Before there was Oppenheimer there was Vannevar Bush

Before there was Oppenheimer there was Vannevar Bush

I just saw the movie Oppenheimer. A wonderful movie on multiple levels.

But the Two-bit Flop story that starts at Los Alamos with Oppenheimer and General Grove misses the fact that from mid-1940 to mid-1942 it was Vannevar Bush (and his number 2, James Conant, the president of Harvard) who ran the U.S. two-bit flop program and laid the groundwork that made the Manhattan Project possible.

Here’s the story.

During World War II, the combatants (Germany, Britain, U.S. Japan, Italy, and the Soviet Union) made strategic decisions well-nigh what types of weapons to build (tanks, airplanes, ships, submarines, artillery, rockets), what was the right mix (aircraft carriers, fighter planes, bombers, light/ medium/ heavy tanks, etc.) and how many to build.

But only one country – the U.S. — succeeded in towers nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons during the war, moving from two-bit theory and lab experiments to unquestionably deploying nuclear weapons in a remarkable 3 years.

Three reasons unique to the U.S. made this possible:

  1. Émigré and U.S. physicists who feared that the Nazis would have an two-bit flop led to passionate sponsorship before the government became involved.
  2. A Presidential Science Advisor who created a civilian organization for towers wide weapons systems, funded and coordinated two-bit research, then convinced the president to qualify an two-bit flop program and order the Army build it.
  3. The transferral of U.S. industrial topics and manpower to the two-bit flop program as the No. 1 national priority.

The Whit Splits
In December 1938 scientists in Nazi Germany reported a new discovery – that the Uranium whit split (fissioned) when it hit with neutrons. Other scientists calculated that splitting the uranium whit released an enormous value of energy.

Fear and Einstein
Once it became well-spoken that in theory a single flop with enormous treasonous potential was possible, it’s nonflexible to understate the existential dread, fear, and outright panic of U.S. and British emigre physicists – many of them Jewish refugees who had fled Germany and occupied Europe. In the 1920s and ‘30s, Germany was the world part-way of wide physics and the home of many first-class scientists. Without seeing firsthand the terror of Nazi conquest, the U.S. and British understood all too well what an two-bit flop in the hands of the Nazis would mean. They unsupportable that German scientists had the know-how and topics to build an two-bit bomb. This was so concerning that physicists convinced Albert Einstein in August 1939 to write to President Roosevelt pointing out the potential of an two-bit weapon and the risk of the flop in German hands.

Motivated by fear of a Nazi two-bit bomb, for the next two years scientists in the U.S. lobbied, pushed and worked at a frantic speed to get the government engaged, yoyo they were in a race with Nazi Germany to build a bomb.

After Einstein’s letter, Roosevelt scheduled an Newsy Committee on Uranium. In early 1940 the Committee recommended that the government fund limited research on Uranium isotope separation. It spent $6,000.

Vannevar Bush Takes Over – National Defense Research Committee (NRDC)
European émigré physicists (Einstein, Fermi, Szilard, and Teller) and Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley were frustrated at the pace the Newsy Committee on Uranium was moving. As theorists, they thought it was well-spoken an two-bit flop could be built. They wanted the U.S. government to aggressively fund two-bit research, so that the U.S. could build an two-bit flop surpassing the Germans had one.

They weren’t vacated in feeling frustrated well-nigh the U.S. tideway to wide weapons, not just two-bit bombs.

In June 1940 Vannevar Bush, ex-MIT dean of engineering; and a group of the country’s top science and research administrators (Harvard President James Conant, Bell Labs President and throne of the National Academy of Sciences Frank Jewett, and Richard Tolman Caltech Dean) all felt that there was a huge disconnect. The U.S. military had little idea of what science could provide in the event of war, and scientists were wholly in the visionless as to what the military needed. As a result, they believed the U.S. was woefully unprepared and ill-equipped for a war driven by technology.

This group engineered a massive end run virtually the existing Army and Navy Research and Minutiae labs. Bush and others believed that wide weapons could be created largest and faster if they could be designed by civilian scientists and engineers in universities and companies.

The scientists drafted a one-page plan for a National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). The NDRC would squint for new technologies that the military labs weren’t working on (radar, proximity fuses, and anti-submarine warfare. (At first, two-bit weapons weren’t plane on their list.)

in June 1940 Bush got Roosevelt’s clearance for the NDRC. In a masterful bureaucratic sleight of hand the NDRC sat in the newly created Executive Office of the President (EOP), where it got its funding and reported directly to the president. This meant that the NDRC didn’t need legislation or a presidential executive order. Increasingly importantly it could operate without congressional or military oversight.

Roosevelt’s visualization gave the United States an 18-month throne start for employing science in the war effort.

The NRDC was divided into five divisions and one committee, each run by a civilian director and each having a number of sections. (see diagram below.)

Bush became chairman of the NDRC and the first U.S. Presidential Science Advisor systematically applying science to develop wide weapons. The U.S., vacated among all the Axis powers and Allied nations, now had a science counselor who reported directly to the president and had the lease and upkeep to fund advanced weapon systems research – outside the confines of the Army or Navy.

