Our boys and the bomb
by John Dudley ’95
AS STUDENTS GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE, often they have a variety of options to consider. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, as war was spreading around the globe, many Hampden-Sydney graduates enlisted in the Armed Forces; others found work stateside or continued their education in graduate school. For a select few, a serendipitous confluence of events in their personal lives and in the greater world provided the opportunity to take part in the United State’s highly secret efforts to product the first atomic bomb.
THREE HAMPDEN-SYDNEY MEN—each quite brilliant in the sciences—left the Hill for graduate school during this tumultuous period in history. Though they believed they would be entering a life of academic research and study, in actuality they were thrust into the whirlwind of the war effort, working alongside many of the country’s most highly respected minds. Their intellect and creativity were pushed to the limits as scientists working within the Manhattan Project and on weapons development during the Cold War. Dr. Russell E. Fox, Jr. ’38, Dr. Douglas Venable ’42, and Dr. Samuel S. Jones ’43 left their marks on history as some of the brightest physicists to come out of Hampden-Sydney College.
Dr. Russell E. Fox, Jr. ’38
Growing up in Hampton during the Great Depression, Russell E. Fox, Jr. ’38 had no intention of going to college. It was only after he got a $50 scholarship from the Liberty Baptist Church, which would cover his tuition, that he decided to come to Hampden-Sydney College. His father borrowed against his life insurance to pay for room and board. Russ Fox did not disappoint his family. He graduated summa cum laude and developed a lifelong love of physics, science, and philosophy.
Outside the classroom he joined the Jongleurs, ran on the track team, served as president of the Tidewater Club and as president of Chi Beta Phi, the national honorary scientific fraternity.
An outstanding undergraduate performance landed Fox a research fellowship in physics at the University of Virginia. His graduate work included uranium isotope separation by ultracentrifuge under Dr. Jesse Beams, who had developed the procedure. Though Fox was interested in biological applications of the ultracentrifuge, the growing war would change the direction of his work and his life. Dr. Beams was working on a way to enrich uranium for the Manhattan Project; that would quickly become Fox’s emphasis as well.
Dr. Fox collected many of his memories from this period of his life for a presentation he made in the early 1990s to a Rotary Club. These remarks, which he called “A Personal Journey With a Little Boy and a Fat Man”—references to the atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—include his memory of a session at the 1939 meeting of the American Physical Society at the National Bureau of Standards. He said, “I can vividly recall the session devoted to the talk by a young physicist, Archibald Wheeler, who expounded on the new theory of uranium fission which he and Niels Bohr had developed. The room was packed … and the hallways were jammed.”
Countries around the world were feverishly working on ways to make atomic weapons as the World War spread. Fox was at UVa working on separating uranium isotopes using centrifugation when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. “That night another graduate student, Tom Williams, and I stood guard over the lab to protect it,” Fox recalled. “Some protection! Not even a water pistol. The next morning, however, the National Guard showed up and surrounded the place. One graduate student thought it was a big joke until he tried to enter without properly identifying himself and found a rifle muzzle against his stomach.”
Work continued at the lab and by June 1942 Fox and his colleagues had made four successful attempts using the ultracentrifuge. He added, “When I wrote my dissertation, it was promptly stamped secret. No one was allowed to read it except two members of the physics department, of whom one was my advisor. So I never stood a defense of the dissertation. It was finally declassified in September 1969.”
After earning his Ph.D., Fox went to Pittsburgh for a post-doctoral position at Westinghouse Electric Corporation Research and Development Labs, to continue working on the uranium isotope separation in support of the Manhattan Project. There he entered the mass spectrometer group. The centrifugal process for separating isotopes involved spinning uranium hexafluoride, a highly reactive gas, at about 500 revolutions per second. Mass spectrometry was used to detect leaks from the centrifuge.
According to Stephane Groueff’s work Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, Brigadier General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan Project, visited the Westinghouse facility in the fall of 1942, a few months after Fox had arrived. Groves assessed the progress Westinghouse had made in developing a fully operational centrifuge for isotope separation and decided the other programs working toward the same goal were more feasible. Federal support of the program ended a short time later. Despite Groves’s decision to abandon the Westinghouse project, the centrifuge Fox and his colleagues developed has become the uranium enriching process of choice for many developing nations, such as Iran and North Korea.
