Who Invented the Atomic Bomb?

Federal funding of science exceeds 70 billion dollars a year–$250 for every man woman and child in the United States. The almost blind acceptance of Establishment Science as the only right way to create inventions and discoveries is based in large part on the Manhattan Project and the invention of the Atomic Bomb. But how many people can name the maverick inventor of the Atomic Bomb and the Nuclear Reactor? I ask this question often; few know the answer. Some answers are:


Robert Oppenheimer. This is the most common answer. Oppenheimer was the brilliant theoretical physicist who headed the Manhattan Project, but he did not invent the bomb. When Oppenheimer was told in 1939 that uranium had been split, releasing more energy than it absorbed, he gave a brilliant one-hour extemporaneous explanation of how it was impossible. He did change his mind when he later was faced with irrefutable evidence. No, it was not this establishment scientist.

Enrico Fermi. This is a common answer. A Nobel Laureate, Enrico Fermi was the world’s leading expert on bombarding atoms with subatomic particles (like the neutrons that split Uranium). As such he was also the physicist chosen to work with the Atomic Bomb’s inventor to build the experimental nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago in late 1942. When Fermi was told in 1939 that Uranium had been split and I. I. Rabi asked him the likelihood that two neutrons would be released thus making a chain reaction and an atomic bomb possible, Fermi said the likelihood was “remote.” Rabi asked “what do you mean by “remote”? Fermi replied “About 10%.” Rabi said, “If we may all die from it, 10% is not remote.” Fermi did not invent the bomb. It was not this establishment scientist.

Albert Einstein This, too, is a common answer. The best known physicist of this century, the energy derived from atomic bomb and nuclear reactor are based on his formula: E = mc2. In 1939, when told about the possibility of an atomic bomb based on his formula, the worlds leading (establishment) physicist said, “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht” -I haven’t though of that at all. Einstein did not invent the bomb. It was not this establishment scientist.

Lord Rutherford. This is an occasional answer. This leading physicist developed the first modern model of the atom. In 1934 Rutherford gave a lecture and was asked if it might be possible to convert the m in “E=mc2″ into E, his response was to say anyone who thought it was possible was talking “moonshine.” No this great establishment physicist did not invent the bomb. But Rutherford played a crucial role in inventing the bomb, as a grain of sand does in making a pearl.

These physicists represented establishment science in 1939. All were giants of physics. None saw the possibility of converting mass into energy by nuclear fission or any other way, even when first faced with the evidence.

The idea of nuclear fission and thus the atomic bomb and the nuclear reactor was first proposed in 1934 and doggedly pursued by a maverick thinker, a physicist who until 1940 did not have a full time job, and a humanist who in 1934 spent most of his time trying to get his fellow Jews out of Germany and into the West. Leo Szilard not only conceived the atomic bomb, but took such full and active responsibility for his creation that he spent much of the time from 1944 until his death in 1966 trying to prevent nuclear war.

The story of Leo Szilard and the atomic bomb illustrates the crucial contribution of maverick inventors to the ecosystem of innovation. Research shows that most of the fundamental new ideas come from the periphery of the industry or scientific field they affect. Leo Szilard illustrates the nature of an independent inventor and the environment he faced provides a useful example for evaluating the conditions under which much invention occurs. What follows is a distillation from William Lanouette’s biography of Leo Szilard- a distillation that focuses on the traits to common inventors who would challenge the establishment. He interests us because if we are to respond to the challenges we face, we must consider the effect our systems have on people like Szilard. Many of the great inventions come from people like Szilard.

Leo Szilard was a Hungarian Jew, who after getting a Ph.D degree in physics at the University of Berlin in 1922, was a misfit in the formal world of German physics. He rarely had a full time job until 1940; he survived mainly by teaching part-time in universities. Szilard read widely; his formal studies were not even in atomic physics; he was a self-taught outsider. Research shows that most breakthrough inventions come from people interested in a wide variety of fields.

Szilard first got interested in converting mass into energy after Lord Rutherford gave a lecture in which he said that anyone who thought you could convert mass into energy was “talking moonshine”. Szilard found the statement “rather irritating because how can anyone know what someone else might invent?” The tendency to challenge the conventional wisdom is a common attribute of those who make fundamental inventions. According to Szilard’s biographer:

Beyond his eclectic and intense work habits, Szilard’s thoughts often spring from his feisty spirit of defiance. Contradiction led him to propose an opposite view to whatever he heard. In novel ways he loved to play the constructive dissident.