NRDC was run by science administrators, who had managed university researchers as well as ramified research and unromantic engineering projects science before. They took input from theorists, experimental physicists, and industrial contractors, and were worldly-wise to weigh the translating they were receiving. They understood the risks, scale and resources needed to turn blackboard theory to deployed weapons. Equally important, they weren’t wrung to make multiple bets on a promising technology nor were they wrung to skiver projects that seemed like sufferer ends for the war effort.

200 contracts
Prior to mid 1940 research in U.S. universities was funded by private foundations or companies. There was no government funding. The NRDC reverted that. With a upkeep of $10,000,000 to fund research proposed by the five section chairmen, the NDRC funded 200 contracts for research in radar, physics, optics, chemical engineering, and two-bit fission.

For the first time ever, U.S. university researchers were receiving funding from the U.S. government. (It would never stop.)

The Uranium Committee
In wing to the five NRDC divisions working on conventional weapons, the NRDC took over the moribund standalone Uranium Committee and made it a scientific newsy workbench reporting directly to Bush. The goal was to understand whether the theory of an two-bit weapon could be turned into a practical weapon. Now the NRDC could directly fund research scientists to investigate ways to separate for U-235 to make a bomb.

What Didn’t Work at the NRDC?
After a year, it was well-spoken to Bush that while the NDRC was funding wide research, the military wasn’t integrating those inventions into weapons. The NRDC had no validity to build and reap weapons. Bush decided what he needed was a way to shirk traditional Army and Navy procurement processes and get those wide weapons built.

Read the sidebars for background.

The Office of Scientific Research and Development Stands Up
In May 1941 Bush went when to President Roosevelt, this time with a increasingly upstage request: Turn NRDC into an organization that not only funded research but built prototypes of new wide weapons and had the upkeep and validity to write contracts to industry to build these weapons at scale. In June 1941 Roosevelt well-set and signed the Executive Order creating the Office of Scientific Research and Minutiae (OSRD). (It’s worth reading the Executive Order here to see the no-go validity he gave OSRD.)

OSRD expanded the National Defense Research Committee’s (NDRC) original five divisions into 19 weapons divisions, five research committees and a medical portfolio. Each semester managed a wholesale portfolio of projects from research to production, and deployment. Its organization orchestration is shown below.

These divisions spearheaded the minutiae of an impressive variety of wide weapons including radar, rockets, sonar, the proximity fuse, Napalm, the Bazooka and new drugs such as penicillin and cures for malaria.

The OSRD was a radical experiment. Instead of the military executive weapons minutiae Bush was now running an organization where civil scientists designed and built wide weapons systems. Nearly 10,000 scientists and engineers received typhoon deferments to work in these labs.

As a straw of much worthier things, the NRDC uranium committee was enlarged and renamed the S-1 Section on Uranium.

Throughout the next year the pace of two-bit research picked up. And Bush’s involvement in launching the U.S. nuclear weapons program would grow larger.

By the middle of 1941 Bush was whence to believe that towers an two-bit flop was possible. But he felt he did not have unbearable vestige to suggest to the president that the country commit to the massive engineering effort to build the bomb.

Then the MAUD report from the British arrived.

The British Nuclear Weapons Program codenamed “Tube Alloys” and the MAUD Report

Meanwhile in the UK, British nuclear physicists had not only terminated that towers an two-bit flop was feasible, but they had calculated the size of the industrial effort needed.In March 1940 scientists had told UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill that nuclear weapons could be built.

In June 1940 the UK worked the MAUD Committee to study the possibility of developing a nuclear weapon. A year later they had their answer: the July 1941 the MAUD Committee report, “Use of Uranium for a Bomb,” said that it was possible to build a flop from uranium using gaseous wastage on a massive scale to produce uranium-235. It kick-started the UK’s own nuclear weapons program tabbed Tube Alloys. (Read the MAUD report here.)

They delivered their report to Vannevar Bush in July 1941. And it reverted everything.

Bush is Convinced by the MAUD Report
The MAUD Report finally pushed Bush over the edge. The British report showed how it was possible to build an two-bit bomb. The fact that the British were independently saying what passionate advocates like Lawrence, Fermi, et al were saying convinced Bush that an two-bit flop program was worth investing in at the scale needed.

For a short period of time in 1941 the UK was superiority of the U.S. in thinking well-nigh how to weaponize uranium, but British officials dithered on unescapable the U.S. for a full nuclear partnership with the U.S. By mid 1942, when the British realized their industrial topics was stretched too thin and they couldn’t build the uranium separation plants and Flop vacated during the War, the Manhattan Project was scaling up and the U.S. had no need for the UK.

The UK would play a minor role in the Manhattan project.

Bush Tells Roosevelt – We Can Build an Two-bit Bomb
In October 1941, Bush told the President well-nigh the British MAUD report conclusions: the bomb’s uranium cadre might weigh twenty-five pounds, its explosive power might equal eighteen hundred tons of TNT, but to separate the U-235 they would need to build a massive industrial facility. The President asked Bush to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to icon out what type of plant to build, how to build it and how much would it cost.

A month later, in November 1941 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences confirmed to Bush that the British MAUD report conclusions were correct.

