Patent Collection

Archivists recently digitized some of the earliest nuclear weapons records for today’s scientists to access in support of their national security work.

By Alan Carr | September 10, 2021

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Many of us regularly enjoy the online resources provided by the National Security Research Center (NSRC). However, you may not be aware of all the work that goes on behind the scenes to digitize articles, reports, photographs, and correspondence. This process not only preserves documents, many of which date back to the Manhattan Project era, but also ensures they are searchable and accessible for today’s national security work.

You also may not be aware that a vast majority of the Laboratory’s information holdings have not yet been digitized. And by vast majority, I mean perhaps 90% of the millions of holdings in the NSRC is only available in hard copy.

But recently, the NSRC team successfully completed the digitization of one of my favorite collections: the Patent Collection. These patents formally record the intellectual foundation of the Weapons Program, and they record the Laboratory’s unsurpassed history of innovation.

The Patent Collection is made up of 25 patents, which is more than 5,300 mostly classified paper documents from 1944 - 1946, including official forms, handwritten notes, and drawings. This collection shows Los Alamos has an unsurpassed – and legally documented – history of technical innovation in the nuclear weapons field. When consulting the patents, today’s researchers can see the technology evolve by reading the notes of the inventors.

Chris C’de Baca, the NSRC’s Group Leader, said, “The Patent Collection is one of countless examples of our interesting and rare historical materials that is pertinent to the present and future mission of the Laboratory.”

Patents offer insight into early weapons development

It comes as a surprise to many that early nuclear weapons designs were patented (feel free to insert your lawsuit joke here), but they were. During the 1940s, this was a way for the U.S. government to try to control atomic energy.

Today, the NSRC owns many of the originals, and this truly unique collection is regularly accessed by Lab researchers. For instance, questions pertaining to the development of thermonuclear weapons, commonly called hydrogen bombs or H-bombs, is still debated in the open literature, and the original patent documentation helps offer insight into that important and fascinating history. Weapons Physics Chief Scientist Mark Chadwick said, “I think the process whereby we reconstruct the history of who gets credit for what is helped greatly by these patents.”

As I’ve reviewed the patents, I’ve discovered that Manhattan Project era (1939 - 1946) scientists devised ideas for nuclear weapons that would not find their way into stockpiled designs until years later. It’s also interesting to ponder what the Los Alamos wartime atomic spy and physicist Klaus Fuchs may have passed along to the Soviet Union, considering he is named as an inventor on some of the patents.

Preservation through digitization

I asked Nanette Mayfield, who oversees the NSRC’s digitizers, how the materials in the NSRC collections are chosen for digitization. “Before we begin digitizing a collection, we take into account customer value, deterioration risk,collection size, and digitization complexity,” she said. Nanette further explains, “We then assign skilled archivists who have demonstrated knowledge of equipment operation, archival standards, and digitization processes for the collection media type.” In the case of the Patent Collection, the skilled archivist was Lenny Martinez.

Throughout the digitization process, Lenny worked closely with the NSRC’s Lead Archivist Danny Alcazar. Partnering with an experienced archivist is essential to the process, considering the delicate and priceless nature of the patent documents.

As Danny informed me, “Technically, every time an image is exposed to bright light, a small amount of damage occurs. For this reason, it was critical to scan the documents with the highest attention to detail to both preserve the documents and to have enduring digital quality.”

It takes a steady hand and absolute focus to work with these documents. Put another way: Wouldn’t you be nervous if your job was to scan the U.S. Constitution, the Magna Carta, or a signed portrait of Michael Bolton?

I asked Lenny to tell me a little bit more about the job: “Well, I was very excited knowing that I was going to be working on a special historical assignment. It took longer to complete because I had to place one document at a time on the flatbed scanner in order to prevent documents from tearing or being damaged since the paper is quite old.”

Accessing Critical Information

Now the patents are searchable and accessible via our classified digital repository called the Online Vault.

As for the original documents, the patents will continue to be maintained at the NSRC in compliance with the highest industry standards.

And what can you expect in the future from LANL’s classified library? The NSRC will of course continue digitizing collections critical for today’s mission work. NSRC Director Riz Ali said, “For the Lab’s technical staff, digitization projects like the Patent Collection allow an even clearer picture of early weapons work. As a partner to weapons scientists and engineers, we’ll continue our efforts to provide them with the assistance they need to be successful.”