Irritated by Lord Rutherford, and aware of the recent discovery of the neutron, Szilard thought about the problem, and, while crossing a London Street a few weeks later, had the sudden realization that if there was an element whose nucleus, when hit by a neutron would split into two parts and release two neutrons, these neutrons could split other nearby atoms. This would lead to a “chain reaction” in which billions of atoms could be split in millionths of a second. For this to happen he realized that there needed to be enough atoms to form a “critical mass” lest more neutrons escape than split neighboring atoms. These were the two fundamental concepts underlying the atomic bomb and the nuclear reactor. This happened in 1934, over five years before the just described reactions of establishment physicists. Rutherford’s grain of sand had produced a pearl.

Szilard filed a patent application in 1934 suggesting that the most likely atom’s to split were the low atomic weight atoms of beryllium and indium. In fact, only very high atomic weight elements such as uranium could be split. As with most independent inventors, Szilard’s idea became an obsession with him. He tried but failed to raise money to test all the elements to see which ones fissioned. Physicists to whom he explained the idea showed no interest, and he spent the next five years trying to talk various physicists into performing experiments that would help determine if fission was possible. Szilard relied mainly on part-time jobs and made little money. Most of his life was a financial struggle, as Szilard spent most of his time exploring and developing his diverse ideas. He got over a dozen patents. Academics safely ensconced in regularly paying establishment jobs were irate that Szilard patented his inventions-inventions on which he risked his own time and money. The keepers of the conventional wisdom generally have professorships which support their research and so are shielded from the harsh economic realities that mavericks like Szilard face.

Szilard tried to attract businessmen to fund his ideas, but he insisted on keeping his ideas secret, which made him look like an impractical visionary-a treat common to many inventors.

Szilard was now forty years old, and little known even to fellow physicists. To physicists at Columbia University in New York which he frequently visited, he was just an “unemployed visitor.” On December 21, 1938 after five years of failure in trying to find an atom that would support a chain reaction, Szilard, feeling he had failed, wrote a letter to the British Admiralty and asked them to withdraw his patent. On that very day the German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann split uranium. Szilard had been testing the lighter elements, but only heavy elements fissioned. As Szilard had kept the chain reaction concept secret in large part to prevent the Nazis from finding out about it, few people-certainly not Hahn and Strassmann- immediately understood the implication of splitting uranium. Szilard realized it would not be long before the world would understand the implications. According to his biographer, Szilard would “almost single-handedly lead the physics community and the U.S. government to join forces in atomic energy research.” This job was made more difficult as Nazi Germany was preparing for war and if they found out about the possibility of an atomic bomb they would likely build one. Szilard convinced his fellow physicists to keep the idea out of the technical literature secret lest the Nazis try to build a bomb. Indeed his biographer credits him with inventing secrecy in atomic physics.

Fearing the Nazis would build the bomb, Szilard approached Einstein with whom he had worked in Berlin and told him about the chain reaction possibility and asked him to write a letter to Roosevelt. Why did Szilard picked Einstein to write the letter? The reason goes to the essence of the difference between establishment science and technology and highly creative inventors. Szilard explained, “The only thing most scientists are really afraid of is to make fools of themselves, Einstein was free from such fear and this was what made his position unique for this occasion.” Mavericks like Einstein and Szilard have the courage to act on their convictions and this distinguishes them from the establishment scientists who are reluctant to stray far from the conventional wisdom.

By the end of 1939 Szilard’s financial situation was bleak. That year he had borrowed $2,000 to further his research from Benjamin Liebowitz, himself an independent inventor, and so an independent inventor was the first to provide funds to develop atomic energy. Szilard wrote Liebowitz telling him that he should declare the $2,000 loan a bad debt: “Unfortunately, I have not earned anything during this year, as I was tied up with work on uranium. It looks as though I shall not be able to earn anything this year either…” In his financial problems Szilard was typical of independent inventors.

Szilard greatly respected Einstein who was 20 years his senior. Once Einstein wrote some equations on the board to have Szilard say, “Herr Professor Einstein, that is rubbish.” One can imagine how Szilard interacted with General Groves, whose habit was to be obeyed, and whose expertise was in building and manipulating organizations and who Szilard did not respect. The contrarian nature that caused Szilard to invent the chain reaction and his persistence in badgering others to bring nuclear fission to fruition caused him problems, and also caused his battles with Groves. Independent inventors are by nature boat rockers. Inventors are often criticized for not doing things the “right way.” But that is their strength and their nature. Maverick inventors make their own mistakes. They don’t make other people’s mistakes. When they fit easily into the establishment, they cease to be creative inventors.

