Mr. Innovation

Johnny Foster when he was DDR&E

It would be easy to imagine that anyone working at the Laboratory in the fall of 1954 would feel depressed. (Just read the previous two blogs to understand this.) Yet, the Laboratory’s upstarts were anything but. Despite having fielded three successive absolute failures in Nevada and the Pacific, they dove into their work with energy. This is where the upstarts, followers of Lawrence, enter center stage into this story.

Following the debacle of the Koon event, Johnny Foster and Harold Brown, the leaders of the atomic and thermonuclear device design teams, made a joint announcement to the Laboratory’s scientists and engineers: they were abandoning the research path set by Teller. While pursuing this line of historic research, I began to realize how important that act was, not only to the Laboratory, but to the nation. For after Foster and Brown wrote that announcement, I call it a manifesto, innovative designs began to emerge that were revolutionary. There would be no more “Teller” designs, and there would be no more total debacles.

Group Leaders Johnny Foster and Harold Brown

Two blogs ago I mentioned a baton passing from Lawrence to some upstarts, who would carry on his legacy from World War II of moving the nation to defend itself. Then I spent time telling you about Mike May. The next upstart to get my attention is going to be Johnny Foster; we’ll hear about Harold Brown in a later blog.

The man we know as John S. Foster, Jr., is to me, someone who is bigger than life. At first, I knew him by reputation, but then I got to meet him personally after I asked him to review a classified history I’d written of the Laboratory’s weapons program. I had asked him, along with Mike May and Harold Brown, to tell me whether I had interpreted 1950s events correctly. Like the others, Johnny spent hours poring over my draft history, he made a few comments, and then he said I had gotten it right. I addressed him, in my best military style, as Doctor Foster, but he corrected me. He said, “Call me Johnny.” And so, for the rest of this story, we’ll refer to Dr. John S. Foster, Jr. as Johnny.

One day, as we sat in my backyard, we were admiring humming birds and sipping glasses of Livermore wine from the McGrail Winery, when Johnny turned towards me and said, “Tom, I want you to write my biography.” I stared around the yard to make sure there were no other Tom’s lurking around, and said to him, “Why ask me Johnny? You can get any writer in the country to write your biography.” Then he said, “Because you understand what I did, and I trust you.” For those of you who have never worked with Dr. Foster, you don’t say no to Johnny.

I’ve told you this snippet because over the next few years, I interviewed Johnny for countless hours over innumerable weekends (he lives in retirement in Santa Barbara), and I gained an appreciation I never had before about what it was like to be a nuclear weapons designer during those turbulent early years of the Cold War. I finished writing Johnny’s biography, and I thought I had made a deal with him. I said, “Johnny, let me get this Lab history published first, then it should be a piece of cake getting your biography published.” I felt he agreed with my plan. But a month or so went by and I got this email from him: “Tom, you do realize I’m 95 years old!” So, the plan changed: skip publishers and go for broke. The Lab kindly paid to print Johnny’s biography as a hardbound book. Enough copies were made to provide the members of his family each with a copy of the book.

Johnny’s Biography

Johnny was born just outside the confines of Yale University, where his father, John S. Foster, Sr., was a physics instructor. John Sr. was a renowned Canadian physicist who had done exceptional experiments in quantum physics, and he was a personal friend to giants of the physics world, men like Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. In the 1920s, Lawrence showed up as a graduate student at Yale, and he and John Sr. became close friends. I sometimes think Lawrence could easily have been Johnny’s godfather. John Sr. went back to Canada to be an associate professor of physics at McGill University in Montreal, and Lawrence departed for Berkeley, but the two friends stayed in contact.

Growing up in Montreal, Johnny hit his element. As a child, he played on a small ski jump in a nearby park and by his twenties, he was a champion ski jumper in North America. At McGill, he was also the captain of the university’s gymnastics team and was chosen to represent Canada in the Olympics in gymnastics until a shortfall in funds caused Canada to drop the event. During World War II, Johnny pined to be a fighter pilot shooting down German Messerschmidt’s, and he was about to enlist in the Canadian Air Force when Lawrence asked John Sr. to help him get the MIT Radiation Laboratory started. Instead, Johnny joined his dad and departed Montreal for Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Johnny ski jumping in Montreal championships

His dad enrolled him at the Harvard Radiation Laboratory where Johnny conducted research on radar. After a year, Johnny volunteered to be a technical advisor to the US Army Air Corps, and he was shipped off to be an advisor to 15th Air Force, stationed in Foggia, Italy. Once emplaced, Johnny got the base commander to bring him a captured German radar set, called a Würzburg unit. Johnny took it apart, figured out its strengths and weaknesses, and then came up with a set of tactics bomber crews could use to limit its effectiveness. Then he went around to airbases and gave briefings to bomber crews, mostly teenage boys, on how to protect themselves from German anti-aircraft tactics. His efforts paid off, and within months, casualties in 15th Air Force dropped by half. The commander, General Twining, put Johnny in for the Silver Star, but the war ended and Johnny was back in Canada before the paperwork was finished.

