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The Half-life Of History

Summer 1995 | Volume 11 |  Issue 1

CHICAGO, ILL. : When Enrico Fermi built his atomic pile on a squash court under the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field (see page 10), it was the most important event to occur at a racketsport facility since the Tennis Court Oath in the French Revolution. The physicists’ Stagg party (which was not entirely stag since there was one woman, Leona Woods, in attendance) was the largest gathering at the stadium in quite some time; the university had dropped football in 1939, and before that the Maroons had not had a winning Big Ten record since the mid-1920s. Not long after the pile went critical, though, Fermi’s group dismantled it and decamped to a site in the western suburbs that has since become Argonne National Laboratory.

Stagg Field was demolished in 1957 and replaced with a library. Today the site is marked with several plaques and a Henry Moore sculpture vaguely suggestive of mass-energy equivalence. The spot continues to attract nuclear tourists, and while undeniably inspiring, it’s something like a Civil War battlefield that’s been turned into a shopping mall. Visitors have to shut out the everyday events of a busy campus to summon Fermi’s ghost and picture what it was like fifty years ago.

The sites of the Manhattan Project have chosen many different ways to commemorate their roles in that immense endeavor.

At Trinity Site the opposite is true. Vast expanses of New Mexico desert create the proper mood for contemplating nuclear devastation, but except for a fence and a pair of plaques, there is little to distinguish the spot where the first Abomb was detonated from the surrounding area, which is part of the still-active White Sands Missile Range. Early visitors to the site could collect pieces of the glassy mineral known as trinitite, which was formed when the intense heat from the blast fused the desert sand. Some even used it in jewelry. Unfortunately, it turned out to be radioactive. In the early 1950s most of the remaining trinitite was buried, and in 1963, as a government booklet mysteriously notes, “the Trinitite was dug up, packed into 55-gallon drums, loaded into trucks … and shipped somewhere.”

Despite its remoteness and lack of scenery, Trinity Site can still draw a crowd. Ground Zero is opened to the public twice a year, on the first Saturday in April and October; the test’s actual anniversary, in July, is avoided because of the summer heat. Visitors can also view Jumbo, a huge steel container made to enclose the first plutonium bomb in case of a misfire (see “A Few Words About This Picture,” Invention & Technology , Fall 1991), and a nearby ranch house where the final assembly of the bomb took place.

Tours of Trinity leave from the National Atomic Museum, on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque—a modest but instructive collection that includes leftover shells from Fat Man and Little Boy, planes used to drop atomic bombs, models of nuclear ships and submarines, atomic artillery, plus films and other exhibits. The museum is open every day except holidays, and admission is free; its telephone number is 505-845-4636. For information on tours of Trinity Site, which cost twenty-five dollars, call 505-845-6275. Up the road at Los Alamos, by contrast, so many breakthroughs have occurred through the years that a blasé attitude might be expected. Just about every building, shed, and drainage ditch must have witnessed some crucial event of the nuclear era, and in these post-Cold War times, the laboratory could be excused for thinking more about its future than its past. Yet reminders of the early days do exist. A statue of Robert Oppenheimer greets visitors, while the Bradbury Science Museum (closed Mondays and holidays; no admission charge; telephone 505-667-4444) has its own set of Fat Man and Little Boy replicas as well as other Project Y memorabilia, interactive exhibits that let you design your own bomb, and the obligatory displays on peaceful atomic research. A pair of early reactors, declared landmarks by the American Nuclear Society, are gone, but the inevitable plaques remain.

At Hanford, Washington, most Manhattan Project facilities are being demolished, but at least one structure is likely to survive. Hanford’s B Reactor is the Audie Murphy of atomic sites, having received awards from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the American Nuclear Society, the National Register of Historic Places, and the American Society of Civil Engineers. The reason for all these honors: It was the world’s first full-scale atomic reactor, producing plutonium that went into the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs. Plans for a museum are being discussed; for now the Westinghouse Hanford Company runs occasional bus tours of the entire site. Tours will be conducted on Saturdays every few weeks from April through September; for information, call 509-376-5742.

