Physical Science - Other

The History of the Atomic Bomb



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Advancements in science do not happen in a vacuum. Creating the atomic bomb was the work of large amounts of scientists drawing their inspiration from all sorts of sources, but perhaps the most important influence was a piece of science fiction by H.G. Wells. The physicist Leo Szilard, who was instrumental in harnessing nuclear power, drew his inspiration for his work from Wells' novel, The World Set Free.

When Wells wrote his book in 1914, science was just coming to terms with the idea that matter could be transformed into energy, and he was the first writer to use the concept in his fiction (Holmes). Radiochemists Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford had just recently determined that the cause of radioactivity was atomic particles changing forms, and Soddy's popular essays on the issue served as inspiration for The World Set Free. Wells' characters used the real-life work of Soddy and his contemporaries as a basis to unlock the secrets of atomic energy (Kauffman). Even though other writers such as Jules Verne and Earle Bulwer-Lytton had written about weapons powered by large sources of energy (Holmes), no one before Wells had described anything which even came close to approaching what scientists later discovered was possible with atomic power. According to Paul Boyer, the term "atomic bomb," was even coined by Wells in "The World Set Free."

Leo Szilard, a physics teacher in Berlin, read Wells' book in 1932 and was struck by the following passage:
"What happened when the celluloid stud (between the handles of the bomb) was opened was that the inducive oxidised and became active. Then the surface of the Carolinum began to degenerate. This degeneration passed only slowly into the substance of the bomb. A moment or so after its explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big, inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and thunder. . . . The bomb spread itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano."

Szilard wrote in his memoirs that he immediately decided to invest his time in devising a way to create the atomic reaction described in the book, knowing that, although the passage described great violence, mankind could benefit greatly from such a source of power. After fleeing to London to avoid the treatment Jews received in Nazi Germany, inspiration hit him in 1933 and he imagined a nuclear chain reaction while he was waiting at a traffic light. Amazingly, this was the same year that Wells' fictional character developed his idea for an atomic weapon. In 1934 Szilard filed for a patent for the chain reaction (Rhodes).

He proved the reaction was possible in 1939 when he and his team tried the process with the element uranium. "We turned the switch, saw the flashes, watched for ten minutes, then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for sorrow" (Szilard). Even though Szilard hoped the energy created in this process could be harnessed to help mankind someday, he knew now that nuclear chain reactions were possible it paved the way for atomic weaponry and the destructive battles described in "The World Set Free."

Just prior to World War II, when it became apparent that Germany was on the threshold of unlocking the secret of atomic energy, Szilard became the driving force of the Manhattan Project, where atomic bombs were first created. He drafted a letter, later to be known as the "Einstein-Szilard Letter," to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which described the benefits of a controlled nuclear reaction and the desirability of the United States developing the knowledge before Germany (Lanouette and Silard).

Szilard wrote the nuclear reaction could possibly "lead to the construction of bombs and it is conceivable though much less certain that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port, together with some of the surrounding territory" (Holmes). Szilard asked Albert Einstein to sign the letter, adding the famous physicist's credibility to the idea. President Roosevelt acted immediately and directed his generals to create what was to become the Manhattan Project to work on the problem. Szilard helped create the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at the project in 1942 (Powers). Even though Szilard wrote in his letter to Roosevelt that "such bombs might very well prove too heavy for transportation by air," six years after he wrote those words the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing that nation to surrender its part in World War II (Holmes).

Atomic bombs were a reality in 1945, helped along a great deal by Wells' writing, but the idea was far-fetched when he wrote his book. "In 1914, when "The World Set Free" was published and no (atomic) bombs of any sort had been dropped it all sounded fantastic and even funny" (Kirchwey). What Wells called "tapping the energy of atoms" (Wells), was impossible until physicists got past the idea that matter was the foundation of the universe, and was itself indestructible (Holmes).

Even though Wells had a general idea for the atomic weapon, many of his details were different, and it took real physicists to make them work. Wells' fictional bomb was actually more dangerous than the real thing it exploded continuously without destroying itself. It was never exhausted, perpetually dangerous, and dispensed radioactivity for years after the battle was over. The actual construction and application method of Wells' weapons didn't resemble what was actually created with the help of Szilard thirty-one years after the book's publication, but the amount of destruction he imagined this weapon capable of was astoundingly accurate (Kirchwey).

Szilard was just one part of the process of creating the atomic bomb, but he was an instrumental one. Without the inspiration he gained from reading Wells' book, he may never have helped create the process he patented for creating nuclear chain reactions, or have written President Roosevelt urging the creation of the Manhattan Project. If Wells had never written The World Set Free, and if Szilard had never read it, the atomic bomb may not have been created when it was, and the world could have been a much different place.



Works Cited

Boyer, Paul S. By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Kauffman, George B. The World Made New: Frederick Soddy, Science, Politics, and Environment. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Kirchwey, Freda. "When H.G. Wells Split the Atom: A 1914 Preview of 1945." The Nation 18 August 1945. Ed. Katrina Vanden Heuvel. The Nation. 4 September 2003 .

The Oxford Companion to Military History. Ed. Richard Holmes. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Powers, T. Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Atomic Bomb. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

Szilard, Leo. The Voice of the Dolphins, and Other Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Wells, H[erbert] G[eorge]. The World Set Free. London: MacMillan & Company, 1914.

William Lanouette and Bela Silard. Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard: The Man Behind The Bomb. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992.

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