Johnny briefing bomber crews

Johnny was back in McGill as a college student, then he graduated second in his class in science and mathematics. Lawrence returned a favor to John Sr. and accepted Johnny as a graduate student, and Johnny joined the Rad Lab with Luis Alvarez his group leader. When Lawrence and Alvarez were involved with the MTA project, they asked Johnny to research and build an ion vacuum pump that Lawrence had dreamed up, to evacuate the large cavernous space inside the accelerator. That became Johnny’s PhD thesis, and he succeeded in making an effective tool for the project.

When the Laboratory started in Livermore, Lawrence and Alvarez promptly recommended to Herb York that he enlist Johnny. Johnny arrived at Livermore and joined the Sherwood Project, which was a program led by a physicist named Dick Post, an expert in electromagnetism, who was building a fusion reactor to generate energy. After the failures of the Ruth and Rae atomic devices in 1953, the leader of the atomic device group, Art Biehl, announced he was leaving the Laboratory to take a job in Los Angeles, so York needed a replacement fast. He asked Johnny to take over a demoralized group of physicists, and York gave a new name to the group: he called it the Livermore Hectoton Group.

The group had several illustrious members. Johnny’s code support came from Bob LeLevier, who led a team of mathematicians to build what are called hydrodynamics codes, or hydrocodes. This was a science that predicted how a material, say a metal, would deform when struck by a shock wave, say from a high explosive. Also matrixed into the group was a theoretical physicist named Jim Wilson. Wilson was a theoretical jack-of-all-trades kind of physicist, and he was a world class mountain climber; in other words, he was a character.

Johnny had to get the Hectoton Group moving, and he quickly showed his leadership qualities, as well as his phenomenal ability to be a free-thinking physicist—an innovator. In the 1960s, when Johnny was the Director of Defense Research & Engineering (DDR&E), he created a program to develop pilotless air vehicles, the predecessors to today’s Predator drones.

The group had spent over a year designing two atomic devices that failed, and Teller was adamant to stay the course. He wanted to test yet another hydride device. In an extraordinary act of independence, and guts—remember Teller had absolute veto authority over all nuclear designs, Johnny decided to go with a radically new design for an atomic device. He thought pursuing one more hydride design was a ticket to failure. On the other hand, he did not want to just go out and borrow an atomic device design from Los Alamos. That was not his nature.

Now, I wish I could tell you what Johnny did, but if I did, I would be carted off to a prison somewhere for violating secrets under the Atomic Energy Act, so I won’t. Yet, I’d like to give you some sense of what Johnny accomplished, and this is indeed a challenge. What I can say is that the device he came up with was unprecedented—I mean literally, nothing like it had ever been built before. Here we have a 32-year-old guy responsible for designing an atomic device for the nation, and if it fails, that will be it; regardless that he had nothing to do with the Ruth and Rae failures, he’d be disgraced and branded a three-time loser. Nevertheless, he pursued a new design for a nuclear weapon and Herb York went along with him. Do you now understand why I call these guys upstarts?

Following a protocol set up the previous year, his device carried a female nickname; it was called the Cleo. In late 1954, early 1955, the hydrocodes available to Johnny were primitive. They were unproven, and until they matured, they were most likely unreliable. So, Johnny had to rely on what are called hydrotests, which are tests where you set off high explosives and observe how your device responded. Johnny sought help from Los Alamos and went to see their Theoretical Division leader, Carson Mark, who was Canadian, so they shared similar backgrounds. Mark got an experimental division leader, Duncan MacDougal, to help Johnny with hydrotesting. That proved to be critically important.

Since the Cleo was a radically new design, improvisation became a necessity. Whenever there was a question if there was enough plutonium, they decided to err conservatively, and added a pinch of plutonium to the device. This happened often enough that there was a concern that when the Cleo was finally assembled atop a tower in Nevada, there might be too much plutonium and the device could go critical, which would release a surge of neutrons and be dangerous to anyone standing nearby. What bugged designers the most was whether the hands of the engineer making the final assembly reflected enough neutrons back into the device to make it go critical.

Myron Knapp, the engineer in charge of assembly, took petty cash and went to downtown Livermore and purchased ten pounds of spare ribs at Kelly’s butcher shop, across the street from the Donut Wheel bakery. He broke the Cleo into two parts, and wrapped the ribs around each half to model the hands of a technician. Then he placed each half of the Cleo onto two conveyor belts and remotely linked the halves together, and the Cleo didn’t go critical. Knapp’s pet dog got to enjoy a meal of spareribs that evening.