Though this project was halted, Dr. Fox was assigned to work at Columbia University to continue working on the mass spectrometer as a leak detector for the Manhattan Project facility being built in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. A year later, his war-related work continued in the mass spectrometer group at a facility making neoprene, which U.S. scientists had developed as an alternative to rubber after the Japanese shut off the rubber supply from Southeast Asia.
The development of atomic weapons continued at various sites around the country until the first successful detonation on July 17, 1945, in Alamogordo, New Mexico (see photo on page 2). Less than a month later, Little Boy and Fat Man would detonate over Japan.
Dr. Fox issued a warning to the Rotary Club some 20 years ago that is still appropriate. He said, “Since then the Fat Man has grown into a giant whose shadows stretch over the entire world. It will depend upon rational men and women working together to keep this giant from destroying us all.”
Dr. Fox stayed at Westinghouse his entire career, serving as director of Atomic and Molecular Sciences Research and Development in the early 1970s and research and development director for Industry Products Company from 1974 until his retirement in 1982.
He said Dr. Thomas E. Gilmer ’23 had the greatest impact on his life, second only to his father. Dr. Fox and his first wife endowed the Thomas E. Gilmer ’23 Scholarship to honor him.
Dr. Douglas Venable ’42
The extent to which Dr. Douglas Venable ’42 worked on operations related to the Manhattan Project is uncertain. Although he spent nearly his entire career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, he did not go there until 1950, well after the Manhattan Project had been dismantled. We know, however, that Venable, who was raised in Charleston, West Virginia, earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Virginia. During his time there, from 1942 to 1950, it is likely that Venable worked under Dr. Jesse Beams on Manhattan Project-related experiments, as his fellow Hampden-Sydney alumnus Russ Fox had done some four years earlier.
What is well established is the tremendous influence Dr. Venable had on weapons programs during the rest of his career, which spanned more than 30 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. Even without considering the work he did at LANL, Venable must have been highly regarded. He was a standout student at Hampden-Sydney and entered one of the most esteemed graduate programs of his day. His work at UVa and the Naval Research Laboratory was significant enough that he made his way to Los Alamos, which still attracted leading physicists as LANL reoriented its mission after the war.
Bill Deal was a colleague of Dr. Venable at Los Alamos. He says, “When we came to the lab, there were only about 2,000 physicists. After Oppenheimer left, Bradbury took over as leader. After the war, many notable scientists left because they thought there was no longer a need for the program. Bradbury decided there was a need: that we needed to stay ahead of the Russians and the other Communists technologically throughout the Cold War, though we didn’t know it as the Cold War at the time. Bradbury began rebuilding the staff, bringing in the brightest minds. Doug was one of them.”
Another friend of Venable’s from Los Alamos, Bill Stratton, says, “Los Alamos was a great place to work. You had a lot of freedom to pursue new ideas as long as they didn’t interfere with your overall work. A good analogy is Bell Telephone. At the time, their labs were the best in the world. Staff there could work on anything they wanted as long as it was related to communications. In the same sense, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, we could work on anything concerned with nuclear energy. Venable was one of these people who came up with an idea and proceeded to work on it. His idea for taking flash x-rays of metal in high explosives was revolutionary. This was his idea and he was allowed to pursue it.”
Life at Los Alamos, the isolated research facility about 35 miles from Santa Fe, was certainly different from that in most communities of the 1950s. Stratton says, “Los Alamos was a closed city until the mid 1950s. You had to have Q clearance to get into the labs. I remember at the end of the day, we’d pile up our papers and put them all in the safe. Some of the security seemed like a nuisance, but it was better than it is now.” Deal adds, “Most of us went there right after finishing our Ph.D. in physics. It was like Mecca … or Heaven. Whichever you prefer.”
The security, the high percentage of well-educated residents, and the youth of the residents had some advantages. Stratton says, “We were all pretty young, so the social life was good. It was a good place to live, a good place to raise children. My children could walk six blocks in one direction to school and a few blocks in another direction to get to the store to buy ice cream. It was very safe.” He admits that not everyone enjoyed the seclusion; some missed the amenities of bigger cities and left.
