“Once upon a time when I was working on the Manhattan Project…”
It’s not the typical bedtime story a young boy hears from his grandfather. Growing up, now-retired Los Alamos National Laboratory research technologist Mark Byers enjoyed hearing his grandfather, Ellis Byers, reminisce about the 1940s in Los Alamos. Ellis was a machinist, building parts for the first atomic bombs. He worked for the Laboratory until his retirement in 1965, establishing a family tradition that continues to this day.
It all began when Ellis, who was too old to enlist when World War II began, wanted to do his part for our country. So, he started a job working in weapons manufacturing at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.
“What grandpa told me is that one day Army personnel showed up at the Arsenal looking for machinists,” Mark explains. “They told him they needed machinists for a project that they said would end the war.”
So, in 1945, Ellis packed up his family and moved to Los Alamos, where, as a machinist, he began manufacturing parts. “Grandpa used to tell me that somebody would bring him a blueprint to make a part, but he didn’t know exactly what he was working on,” Mark says. “He knew it was important, and it was some type of weapon, but he didn’t know it was part of a bomb.”
Both Mark and his son, Tim, a research technician in the Lab’s Integrated Weapons Experiments group, point out that things at the Laboratory have changed since the ’40s. “Back then, there was lots of secrecy because of the war, but the scientists at the Lab today explain things more than they did then,” Mark says. “They go out of their way to make sure everyone on the team understands what they are working on. You ask a question, and they are more than willing to share information.”
Tim nods in agreement. “It’s a great work environment,” he adds.
Tim remembers attending a Lab family day event when he was only eight years old. Now, he works at one of the same research locations he visited then. “Unlike people who start working here without understanding what the Lab does, I got to see what it was like as a kid,” Tim says. “I’ll probably end up retiring from Los Alamos.”
Mark says that everyone in the family is proud of their contributions. “I think it’s unique that we were all able to work at the same place, and so many of us were working here at the same time.”
Right after the war, Mark says his grandfather left the Lab briefly. He told Mark he was shaken by the bombings in Japan and needed some time to consider whether he wanted to continue with that line of work. “Then he started thinking about how many relatives his family had lost in the war and how many might have died if the atomic bomb had not ended the fighting. That’s when he decided to return to the Lab.”
Mark glances at Tim. “Yeah, I’m proud of it,” he says. “Plus, being able to see Tim get excited about his work is pretty nice.” ★