Next, they needed to transport the Cleo to Nevada to be tested. If I can use military parlance, the Laboratory did not have any standard operating procedure (SOP) for this, so once again, improvisation became the key to getting the job done. Now, it is my habit that on Wednesday evenings after work, a bunch of us physicists meet at a Livermore ale house, drink one or two glasses of beer, and tell stories to each other. One Wednesday evening I was chatting with a dear friend, and geophysicist, Brian Bonner. When I told Brian about my latest research on the Cleo, he told me he had been to an ale house a month earlier, and he struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to him. His name was Tommy, and he had a Polish surname and Brian couldn’t remember it, let alone pronounce it.

Tommy told Brian he had once been a summer intern at the Laboratory in 1955, when he was an electrical engineering student at San Jose State. A man named Walt Arnold was his boss, and Tommy said he was told to carry two Samsonite suitcases out of an assembly building and load them into a “woody” station wagon owned by the Lab. Then Arnold gave Tommy a .45 caliber Army pistol, and told him to guard the suitcases with his life. Tommy, Arnold, and a Naval officer drove off in the station wagon with Tommy sitting in the back with the suitcases. When they arrived at the Nevada Test Site, they transferred the suitcases to AEC officials. That’s how the Cleo made it to the test site.

My manuscript was reviewed a couple of years ago by some “renowned” Cold War historians, and one of them criticized this account. He said it wasn’t credible the government would transport an atomic bomb across the countryside that way. So, I produced a photograph of Tommy eating a sandwich in the back of the station wagon and using one of the Cleo loaded suitcases as his lunch table. The lesson here is not to question the veracity of an ale house patron talking to a Lab geophysicist about nuclear matters.

Tommy enjoying lunch using the Cleo as his tabletop in the “Woody” station wagon

In the early morning, in the Nevada desert at a place called Yucca Flat, an electrical switch signaled the detonation of the Cleo, which gave a yield just a bit higher than predicted. Johnny blamed that on the extra plutonium they used. This was the Laboratory’s first nuclear test that was a success, and Johnny was bursting with pride. He couldn’t hold in his excitement any longer; he called up Lawrence at his home with the good news. (Lawrence was still at home following his bout with colitis during the Oppenheimer hearing.) Lawrence told Johnny, doctor’s orders or not, he was coming out to the test site the next day.

Lawrence drove out to the Laboratory that afternoon and got more information about the Cleo test. Walking up and down the corridor of the headquarters building, he kept yelling out to anyone who might be listening, “Do you know what this means?” He was happy. The next day at the test site, Lawrence was given an in depth briefing on the test results. They then had to wait for the other UCRL test to happen, a test of Harold Brown’s thermonuclear warhead. That story will come in the next blog. For the moment, the upstarts could get some relief from the constant criticism leveled at them for the previous two years.

In 1958, West Point awarded for the first time its Sylvanus Thayer Award—it was awarded to Ernest Lawrence. I wouldn’t be surprised if the leadership of West Point created the award as a way the Academy could acknowledge and thank Lawrence for the services he gave to our country. Each year the Academy gives the award to another deserving individual, and although the recipients have done wonderful deeds, I don’t know if their services would make it to the same bar set by Lawrence. Johnny’s service would, and this year I wrote a letter to the Thayer Award selection committee that they ought to consider Johnny for next year’s award. This is just a reflection of how much passion I have to tell you the story of our upstarts, Herb York, Johnny Foster, Mike May, and Harold Brown.

When I approach a few professionals connected to our publishing world to get my book published, I try to understand why there is such a reluctance to publish this story about heroic Americans. I feel sometimes that simply saying the word nuclear in the story starts a form of apoplexy among them. There has been a longstanding philosophy among intellectuals in our country that nuclear weapons are evil and endanger our society. And that’s that, and any story having nuclear weapons designers as heroes will be considered dead on arrival. That is a wrong idea, as this story should show any unbiased reader. Can anyone doubt that a thermonuclear armed Stalin or Khrushchev would have used a nuclear weapon against an America not prepared to defend itself? I am not one to avoid a tough job, as getting this book published is proving to be, so I’m not giving up. I hope all of you will someday be able to read the full story of our upstarts in my book, From Berkeley to Berlin—and then to finally get Johnny’s biography published. Thank you for being loyal readers of these blogs.

6 thoughts on “Mr. Innovation

  1. wbahr

    Tom, again, great stuff! OK, I know you put this in here just to see if I was looking, at least at the photographs: “Froup Leaders Johnny Foster and Harold Brwon” Was that the only one (2)? 🙂


    1. Tom Ramos Post author

      Thanks Bill. You’ve reminded me of an anecdote from Albert Speer’s autobiography. He’d purposely put an obvious mistake in his presentation so Hitler would notice it, make his correction, and then leave the speaker, Speer, alone for the rest of the presentation.


      1. TomHill

        I’ll check around. When I arrived in ’72, there was a high-level weapons program manager by the name of Duncan McD who had come out of weapons engineering. Suspect they were one & the same.


      2. Tom Ramos Post author

        Could be Tom. I checked my notes and still came up with the name Max, and I think even Johnny recognized that name. Perhaps Duncan’s nickname was Max, I don’t know.


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