The Committee on Uranium, 1939
Participants || Background || Resources || Meeting  

In 1939 a group of U.S. scientists and military experts met to decide whether (and how) to pursue research on a possible atomic bomb. In this project, each participant will assume the role of a historical figure who was there and we will recreate the historical event -- and reach our own decision.

Background: In 1939, Alexander Sachs carried a letter from physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard to then President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, advising him of the theoretical potential to build a weapon based on the release of nuclear energy. No one actually knew, however, whether such a functional device could ever be built. Controlled sustained nuclear fission was still only a dim theoretical possibility. The U.S. was not then at war with Germany, but the possibility loomed. President Roosevelt asked Lyman Briggs, Director of the U.S. Bureau of Standards (then our national laboratory of physics), to convene a committee to advise him on this matter. "The Advisory Committee on Uranium" met on Sat., October 21, 1939 in Washington, D.C.

Note: We are not trying to re-enact the actual decision that was made historically. Rather, we are using the history as a scenario for making our own recommendation, based on information that was available at the time. Afterwards, we will compare our decision with the actual history and try to interpret any similarities and differences.

Participants at this meeting:

  • Lyman Briggs, Director, U.S. Bureau of Standards (Chair)
  • Alexander Sachs, economist
  • Leo Szilard, physicist
  • Eugene Wigner, physicist
  • Edward Teller, physicist (designated representative for Enrico Fermi & Merle Tuve)
  • Richard B. Roberts, physicist
  • Merle Tuve (invited, but did not attend)
  • Enrico Fermi (invited, but did not attend)
  • Keith F. Adamson, Lt. Col., U.S. Army
  • Gilbert C. Hoover, Comm., U.S. Navy

Guiding Questions:

  • Can nuclear power actually be harnessed?
  • Is building a bomb a realistic enough possibility to consider it seriously at this point?
  • Should research proceed on the assumption that one will be built, if feasible?
  • Should the international political scene be relevant to the pursuit of science?
  • What research on nuclear physics is now most important?
  • How much will it cost, and who will fund it?
  • Will the research be kept secret?

For additional guidance on each role, see participants. See fuller background. See available Resources.

Prepare a written summary of your argument -- in first person (as the character himself) -- and be prepared to present a 3-minute summary in class.
Evaluation will be based on how deeply you reconstruct the historical context and arguments and your contribution to class understanding on the general questions above.

Simulation assembled by Douglas Allchin, with kind assistance from Robert Seidel. || last revised Sept. 6, 2005