At age 16, Eddie Duran left his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and moved to Seattle to enter a machinist training program. His parents had serious illnesses and could not work, so he became a unionized worker on Boeing B-17 bombers and supported them financially.
In 1941, he was drafted into the U.S. Army to support the Second World War effort. By that time, his parents had died.
During his years abroad, he participated in the Normandy landings (D-Day), fought against the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and liberated Dachau concentration camp prisoners.
Eddie said he was supposed to fight in Japan, but just as he was boarding a ship in France bound for Japan he heard people hollering, “The World War is over! Truman dropped the bomb on Japan and they surrendered!” President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop the bombs likely saved his life, he said.
The abrupt end to the war took Eddie by surprise, especially after her learned the atomic bomb originated near his hometown in New Mexico.
Decorated with medals, Eddie returned to Seattle after the war to resume his job. His heart sank when he found the B-17 machine shop and the shipyards had closed down. But Los Alamos was hiring, so he headed to New Mexico. In late 1945, he joined the Zia Company that operated and maintained Lab facilities, working for five years until he was called to serve in the Korean War.
When he returned home from the war in 1953, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory hired him as a machinist in the mechanical engineering machine shop. In time, he distinguished himself as an inventor and a teacher.
Eddie’s most notable invention, a “space-age drill,” was featured in the November 1989 issue of Popular Science magazine. The drill was used to fashion super-hard materials into reliable parts for space vessels and nuclear weapons.
At the time of this interview, Eddie was 94 and still living in the house he built for his wife and six children north of Santa Fe. He was keeping himself busy by rebuilding tractor motors and fabricating parts for old farm equipment.
He showed up wearing his signature cap, which proudly displayed his service in both wars. “The heroes are the ones who paid the ultimate price — they gave their lives,” he said.
Eddie’s father designed and made orthopedic shoes to wear with leg braces. As a young child, Eddie learned valuable lessons as he watched his father work in his Santa Fe shop.
“Time and time again, I’d see them come in there with crutches and canes and everything else, and then put the shoes on and walk out. He was good at it,” Eddie said. “He just had that sense — he could see what was wrong with them and correct it.”
At Los Alamos, Eddie developed a reputation for a similar kind of ingenuity for developing the right tool or method to get things done. When anybody said, “That can’t be done,” Eddie would stop and think about how others had attacked the project and “kick it around” until he came up with the answer.
A prime example is when Eddie worked closely with Haskell Sheinberg, a chemical engineer and inventor who developed processes for synthesizing boron carbide (B4C), a material harder than diamonds. Eddie overcame obstacles to machining B4C, which brought him international attention. Researchers from England, Japan and Germany would gather in Eddie’s shop to witness how he accomplished the seemingly impossible with this material.
“He developed two important innovations to improve the machinability of B4C, a material that was of great interest to the weapons engineers and designers,” said Ross Muenchausen, former group leader of Engineered Materials (MST-7).
“He was able to achieve quality machined parts that today could only be produced using expensive diamond machining tools.”
With Ralph Lundin, Eddie co-invented an enhanced ultrasonic core drill to machine B4C, other ceramics and powder metallurgy.
“Ultrasonic isn’t new, but nobody was ever able to harness it to do close work,” Eddie explained. “I came up with the idea to make a double chamber. I used air as a bearing, and that stabilized it and it didn’t kill the ultrasounding. That’s why that machine proved to be successful.”
With his unique ultrasonic machining capabilities, Eddie delivered high-temperature-tolerant parts with clean cuts and no chips for space vessels and nuclear weapons. England bought the patent from the University of California, Eddie said, and his tunable drill technology went worldwide.
He received a certificate of recognition from the Laboratory, signed by then-Director Siegfried Hecker, for his achievements in ultrasonic drilling apparatus (U.S. Patent No. 4,828,052 issued on May 9, 1989).
“As far as I know, the drill is still in a shop at the Lab, but I don’t think they have anybody that can operate it,” Eddie said.
Deep convictions: why he put his job on the line
Eddie noticed that the Lab hired most of its machinists from East Coast shipyards, leaving little chance for local kids to get those jobs. To spin a shipyard machinist into a specialized Lab machinist took about two years of training.
He wanted young New Mexicans to have a shot at an exciting career like he had, and he risked his own job to make it happen.
One day, Eddie overheard his supervisor in MEC-5 talking about a daunting 90-day job that had something to do with a nuclear bomb. The job was too much for the usual crew to handle given the number of pieces involved and the tight deadline. Eddie volunteered to help and recruited nine workers from around the Lab who were mechanically inclined but not machinists.
Then he cut a daring deal with his supervisor: “If we get the job out, let’s start up an apprenticeship program.
If I don’t get the job out, you fire me.”
He chuckled as he finished the story: “We got the job out and the apprentice program started there!”
In the 1960s, Eddie developed the Lab’s Machinist Apprentice program to train local young people in four years to be Lab machinists. When students completed the program, they had good-paying jobs doing experimental and weapons work. “It was just a win-win situation for the Lab and for the young people around here,” he said.
Eddie ran the program for a while and taught classes. He said it was the highlight of his career. “I’d tell the kids, ‘Hey, if you want to learn to be a machinist, I’m here to teach you everything that I know. If you’re just here to make a paycheck, I don’t want to bother with you.’”
Thousands of machinists have graduated from the program, he said, and the program is still running today.
Diana Duran, his daughter, traces his legacy across the generations — from the first students in the apprentice program to his grandsons who have inherited his technical prowess.
“He shared his ‘tricks of the trade’ with the apprentices and strived to teach them everything he knew about machining,” she said. “His legacy lives on in his son, Phillip E. Duran, and grandson Phillip A. Duran, who are machinists as a result of completion of the apprentice program and currently employed at Los Alamos National Laboratory.”
Diana Duran, Phillip Duran and Loretta E. Apel followed their father’s advice to work at the Laboratory. “He instilled very strong work ethics in all of us,” Diana said. “As children we would see him take his metal lunchbox, with his dosimetry badge (to document occupational radiation exposure) clipped to it, and head off to work. He provided very well for our family. Our mother took care of us all at home … she was a stay-at-home mom.”
A stroll down memory lane
During a visit in 2018 to the Lab’s Bradbury Science Museum, wearing his signature WWII-Korean War veteran’s cap and bolo tie, Eddie talked about special assignments he took all over the Laboratory — even for former Lab Director Sig Hecker (whom he called “Siggy”).
The Mars Curiosity rover exhibit sparked memories about materials he machined for space missions. Eddie said he was once asked if the drill he invented could remove cores from simulated Martian rocks. It could!
In the WWII history room, Eddie called himself “a survivor” and President Truman his hero. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have survived two wars and have a good family,” he said.
Eddie said nuclear weapons continue to serve a purpose as a deterrent against attacks on the United States. “I’m thankful that we have this arsenal,” he said,” but I hope that we never have to use it.”
Editor’s note: As of Jan. 3, 2023, Eddie Duran was still doing well at 99 years old and living in Pojoaque, according to his son Phil E. Duran (PT-2).