50th Anniversary Article:
"Here's Your Damned Organization Chart"
In early 1943, John Manley, the experimental physicist from the University of Illinois on assignment to the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago, visited University of California theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, whom he had been assisting with plans for the new laboratory at Los Alamos. He had "bugged Oppie for I don't know how many months about an organization chart who was going to be responsible for this and who was going to be responsible for that. But one day in January, I climbed to the top floor of LeConte Hall where Robert had his office and pushed open the door. Ed Condon (the Westinghouse physicist whom Oppenheimer had chosen as his deputy director) happened to be in there with him at the moment, but Oppie practically threw a piece of paper at me as I came in the door and said, 'Here's your damn organization chart,' " Manley recounted.
In May 1943, the new Los Alamos Laboratory struggled to articulate that chart at the small laboratory, which was originally planned for about 100 physicists but had expanded to a full-fledged research and development organization. Oppenheimer, who was familiar with "big science" from Ernest Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory at UC Berkeley, and Condon, who had directed the large Westinghouse Research Laboratory, needed an expanded administrative structure for the Laboratory to respond to a recommendation made by a Manhattan Engineer District Review Committee that the Laboratory incorporate ordnance and plutonium refining in their mission.
Oppenheimer had only two administrative officers besides himself, Condon and W.R. Dennes of UC. The review committee recommended the appointment of a director of ordnance and engineering, an associate director to take charge of a major part of the scientific work and to replace Oppenheimer in his absence, and an administrative officer to coordinate non-technical administrative functions and act as liaison to the Army post commander. The last position was filled in May by David Hawkins, a philosopher from UC.
Condon, however, violently disagreed with the security arrangements at Los Alamos and believed they would prevent effective contact with the other parts of the project with which the Laboratory must coordinate its efforts. He resigned April 26, telling Oppenheimer that the policy of compartmentalization pursued by the Manhattan Engineer District "puts you in the position of trying to do an extremely difficult job with three hands tied behind your back." MED commander Gen. Leslie R. Groves followed this policy so that scientific workers at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley and other universities were aware only of that part of the work that they were doing, not of operations elsewhere. Production workers at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where uranium-235 was separated from natural ore, and Hanford, Wash., where plutonium was produced in reactors, had no idea of its purpose. He wanted the same policy followed within the new laboratory.
There were few professional personnel who could deal with the administrative problems of a research laboratory. Oppenheimer never succeeded in replacing Condon and had to be satisfied with scientists with little administrative experience or administrators with no scientific background. Dana P. Mitchell of Columbia University's physics department had been in charge of procurement there and took charge of it at Los Alamos. Arthur L. Hughes of the Washington University in St. Louis, and who had chaired the physics department there, became director of personnel. B.E. Brazier of the T.H. Buel Co. in Denver, an administrator, was recruited to head construction and maintenance operations. Hawkins pointed out that "because of the newness of large-scale organized research, there does not exist for it a class of professional scientific administrators. In the main, a choice had to be made between a large administrative organization staffed with persons unacquainted with the peculiarities of scientific research and a system by which the major share of administrative responsibility fell to the scientists themselves. Here again, it was partly a matter of expediency and partly of policy that the center of gravity remained in the scientific staff. The policy adopted meant, especially at the beginning, a gain of unity in the Laboratory. It entailed, undeniably, a loss of administrative efficiency," Hawkins said.
The research side of the Laboratory was organized in divisions that reflected traditional academic disciplines: theoretical physics under Hans Bethe of Cornell University; experimental physics under Robert Bacher, also of Cornell; and chemistry and metallurgy under Joseph Kennedy of UC Berkeley; and Cyril Stanley Smith of the American Brass Co.
