratory was employing a management scheme practiced by Lawrence at the Rad Lab, these analysts were able to easily embed themselves among the physicists at the Laboratory. I’m referring to a system of organization practiced by Lawrence called “matrix management.” Here, professionals like physicists, engineers, chemists, and others, belonged to divisions inhabited by like professionals: there was a physics division, an engineering division, and so on.

When a specific mission was identified, Laboratory management created a program to accomplish it, and the appointed program leader selected experts from the parent divisions to be members of the program—the program leader contributed to their annual performance evaluations. Thus, each program was composed of an eclectic team of experts focused on achieving a single mission. This kind of management style was very conducive to innovation, because professionals with varied backgrounds felt empowered to make contributions to the mission. The RAND analysts often appeared like yet more “matrixed personnel” to the various programs, and were readily accepted as part of the team.

It was my practice when doing this research on history, to reach into a copy of the Laboratory’s 1956 phone book. The book gave me names and telephone numbers, but importantly, it also gave me their office locations. By seeing where an individual’s office was, I could often garner what program he or she was involved in. One day I happened upon Herman Kahn’s office and noted it was immediately next door to Mike May’s office. When I mentioned this to Mike, he said, “Oh, yeah.” And I said, “Duh, you could have told me!” In this way I began to learn the RAND analysts and the Laboratory physicists worked hand-in-hand. This was just one consequence of matrix management it is yet another legacy of Lawrence.

I also couldn’t help notice how often Laboratory physicists from those days would casually refer to John Wheeler. When Wheeler closed up shop with his Matterhorn-B project following the Mike event, he didn’t abandon thermonuclear research. He was a frequent visitor and mentor to the Livermore crowd, and they obtained from Wheeler as many ideas as they could. He was a master teacher; he could explain complicated physics phenomena to eager young physicists. Mike May’s relationship with Wheeler lasted for decades. Mike took a sabbatical twenty years later to Princeton, and stopped to spend a week with Wheeler on an island he owned off the coast of Maine. Every evening, Wheeler held a retreat ceremony from his back porch and saluted when the American flag was lowered.

When visiting the Laboratory, Wheeler brought along several veterans of the Matterhorn-B project, and some of them stayed on at Livermore. There are two especially who will play prominent roles in this history. One was Carl Haussmann, a graduate of West Point, he got his advanced degree in physics at Penn State, and he would become Harold Brown’s deputy. The other was Bill Grasberger. I’ll have more to say about Bill in later blogs.

That the Laboratory became a central gathering spot for so many scientists and engineers, and RAND analysts, had fortunate outcomes for the nation. It was a unique situation, and it led to the birth of some creative ideas on national security. I don’t know if any Cold War historians picked up on this. In the coming blogs, we’re going to see that the rich mix of intellectuals working at the Laboratory became a potent brew that affected how we went through the Cold War.

The ideas I’ve presented in this blog are just a small sample of what is written in my manuscript From Berkeley to Berlin. That’s okay, I think you still get the general idea. With God’s help, maybe we’ll see the book get published.

2 thoughts on “Legacies

  1. TomHill

    Nice report, Tom. Didn’t realize that vonNeumann was so heavily involved with LLNL. And some new names for me. Never heard of Leith before. Interesting that LLNL had matrix management well before DonKerr introduced it to LANL. He was subjected to a lot of derision for that move.
    And roughly when did SeymourSack come along?


    1. Tom Ramos Post author

      Seymour Sack didn’t join the Lab until around 1956-7. Contrary to “common knowledge,” you’ll see that he did not invent the Robin. Hell, the Robin had already been developed before he arrived.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s