According the Szilard’s biographer, once the project was launched, and headed by General Leslie Groves:

Szilard’s feisty rationality clashed repeatedly with the headstrong efficiency of this West Point Graduate who had just directed construction of the Pentagon. … Before the war was over, Groves would try to have Szilard jailed as an “enemy alien,” order agents to follow him and to open his mail, and force him off the Manhattan Project payroll during a year-long dispute over the chain reaction patent.

The battle between Szilard and Groves is typical of the uneven battle between an inventor and a well funded establishment organization. The shields of truth and rational argument are a inadequate defense to the weapons of power and politics.

From Groves’ point of view, almost everyone else on the Manhattan Project, and especially Oppenheimer, owed their position to him; but, Groves owed the existence of the Manhattan Project to Szilard, and so Szilard was a threat to his power, not in that Szilard threatened his position, but Szilard was the one person with the knowledge, moral authority and respect of his peers to crystallize opposition among the scientists to any plans of Groves. Fights between the creative but idealistic innovators and the money and reality oriented businessman are common. The situation was not helped because Szilard, like many independent inventors, could be rude, impatient and aggressive.

And there was the matter of the patents Szilard held on the bomb. As often happens in patent infringement cases a large entity begins a project premised on infringing a patent without having licensed that patent; in this case it was the 2 billion dollar Manhattan Project. And 2 billion dollars was a lot of money in 1942.

Groves’ initial action was more likely motivated by what he saw as Szilard’s threat to military order in running the Manhattan project rather than an opening gambit in a patent negotiation, but it does give insight into the thought process of those who would negotiate for the patent rights of others: Groves tried to fire Szilard. Arthur Compton prevented the firing. Several establishment scientists like Robert Oppenheimer, Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton with political and organizational skills as well as the scientific credentials played a critical role in getting the military and scientific establishments to work together on the Manhattan Project. Establishment science, conventional wisdom, and existing organizations played important roles in the Manhattan project, but the crucial role was played by a typical maverick inventor; and we must foster both. Establishment science is crucial to the ecology of innovation. But, more often that not, maverick scientists like Szilard play a crucial and role in the advancement of technology for which they receive little in the way of monetary remuneration or adequate recognition.

Having failed to fire Szilard, Groves drafted a letter for the Secretary of War to send to the Attorney General which said in relevant part: “It is considered essential to the prosecution of the war that Mr. Szilard, who is an enemy alien, be interned for the duration of the war.” Secretary of War Stimson refused to sign.

This only infuriated Groves who had Szilard followed and his mail read. In negotiating for patents, Groves offered Szilard $25,000. which was 1/800 of 1 percent of the 2 billion dollars spent on the Manhattan project. To help hasten the negotiations he fired Szilard and told him he could not participate even as an unpaid consultant “until such time as the patent negotiations between you and the government have been completed.” Negotiations proceeded for a while but Szilard and his lawyers considered the offer insufficient. Then, when Szilard’s patent lawyer was out of town Groves showed up to effect an agreement and got Szilard to sign away his rights. Years later Szilard’s patent lawyer said,

I was shocked when I learned what was going on. Groves’ actions towards Leo were abominable. At the time we thought all the stiff-arm tactics were coming from the Nazis, but I soon discovered Groves’ tactics fit right into that pattern. That’s what we were supposed to be fighting, I thought.

Strong arm tactics are common where the patentholder is small and weak. Dr. Friedlander, former president of the 3000 member Licensing Executives Association has said, “The playing field is not level. Big companies tilt it their way. They know they can out spend you and they try to outweigh you. It’s the name of the game. If you want to get in the ring with a heavyweight, you have to be prepared.” Most inventors are naive to the realities of power and don’t realize the rules of the game until it is too late. And Szilard was not naive-he saw the evil in Nazism and acted on it in the early Ô30′s when he first helped find jobs in other countries for Jewish academics and later when he left Germany on the last train out before Jews needed special permission to leave.

Szilard faced the problem most maverick inventors face in that he could not value his technology and so didn’t know what would be a fair price. He eventually accepted one dollar plus “expenses” for his patent rights with the expectation he would be able to collect royalties for nuclear reactors after the war. He never got another penny. Even Admiral Strauss who headed the AEC, and who he had known in 1938, refused to intercede for him. Until his dying day Szilard felt cheated.

Having given birth to the monster of the atomic bomb Szilard felt a responsibility to prevent its being used. Towards the end of the war, he organized his fellow scientists and made several attempts to get to Roosevelt and then Truman to prevent the Atomic bomb being dropped on Japan. Later the army wanted to put all atomic research under its control. Again, Szilard fought the establishment and organized scientists to lobby Congress to prevent that from happening. The result was the founding of the Atomic Energy Commission which put most of the control of nuclear power in civilian hands. Szilard’s biographer told me that “If Szilard had failed to get the A-bomb under civilian control, it is likely we would have used it against Russia before 1950.”

