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Edward Teller - Atomic Bomb

Extracts from a speech by Edward Teller on the history of the atomic bomb.


Now, let me give you a brief history. It started with Enrico Fermi who bombarded all elements with neutrons and produced, thereby, what was believed to be transuranic elements for which he got the Nobel Prize. He deserved it, but not for transuranics because what he produced in the main turned out to be fission products. That was discovered years later in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute under Nazi Germany by Hahn and Strassman.

I had a good friend, one of the most ingenious people I have known, and of course a Hungarian, Leo Szilard. He thought for years on how to utilize nuclear energy, and then when the discovery came from the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute, he said, "That's it!" Leo Szilard could do anything except he could not drive a car. I drove Szilard to the summer place of Albert Einstein. We asked a nice little girl, eight years old, if she had heard of Einstein. Leo Szilard said, "You know, that nice old man with the long white hair."

Einstein was a democrat in that he invited not only Szilard in for a cup of coffee, but also his driver [me]. So, I was there when Leo Szilard took out of his pocket the letter addressed to Roosevelt. Szilard told Einstein, "Here it is. It can be done. It will change everything, sign it." That was the second of August, 1939 and World War II had not yet started. Einstein read the letter carefully, and he said, "Well, that will be the first time that nuclear energy will be used by us in a different way than by getting it indirectly from the Sun." He signed and gave it back to Leo Szilard who gave it to a friend of the President, a banker by the name of Alexander Sachs.

The President saw the letter at the end of October. He convened a meeting, and I was responsible for bringing Enrico Fermi. But Enrico Fermi did not want to get involved in anything and he would not attend. The Army was represented by a colonel who did not see any possibility in this harebrained scheme. I said that I had nothing to say except that I had a message from Fermi. The message was that the first thing we had to do was to make a nuclear reactor. We knew the people that could make one who were from the universities. We would not need support, just materials - very pure graphite. And to buy graphite, we needed $20,000. That is what we got. Leo Szilard almost murdered me for not having asked for more money! However, I was innocent - I only repeated what Enrico Fermi said. We got it, and we got started. Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi did not get along very well. I was on good terms with both. Therefore, I was needed. I was there from the very beginning in 1939.

We made the bomb, not without difficulty, but very much on time. I was working in Los Alamos, Leo Szilard was working in Chicago. I got a letter from him saying, "The Nazis have surrendered, we need not drop the bomb. It is sufficient to demonstrate it. Get signatures to support the petition." I wanted to, however, I could not do that without asking the permission of our very popular director, Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer said, "Absolutely, not. We don't know enough. People in Washington ought to decide." He persuaded me, in principle, that he was right. However, what I did not know was that Oppenheimer was chairing a very secret committee. It consisted of him, Fermi, Compton, and Ernest Lawrence. Robert Oppenheimer persuaded the others (who were reluctant) to recommend to drop the bomb right away.

Was it a mistake? Should we have done it? I will give you a very complete, clear, and correct answer. I don't know. It is true that the Second World War killed 50 million people. The atomic bombs killed 150,000. Had the War gone on for another month, more people would have died. Yet, could it have been possible to demonstrate? Start the atomic age in a much more peaceful, much less controversial manner?

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