The Theoretical Physics Division had been organized in March. Edward Teller, who had worked at George Washington University, Columbia University and as a physicist for the Manhattan Engineer District at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago before joining Oppenheimer's summer study of bomb design at the UC Berkeley in 1942, headed one group; Robert Serber, Oppenheimer's assistant at Berkeley in 1942 and 1943 after leaving the University of Illinois, another; Victor Weisskopf of the University of Rochester in New York, a third; and Richard Feynman of Princeton, a fourth. Donald A. Flanders of New York University came later in the summer of 1943 to form a computing group.
The Experimental Physics Division organized shortly thereafter included Robert R. Wilson of Princeton as head of the Cyclotron Group; John H. Williams of the University of Minnesota as head of the Electrostatic Generator Group; Manley as head of the D-D Source Group; Darol Froman, a professor at the University of Denver who had worked as a group leader at the Navy's Radio and Sound Laboratory in San Diego and as a research associate at the Metallurgical Laboratory, as head of the Electronic Group; and Emilio Segre' of the UC Radiation Laboratory as head of the Radioactivity Group. The first three groups had to await the completion of their accelerator laboratories. Segre' and his associates made preliminary measurements of spontaneous fission in uranium and plutonium at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley in April and May before transferring the work to Los Alamos. Froman's group was busy helping to equip the laboratories.
The Chemistry and Metallurgy Division, which was enlarged to purify the plutonium that would be produced in production reactors at the Hanford Engineering Works for use in the bomb, would require its own large dust-free laboratory. While that was being built, plutonium research at the Metallurgical Laboratory of the University of Chicago; the UC Berkeley's chemistry department; and Iowa State College would have to be coordinated. Charles A. Thomas of the Monsanto Chemical Co. visited the Laboratory in late May 1943 to discuss the position. He did not accept it until July. Brazier designed the new building with his advice.
The new Ordnance Division would be headed by Navy Capt. William S. Parsons, who did not arrive at Los Alamos until June, although he made a preliminary visit in May. The division, like all others at the Laboratory, was divided into groups, and the initial group leaders were all physicists from universities or civilian research bureaus: Edwin M. McMillan from UC's Radiation Laboratory; Kenneth T. Bainbridge of Harvard University's cyclotron laboratory, Robert B. Brode of UC Berkeley's physics department; and Charles L. Critchfield and S.H. Neddermeyer from the National Bureau of Standards. The whole organization was knit together with a governing board, including Hawkins; the division leaders; and other administrative staff heads. Oppenheimer intended it to be an advisory board, but it gradually became a policy-making body to assist in coordinating the scientific and engineering effort.
Oppenheimer also made use of a coordinating council, composed of division and group leaders, to communicate with staff members and exchange information and opinions.
From the left, Norris Bradbury, J. Robert Oppenheimer (second row), John Manley, Richard Feyman (second row), Enrico Fermi and J.M.B. Kellog at an early laboratory colloquium.
Oppenheimer rejected compartmentalization when he instituted the Laboratory colloquium in May 1943. Hans Bethe suggested the establishment of a weekly technical colloquium, and the governing board placed Teller in charge of the weekly meetings of the staff members
Groves objected that this was a major security hazard but Oppenheimer defended it as a tool that could enhance security by giving staff members a better understanding of the need for secrecy.
Groves permitted it to maintain morale and unity among the staff, but forbade discussion of work at other laboratories and of production schedules.
To emphasize the need for secrecy and enhance morale, the governing board solicited a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt through the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Vannevar Bush, underscoring the need for "every precaution to insure the security of their project" and expressing satisfaction with their "excellent work" and his confidence in their "continued wholehearted and unselfish labors." As would other presidential communications, this encouraged the Los Alamos staff to press forward despite the restrictions under which they labored.
Oppenheimer, Unique in the Scientific World
Oppenheimer's questionnaire form
Recruiting: The Conant-Groves Letter
Oppenheimer to John Manley
Enrico Fermi's invitation to the 'Primer' conference
Oppenheimer's Personal Security
Organization of Gadget Division
Organization of Explosives Division
50th Anniversary Articles