Nongqai blog post on origins and first use A-bomb

ABSTRACT: During the 70s and 80s South Africa had invested heavily in acquiring an own nuclear deterrent – then, to become the only known nuclear power to voluntarily do away with its nuclear arms and delivery systems in the early 90s. But what were the origins of nuclear weapons? When, where and by whom were they invented and developed, and then first used? This article reviews the answers to those questions.


The discovery of nuclear fission by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938, and its theoretical explanation by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, made the development of an atomic bomb a theoretical possibility. 

In January 1939 newspapers carried the news that German scientists had succeeded in splitting the atom.

Even before the outbreak of war in 1939, a group of American scientists—many of them refugees from fascist regime of Germany and other fascist countries in Europe (Italy and Hungary) who were refugees —became concerned with nuclear weapons research being conducted in Nazi Germany. These were realistic fears among these scientists.

The brilliant Hungarian-born physicists Leo Szilard, who had fled from German laboratories to the USA when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. In August 1939, Leo Szilard and fellow Hungarian born physicist, Eugene Wigner went to see Albert Einstein at his Long Island summer home for him to sign the Szilard – Wigner letter, to US President FDR Rooseveldt, which Einstein signed, in which they warned him of the potential development of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type”. In October 1939 the letter was taken to Rooseveldt by the New York financier Alexander Sachs who was of Jewish decent. Sachs was the unofficial advisor to the President. In the letter it urged the United States to acquire stockpiles of uranium ore and accelerate the research of Enrico Fermi and others into nuclear chain reactions.”


“Enrico Fermi was an Italian and later naturalized American physicist. Fermi left Italy in 1938 to escape new Italian racial laws that affected his Jewish wife, Laura Capon. He emigrated to the United States, where he worked on the Manhattan Project and is the creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1. He has been called the “architect of the nuclear age” and the “architect of the atomic bomb” President Roosevelt summoned Brigadier – General Edwin “Pa” Watson who served as a secretary and instructed him to urgently attend to the matter.

In 1940, the U.S. government began funding its own atomic weapons development program, which came under the joint responsibility of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and the War Department. Progress in this regard was however slow and sluggish.

After the U.S. entry into World War II on 08 December 1941, when the US declared war on Japan after the now infamous Japanese attack on 07 December 1941 on the US Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the Manhattan Engineer District in June 1942 to hide the development of the atomic bomb during the war. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that was under the command of Brigadier – General Leslie Groves, was tasked with spearheading the construction of the vast facilities necessary for the top-secret program, codenamed “The Manhattan Project”. This US Army component was designated the Manhattan District, as its first headquarters were in Manhattan, New York; the name gradually superseded the official codename —hence that effort’s name of the “Manhattan Project.


The name itself, “Manhattan Project,” is commonly thought to be a misnomer, but its first offices were actually in Manhattan, at 270 Broadway. General Leslie R. Groves, who was appointed to head the project, decided to follow the custom of naming Corps of Engineers districts for the city in which they are located”

These early stages involved key contributions from the U.K. and Canada. The project however absorbed its earlier British counterpart, Tube Alloys and in the end, the atomic bomb was mostly an American weapon.

The scale of the Manhatten’s operations was staggering. Since nobody, scientists included, knew which of the three different methods of separating U-235 was best, all three were initiated. All three were costly and all developed two new problems for every solution. Although less than 100 pounds of fissionable material was produced for its allied operations included 539 000 people.

The Manhattan Project Sites

The Manhattan Project was primarily located at three top-secret towns in the US:

• Oak Ridge, National Laboratory, Tennessee where advanced research for the government was managed at the site by the University Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. In 1943, construction of the “Clinton Laboratories” was completed, later renamed to “Oak Ridge National Laboratory”. The X-10 Graphite Reactor, was used to enrich uranium until it was radioactive enough for nuclear fission

• Hanford nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in Benton County in the U.S. state of Washington. Here reactors transformed the enriched uranium into plutonium, an even more powerful nuclear fuel. ” It was also known as site W and Hanford Nuclear Reservation”.  S-1 Section of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) sponsored a research project on plutonium

• Los Alamos, in the US state of New Mexico where Oppenheimer directed the atomic bomb laboratory that designed and built experimental atomic bombs

There were also dozens of smaller sites. And officials went to extraordinary lengths to keep it all secret.

Los Alamos, New Mexico USAWithin months of its establishment, the Manhattan Project achieved an historic triumph when on 02 December 1942, scientists in Chicago produced man’s first controlled chain reaction. The process was primitive and the device crude but this was the start of the process to eventually build an atomic bomb.

To solve these problems, the Manhattan Project had to build a bomb laboratory.

In 1942 an isolated piece of land of desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, was chosen by the U.S. government (because of its comparative isolation and natural facilities) as the location for the Atomic Research Laboratory, which developed the first nuclear-fission, or atomic, bomb. The project became the melting pot of science.  Physicists of the Britain’s atomic programme joined US physicist and refugee scientists from Germany, Italy and Hungary.

Over the next several years, the program’s scientists worked on producing the key materials for nuclear fission—uranium-235 and plutonium (Pu-239). They sent them to Los Alamos, where a team of American and European scientists, led by J Robert Oppenheimer (nicknamed “Oppie”), the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, worked to turn these materials into a workable atomic bomb. Early on the morning of July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, held its first successful test of an atomic device—a plutonium bomb—at the Trinity test site located on White Sands Missile Range at Alamogordo, New Mexico.