By the National Security Research Center staff
Just think of these sample relics: A step-by-step manual on how to assemble a Fat Man atomic bomb. A patent application for the world’s first nuclear weapons. Laboratory notebooks of Nobel laureates. And much more.
The collections at the National Security Research Center (NSRC) contain millions of historical materials and traces its origin to the Technical Library started by J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, which was the U.S. government’s top-secret effort to create the first atomic bombs. Since then, these collections have grown and are relied upon by today’s scientists, engineers and researchers who support our national security mission. The NSRC is the modern Lab’s classified library that also houses unclassified legacy materials.
In recognition of National Library Week (April 3-9), staff from the NSRC picked some of their favorite pieces of preserved Los Alamos history.
Photos: Partying like it’s 1946
What is this? In the autumn of 2021, NSRC archivist John Moore was assigned to work on a request from the Los Alamos Historical Society, which is restoring the Oppenheimer House on Bathtub Row. (A street in the Los Alamos townsite with homes that had bathtubs; these residences were reserved for the wartime leadership.) The Historical Society needed photographs to help recreate the home as it was during the 1940s.
Why is it important? The NSRC includes more than 1 million photographic negatives dating back to 1943. After extensive research, Moore found negatives that featured the inside of the Oppenheimer House, adding, “It dawned on me that many of these photos likely had not seen the light of day in nearly 75 years.”
The photos not only captured the images of the house’s furniture and fixtures, they also showed various people enjoying themselves at a party, bringing the house to life.
“In addition to working to deliver requested reports, documents, photos, films and other media to internal Laboratory customer inquiries, the NSRC is also dedicated in providing materials to external customers such as the Los Alamos Historical Society,” Moore said.
Records: Transition from war to peace
Look at the image at right — what is it? In a report prepared in 1947, an investigative team at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which preceded the Department of Energy, chronicled the living and working conditions in Los Alamos during the late 1940s. Having assumed authority over the former sites of the Manhattan Engineer District on Jan. 1, 1947, the AEC hoped to assess and address the greatest needs — and problems — faced by the government-owned Lab and townsite as they both evolved from wartime facilities to permanent AEC resources.
The report is part of the NSRC’s Norris Bradbury Collection, named after the Laboratory’s second director, who held the position when it was issued. This now-unclassified report offers a frank description of issues, such as inadequate and substandard housing, as well as the strained relationship between Los Alamos personnel and the University of California, which administered laboratory assets for the AEC. Charts break down housing and employment figures to supplement the text.
Why is it important? This report provides a detailed description of Los Alamos as it existed following the end of World War II in 1945, including the clashes between groups brought about by the tangled management issues during the transition to the AEC. Because the AEC required an accurate accounting of the facilities under its auspices, the report provides researchers today with a candid look at the conditions of work and life “on the hill” in the immediate postwar period.
NSRC Historian Nicholas Lewis said, “The report’s focus on Los Alamos’ most significant problems makes it clear to researchers today how difficult that postwar transition was for the people and organizations involved.”
This report provides unusually rich insights into the scale and scope of early, postwar issues, how they impacted the operation and cohesion of the Laboratory and the townsite, and how the AEC sought to understand and address those issues.
Audio: From one luminary to another — Oppenheimer talks about Niels Bohr
What is this? In 1964, Oppenheimer, the wartime Director of the Manhattan Project’s Project Y (the codename for what became today’s Los Alamos National Laboratory) returned to the Lab to speak about Danish physicist Niels Bohr (pictured, right). Luckily, the audio of this speech was recorded, including the roaring applause when Oppenheimer took the stage. Introducing him was then-Director Norris E. Bradbury, who would serve as the longest tenured director in Los Alamos history, holding down the job for about 25 years.
Why is it important? When on stage or being interviewed or recorded, Oppenheimer often exhibited a serious, even somber demeanor.
“During this speech, Oppenheimer is a bit more relaxed,” said Senior Lab Historian Alan Carr. “He even turns audio technical problems into humorous asides. This speech gives us a quick glimpse at a rare side of a complex man.”
Speaking about Bohr enables Oppenheimer to offer personal insights and blend historical facts with his own experiences to capture Bohr’s contributions to the Manhattan Project.
Winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics and considered one of the greatest luminaries in 20th century physics, Bohr in 1943 fled Nazi persecution and subsequently came to London, England, where he served as a consultant for the British nuclear weapons program. Bohr then journeyed to the United States, where he served as a consultant on the Manhattan Project, assuming the pseudonym Nicholas Baker so as not to draw suspicion to the top-secret science that was taking place in the mountains of Northern New Mexico.
As Carr explained, Oppenheimer used dry humor, something he refrained from in the majority of his public appearances and interviews. Oppenheimer opens this speech by acknowledging Bradbury, saying “[T]hank you, Dr. Bradbury, for what you said and all you didn’t say,” followed by a brief chuckle. Oppenheimer went on to make some quips about needing the help of “the audio wizards” so he could be heard, teasing that they could hear him if he spoke a little louder.