The Manhattan Project

In 1945, with the detonation of two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States ushered in a frightening new Atomic Age. Without the Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb may not have come into being. Because of the Manhattan Project, the course of history and the nature of warfare were fundamentally and permanently altered. What led to this controversial clandestine project? Read on to learn more about the Manhattan Project and atomic bomb facts.

Origins and Objectives

The Manhattan Project, one of the most monumental and secretive endeavours of World War II, was initiated because of fear. In 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman discovered nuclear fission, and the theoretical explanation of this process by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch made it theoretically possible to develop and atomic bomb. Many scientists, particularly those who were refugees from Nazi Germany and other fascist countries, began to fear that Germany would be the first to develop such a weapon. This led to the drafting of a letter, signed by Albert Einstein and delivered to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in October of 1939, warning of this possibility and urging the United States to stockpile uranium ore and promote research into nuclear chain reactions. President Roosevelt took this very seriously, formed a committee to investigate, and by August of 1942, the Manhattan Project was underway.

Key Players

  1. Robert Oppenheimer is often considered the “father of the atomic bomb”, but in truth, by 1944 this enormous project involved six thousand scientists and engineers from leading universities and research labs, with research by Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard of Columbia University fundamental to the project. Overall, it employed about 600,000, at thirty-seven facilities across the United States. While the project began in Manhattan, resulting in the code name it was given, most of the work was done elsewhere. Nuclear materials were processed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington, and the principal research and development facility was located in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Major General Leslie Groves oversaw the project for the government and managed the logistical challenges of this vast effort. A task as monumental as developing the atomic bomb required a collaborative effort that brought together experts from various fields, in cooperation with great minds around the world.

Scientific Breakthroughs

The research involved in the Manhattan Project was focused on uranium enrichment, also called radioactive isotope separation, and nuclear chain reactions. The project required a great deal of uranium, which led American and British leaders to work together to gain control of the world’s uranium reserves. The work was challenging and complicated, dealing with nuclear fission, the process of splitting atomic nuclei in order to release large amounts of energy. While the goal of the Manhattan Project was to create the first atomic bomb, there were many other scientific advancements and breakthroughs achieved in the process of reaching this goal. Nuclear energy is one of the peaceful innovations that stemmed from this project, and, in fact, many of the sites used to create the first atomic bombs are now used by the U.S. Department of Energy. Other scientific discoveries, like carbon dating, high speed photography, and the use of plutonium to power space travel, are all direct results of the research done during the Manhattan Project.

The Trinity Test

The Trinity Test took place on July 16, 1945, in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. In this test, the first atomic bomb was detonated in the early morning hours, creating an intensely bright flash and an enormous, mushroom cloud that reached over 12 km in height. It shattered house windows more than 90 km away, caused shock waves felt 160 km away, and was heard as far away as El Paso, Texas. The culmination of three years of hard work, extensive research, and intense experimentation, the Trinity Test was a resounding success. This success meant the bomb was ready to take to the battlefield, but those working on the project were sobered by the realisation of what they had unleashed. Famously, Oppenheimer responded to the Trinity Test with a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings

The Manhattan Project had begun because of fear of a German bomb, but by the time the Trinity Test was completed, Germany was nearing surrender. Japan was seen as a larger threat, and military leaders believed that a forceful demonstration of this deadly new technology was necessary to persuade the Japanese to surrender. The bomb tested was the “Fat Man” bomb, and while the “Little Boy” bomb had not yet been tested, both were deemed ready for the task at hand. On August 6, 1945, under the authorization of President Truman the bomber known as Enola Gay dropped the Little boy bomb on Hiroshima, causing massive destruction and death. Hiroshima was targeted because of its size, and because there were no American prisoners of war in the area. Three days later, with the Japanese still refusing to surrender, the Fat Man bomb was dropped over Nagasaki, where a torpedo-building plant was located. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were levelled by the bombings, and 210,000 men, women, and children were killed. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, ending World War II, but the bombings had lasting repercussions, including long-term effects of radiation. To this day, the geopolitical landscape is affected, and we wrestle with the ethical impact of these devastating bombings.

Learning from History

The legacy of the Manhattan Project looms large in world history, because it forever altered the landscape of war and geopolitics. Ushering in the Atomic Age, the successful development of the atomic bomb not only hastened the end of World War II but also had far reaching scientific, military, and ethical repercussions. Understanding the implications of the Manhattan Project is essential to understanding history and learning from it. For over 30 years, Eden Camp Modern History Museum has worked to bring history out of dull exhibits in stuffy museums and into real life. At Eden Camp, our realistic tableaux, with moving figures and sounds and smells that are authentically historical, will transport you back in time, where you can experience life in Britain from 1939-1945. Once a prisoner of war camp, Eden Camp was built on an agricultural plot outside of Malton in early 1942, as a temporary camp to accommodate prisoners of war captured by the Allied forces, first Italian, then German. These POWs lived in the huts at Eden Camp, primarily working locally in agricultural, until 1948, when they were released, three years after the war’s end. Today, these huts have be re-equipped to tell the story of the “People’s War”, with each hut covering a different aspect of the war. Our collection is ever growing, and our Heritage Exhibition Hall can be used for special events, occasions, and exhibitions. With immersive displays, we cover both social and military history, and our archive has become a resource of national historical importance. Come visit, on your own, with your family, or with a group- there is something here for everyone. Car and coach parking is free on site, our exhibits are wheelchair accessible, we have picnic areas and play areas, and we’re even dog friendly! For visitor enquiries, group bookings, and school visits, telephone (01653) 915214, or purchase tickets online.