The Manhattan Project

Justin Lee
December 12, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2012


The $2.2 billion Manhattan Project was a collaborative effort of British and American scientists to develop the world's first atomic bomb in the midst of World War II. Aside from introducing the most destructive single weapon imaginable, the Manhattan Project was responsible for emphasizing the pursuit of physical sciences to matters of national security. Spanning between the years 1943 and 1945, the Manhattan project employed the efforts of over 130,000 people (roughly the then-size of the auto industry) and secretly commandeered facilities throughout the east coast; these proportions are certainly more dramatic than might be the case in modern nuclear facilities. [1]

The Discovery of Fission

Fission is the process that fuels the tremendous energy output of an atomic bomb. The process of fission was first experimented in 1934 by Enrico Fermi, who bombarded elements with neutrons. At the time, the results of the experiments yielded confusing results. In particular, Fermi bombarded uranium with neutrons and the products of his experiments embodied characteristics of lighter elements. [2] However, many scientists declared that results of the bombardment were "transuranic" elements. These results proved inconclusive at the time.

Four years later, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, two radiochemists, repeated the experiements of Fermi and determined that the resulting products were in fact lighter elements, as opposed to the hypothesized transuranic elements. The fact that the products weighed less than the initial uranium was of tremendous significance; following from Einstein's famous equation related energy and mass, the decrease in mass would necessarily have been converted into energy. [3] Hahn's colleague, Lise Meitner, determined that the energy release from the experiments was substantial and perhaps on an unprecedented scale in atomic physics. Her nephew, Otto Frisch, coined the term fission (taken from the biologic term "cellular fission") to describe the splitting of uranium atoms. [3]

Further investigations by Hahn and Strassmann revealed that in addition to the release of energy, bombardment with neutrons also caused the emission of neutrons. These neutrons could in turn bombard other uranium atoms, emitting a second iteration of neutrons and creating a chain reaction. [3]

Objectives of the Manhattan Project

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers director, Major General Leslie Groves, was the primary leader of the project. Under his vision, the Manhattan Project assumed eight principal objectives, including keeping secrecy of the atomic weapon development from Germany, Japan, Russia, and even certain branches of the American Executive system. The central crux of all eight objectives was to maintain the clandestine nature of the development in order to maximize 1) progress on the bomb's manufacture and, 2) the psychological effect of using a weapon unknown to the rest of the world.

In an effect to protect this all-important statute of secrecy, Groves utilized a novel and noteworthy management technique now referred to as compartmentalization. Given the sheer number of workers employed under the Manhattan Project, Groves' mass-scale use of compartmentalization of knowledge, and by extension, power. Similar notions of knowledge is power apply to many governmental (or even corporate) entities; the Manhattan Project was by no means an exception. [4]

Implications of the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was principally a concerted response against Hitler's threat to acquire atomic weapons and ultimately, a response that achieved its aggressive goal; the project led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the only two instances of actual deployment of atomic weapons) and the end of World War II. Subsequently after the end of World War II, scientists became valuable national assets and the study of physical sciences at universities increased significantly. The mere possession of nuclear weapons became an important military strategy, namely nuclear deterrence. Correspondingly, research on further exploring nuclear physics gained exponentially more funding. Ultimately, the Manhattan Project ushered in a new decade of investments and tactical considerations. [5]

Contextually, it may well be that the Manhattan Project merely augmented a trend already in motion throughout America. During this period in America, a wave of intrigue and excitement stirred around each new technological drama; akin to "catastrophic technologies" like gunpowder in the 16th century or dynamite in the 19th century, Masco synthesizes the view that a sequence of organizational restructurings instills a newfound adaptation for Americans at large. Preceded by the industrial revolution, Manhattan Project contributed to the novelty of extreme technological damage along with the associated nationalistic sentiment. [6]

© Justin Lee. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Chan, "China's Nuclear Expansion," Physics 241, Stanford University, Spring 2011.

[2] S. Agaian, "North Korean Nuclear Capability," Physics 241, Stanford University, Spring 2011.

[3] F.G. Gosling, "The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb," U.S. Department of Energy, DOE/MA-0002 Revised, January 2010, pp. 2-5.

[4] C. C. Kelley, ed., The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians," (Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2009), p. 234.

[5] J. Hughes, The Manhattan Project: Big Science and the Atom Bomb, (Columbia U. Press, 2003), pp. 8-9.

[6] J. Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico (Princeton U. Press, 2006), pp. 9-10