And what of Columbia University, Fermi’s first American home, in the borough that gave the Manhattan Project its name? A detailed inspection of the physics building reveals no plaques or markers, perhaps because no single dramatic event worthy of commemoration occurred there. (One chemistry student from the 1980s does recall idly opening a drawer to find, amid the expected gum wrappers and broken rubber bands, a 194Os memo from Harold Urey giving data on heavy water.) Here, as elsewhere, the inscription to Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s Cathedral is apt: Si monumentum requiris circumspice (“If you need a monument, look around you”). The research being performed by today’s scientists, and the freedom with which they pursue it, are the best memorial that the members of the Manhattan Project could have.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND : In a 1989 interview with this magazine, the historian Melvin Kranzberg explained how he grew disenchanted with traditional European history. After he had spent several years fighting World War II, he said, the questions scholars had discussed for decades no longer seemed important: “What difference, for example, does it make whether the feudal system had Latin origins or Germanic origins?” Kranzberg began to focus on the history of technology, and during the 1950s and 1960s he was instrumental in establishing the field as a separate discipline.

Since then the history of technology has grown enormously while managing to maintain its relevance. Still, after leafing through the latest five-hundred-page outline for a preliminary survey of the glazed-pottery industry in northcentral Massachusetts between 1845 and 1850, even the most enthusiastic student might feel like reaching for the television listings. As the field matures, it necessarily becomes somewhat fragmented, and in so doing, it risks losing the broad sweep that provides much of its allure.

In such a climate works like The Norton History of Technology , by Donald Cardwell (W. W. Norton; $35.00 hardcover, $18.95 paperback), are particularly welcome. Cardwell, a professor at the University of Manchester, marches through the history (mostly European and American, as he notes) of mining, textiles, transportation, communication, and many other fields, from the Middle Ages to the present, in 565 brisk pages. The pace can be wearing, but there’s no better way to appreciate how, for example, theoretical advances in understanding hydraulics and the nature of heat were intertwined with practical developments in engine building. Another repeated theme is how many key contributions in numerous areas were made by people with no experience in the field. For example, Sadi Carnot, discoverer of the Carnot cycle in thermodynamics, was an army officer, and Nicolaus Otto, inventor of the first workable gas engine, was a traveling grocery salesman.

Cardwell’s highlight-film approach inevitably leads to omissions. John Fitch, the Stevens family, Chester Carlson, and Edwin Armstrong are just a few of the names familiar to Invention & Technology readers that go unmentioned. Yet while one can quarrel over particular lacunae, the general plan is sound. By being boldly selective, even arbitrary, Cardwell avoids the encyclopedist’s trap of trying to cram in as many names and dates as possible. Perhaps only a scholar of Cardwell’s eminence (he is a dean of the field and a past winner of the Leonardo da Vinci Award for technological history) would have the confidence to do so without fear that readers would think him simply uninformed.

The book’s British origin is evident in more than just its funny spelling. The American Revolution is dismissed in a paragraph, while Andrew Ure, a semi-obscure Scottish chemist and economist, gets two full pages. Readers on this side of the Atlantic may puzzle over such sentences as “It was, after all, the age of Cecil Rhodes, Dr Jameson and Barney Barnato, as well as of the highly competitive Indian Civil Service examination.” Through it all Cardwell makes room for telling details. For example, Thomas Newcomen could not patent his revolutionary steam engine because an earlier patent, for a vastly inferior engine, was worded to cover all devices that harnessed the “impellent force of fire.”

With The Norton History of Technology , Cardwell has compiled a lively account of how we got from movable type to the Internet. In so doing, he gives an impressive overview of technology’s entire forest—a welcome adjunct to the profusion of minute examinations of each tree’s bark.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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