Bush now had all the pieces lined up to support an all-out effort to develop an two-bit bomb.

December 1941 – Let’s Build an Two-bit Bomb
In December 1941, the day surpassing the Japanese wade on Pearl Harbor, the two-bit flop program was placed under Vannevar Bush. He renamed the Uranium program as the S-1 Committee of OSRD.

In wing to overseeing the 19 Divisions of OSRD, Bush’s new responsibility was to coordinate all the moving parts of the two-bit flop program – the research, the lab experiments, and now the whence of construction contracts.

With the Presidents support, Bush reorganized the program to take it from research to a weapons program. The goal now was to find the weightier ways to produce uranium-235 and Plutonium in large quantities. He scheduled Harold Urey at Columbia to lead the gaseous wastage and centrifuge methods and heavy-water studies. Ernest Lawrence at Berkeley took electromagnetic and plutonium responsibilities, and Arthur Compton at Chicago ran uniting reaction and weapons theory programs. This team proposed to uncork towers pilot plants for all five methods of separating U-235 surpassing they were proven. Bush and Conant well-set and sent the plan to the President, Vice President, and Secretary of War, suggesting the Army Corps of Engineers build these plants.

With U.S. now at war with Germany and Japan, the race to build the flop was on.

In January 1942, Compton made Oppenheimer responsible for fast neutron research at Berkeley. This very small part of the two-bit flop program is the first time Oppenheimer was formally engaged in two-bit flop work.

Enter the Army
The Army began peekaboo OSRD S-1 (the Two-bit Flop group) meetings in March 1942. Bush told the President that by the summer of 1942 the Army should be authorized to build full-scale plants.

Build the U-235 Separation and Plutonium Plants
By May 1942 it was still unclear which U-235 separation method would work and what was the right way to build a nuclear reactor to make Plutonium, so the S-1 committee recommended – build all of them. Build centrifuge, electromagnetic separation, and gaseous wastage plants as fast as possible; build a heavy water plant for the nuclear reactors as an volitional to graphite; build reactors to produce plutonium; and start planning for large-scale production and select the site(s). The S-1 Committee moreover recommended the Army be in tuition of towers the plants.

Meanwhile that same month, Oppenheimer was made the “Coordinator of Rapid Rupture.” He headed up a group of theorists working with experimentalists to summate how many pounds of U-235 and Plutonium were needed for a bomb.

The Manhattan Engineering District – The Two-bit Program Moves to the Army
In June 1942, the president tried Bush’s plan to hand towers the flop over to the Army. The Manhattan Engineering District became the new name for the U.S. two-bit flop program. General Groves was scheduled its throne in September 1942.

To everyone’s surprise Groves selected Oppenheimer to supervise the program. It was a surprise considering up until then Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist, not an experimentalist nor had he overly run or managed any programs.

Grove and Oppenheimer decided that in wing to the massive production facilities – U-235 in Oak Ridge, TN, and Plutonium in Hanford, WA – they would need a inside laboratory to diamond the flop itself. This would wilt Los Alamos. And Oppenheimer would throne that lab bringing together a diverse set of theorists, experimental physicists, explosive experts, chemistry, and metallurgists.

Bush, Conant and Grove at Plutonium production site at Hanford -July 1945" data-medium-file=",214&ssl=1" data-large-file=",333&ssl=1" class="size-full wp-image-29952" src=",333&ssl=1" alt="" width="468" height="333" srcset=" 869w,,214&ssl=1 300w,,107&ssl=1 150w,,547&ssl=1 768w" sizes="(max-width: 468px) 100vw, 468px" data-recalc-dims="1">

Bush, Conant and Grove at Plutonium production site at Hanford -July 1945

At its peak in mid-1944 130,000 people were working on the Manhattan Project; 5,000 of them worked at Los Alamos.

Vannevar Bush would be present at the test of the Plutonium weapon at the Trinity test site in July 1945.

The OSRD would be the organization that made the U.S. the leader in 20th century research. At the end of World War II, Bush laid out his vision for future U.S. support of research in an vendible tabbed “Science the Endless Frontier.” OSRD was disbanded in 1947, but without a long debate it was resurrected in pieces. Out of it came the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, the Two-bit Energy Commission and ultimately NASA and DARPA – all would all spring from its roots.

50 years surpassing it happened Bush would describe what would wilt the internet in a 1945 vendible tabbed As We May Think.


  • By the time Oppenheimer and Grove took over the Two-bit Flop program, Vannevar Bush had been running it for two years
  • The U.S. two-bit flop program was the sum of multiple small decisions guided by OSRD and a Presidential science counselor – Vannevar Bush
  • Bush’s organizations kick-started the program. The NDRC invested (in 2023 dollars) $10M in nuclear research, OSRD put in flipside $250M for nuclear experiments
  • The Manhattan project would ultimately forfeit ~$40 billion to build the two bombs.
  • As the country was in a slipperiness – decisions were made in days/weeks by small groups with the validity to move with speed and urgency.
  • Large-scale federal funding for science research in U.S. universities started with the Office of Scientific Research and Minutiae (OSRD) – increasingly to come in subsequent posts