For several months, Szilard carried a copy of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars with him. He was frightened because “neither Sparta nor Athens wanted war, yet they went to war with each other” for thirty years. Szilard saw the United States and Russia as facing the same situation and did many things to try to create an environment which would lessen the chances of such a war. He helped found the Pugwash Conferences where atomic scientists and arms control experts from the United States, Russia, and later, other countries, gathered to discuss ways of reducing nuclear risk. He invented the “hot line” between the White House and the Kremlin to minimize actions based on misunderstandings.

Long after the war, Groves continued to attack Szilard, saying in one interview that “Szilard was “the kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker-in the days before the Wagner Act.” Acknowledging that he was responsible for getting to Roosevelt, Groves said ” Only a man with his brass would have pushed through to the president.” Groves even tried to shorten encyclopedia entries on Szilard. Infringers regularly attack small inventors whose patents they infringe. In disputes big organizations are always more credible, more powerful and more sophisticated than small inventors and this biases the news coverage. When patent infringement cases go to court the infringer usually accuses the inventor of obtaining his patent fraudulently.

Groves finally fired Szilard and had his security clearance withdrawn. Szilard had to find a new field to work in and became a biochemist. He made several contributions, including inventing the chemostat, a device which would maintain a constant bacteria growth. Szilard applied for an NSF grant to develop chemostat, but was turned down because the establishment scientists concluded it wouldn’t work. The Chemostat has become a standard tool for research in microbiology, ecology and physiology. Szilard never received the Nobel prize, nor any other major honor although he was specifically mentioned by two Nobel Laureates in their acceptance speech and there is a Szilard medal for public policy which the American Physical Society awards.

Szilard’s biographer described some conversations he had with Jonas Salk at the Salk institute which Szilard helped found:

He characterized academic pettiness by saying to Salk about his successful idea for developing a vaccine, “Jonas, they’ll never forgive you for having been right.” In another conversation with Salk, Szilard discarded his “three stages of truth” demonstrating how well he understood his colleagues, if not his own habits of thought. Confront Scientists with a new idea, Szilard said, and most will say . “It’s not true.” Next they’ll say “if true it is not very important. ” Finally, they’ll say “we knew it all along!”

Szilard also said, “The most important thing is not the ideas you have, but the decision which ones you choose to pursue.” Taking out of a patent is a statement of intention to pursue an idea.

What I have said is a poor substitute for Lanouette’s biography of Szilard, Genius in the Shadows which details many other contributions Szilard made. Szilard’s biography illustrates the nature and contribution of maverick inventors and the difficulties they face in fighting conventional wisdom and the establishment organizations. In the foreword to Genius in the Shadows, Jonas Salk, the discover of the Salk polio vaccine says, “There are all too few like Leo Szilard. This poignant story of his life will inform and inspire, providing a role model for others of his kind for which the world is now in great need.”

The story of Szilard is typical of maverick inventors. Their willingness to follow ideas into fields for which they are not trained enables them to see with a fresh eye, their contrarian nature causes them to create ideas which add vigor to the gene pool of technology; their focus is more on what will help the world, rather than acting for an organization’s self-interest or financial gain, their persistence means their ideas usually get a fair trial. But these very qualities mean they are often seen as “troublemakers.” Once an organization has accepted an idea they originated, they are seen only as irritants. Maverick inventors are then seen only as cost–patent royalties that might have to be paid– and not as an asset developed over many years by the inventor from a fleeting thought into a viable technology.

The ecosystem of invention has three primary species, big companies, academia, and maverick inventors like Szilard. The first two act largely on organizational self-interest and pursue the conventional wisdom. It is the third species, the maverick inventor, who is not invested in the conventional wisdom and structure of an existing organization who makes a disproportionate share of the fundamental inventions. But as the story of Szilard shows, the maverick inventor is prey to the predators of big business and establishment science. Establishment science and big business are killing the maverick inventors, and, as with any ecological system, the death of a key species can mean trouble for the whole ecological system. It is ironic that the independent inventor is threatened in large part by establishment science which owes much of its power and credibility to the Manhattan project-a project initiated by an independent inventor.

We need more maverick inventors like Szilard. But if we are to have them we must treat them better. And this, at minimum, means leveling the patent system so that maverick inventors are on a equal basis with the big organizations who would steal their inventions.

by Paul Heckel