Venable and his family, though, stayed. His work was groundbreaking: he sought to expand the diagnosis of explosive events involving high-density materials, such as metals. Venable conceived a pulsed electron-beam accelerator to generate x-rays. He also devised a way for both the x-ray source and the film container to survive the adjacent detonation of several tens of pounds of high explosives. Thus was developed PHERMEX [Pulsed High Energy Radiation Machine Emitting X-rays].
In 1960, he joined GMX-11 at LANL and further improved PHERMEX. He became leader of the group, before again being promoted in 1972 to deputy division leader of the newly created Dynamic Testing Division. Four years later, he joined the Office of National Security Programs, where he served on the Weapons Planning Committee. In 1981, Dr. Venable was named deputy associate director for Weapons Research and Development. The Father of PHERMEX, as he came to be known, retired from LANL in 1986 but continued until 2004 as a valued laboratory associate with several organizations of the lab.
Doug Venable is roundly considered by his friends and colleagues as “bright,” “cheerful,” and “innovative.” After his death in January 2005, his colleague Denny Erickson said, “I counted Doug as a special friend and mentor. We became close when I was the [former] M-Division deputy division leader. In the mid-to-late 1980s, Doug taught me (as a younger physicist) much about weapons-related research and applied hydrodynamics. I valued Doug for his wisdom and encouragement. Doug kept track of me over the years and always exercised positive reinforcement. I cherish my many times with Doug. Along with many others, I will truly miss him.”
Dr. Venable and his wife Mary set up a series of annuities, which will add to the endowment of the College.
Dr. Samuel S. Jones ’43
When Samuel S. Jones ’43 left his Buckingham County home for college in the late summer of 1939 he set off with the intention of working hard and doing well academically; he had no idea that four years later he would begin working at a secret government facility using highly radioactive materials and build a trigger for the world’s first atomic bomb.
As a student, Jones was undoubtedly smart and probably downright brilliant. He graduated at the top of his class from both high school and Hampden-Sydney, where he was a member of the William H. Whiting Scholarship Society and Chi Beta Phi. Of Hampden-Sydney, he says, “In 1939, it was much like a seminary. It was so extremely different from what it is now. After we studied each night, my roommates and I read the Bible, said a prayer, and went to bed.”
“I had no pretentious plans about what to do after I graduated,” says Dr. Jones of his career in the sciences. “My physical chemistry professor, William Frierson, who was clerk of the faculty, got me into Cornell in 1943. Of course this was during the war. These were difficult days, and this was the only way I could continue my education. The faculty at Cornell were heavily involved in the Manhattan Project. Some professors were even at Los Alamos. At Cornell, they told me I had to go into the Army; I could go in either as an ordinary soldier or join a secret project. I didn’t even know what it was.”
Rather than risk being sent to the front lines, Jones decided to join what he would later learn was the Manhattan Project, the United State’s effort to produce an atomic bomb. He and many other scientists set up shop in Dayton, Ohio, at the vacant Bonebrake Theological Seminary, where they immediately began working on a trigger mechanism for the weapon. Surrounded by a barbed wire fence and armed guards, Jones and his colleagues toiled away without knowing about the other Manhattan Project facilities.
“Except for headquarters at Los Alamos, each Manhattan Project facility was kept secret from the others. Our mission was to produce large amounts of polonium that would interact with the explosive agents of the bomb to greatly increase the power of the weapon by providing large amounts of neutrons at the instant of explosion. This trigger action is achieved by the alpha-n reaction of polonium with beryllium. At the time, we didn’t know how dangerous polonium really is. It is radioactive and emits alpha particles with a half-life of 138 days. It is not considered harmful for external use, since alpha particles can be stopped by a sheet of paper. However, when ingested in the body, it can be fatal in extremely small amounts. So, it has to be handled with great care.”
After a year at the seminary, Jones’ team was moved into luxurious accommodations in the Dayton suburb of Oakwood. According to The Atomic Heritage Foundation, the hundreds of scientists took over Runnymede Playhouse, part of the family estate owned by the in-laws of the Dayton team leader, Charles Thomas. “The Playhouse had been the leisure palace of the Talbott family, with a giant ballroom, indoor squash and tennis courts, as well as a stage for community theater.” Despite promises by Thomas to return the building to the family after the war, it was deemed too radioactive to clean; it was dismantled and buried in Tennessee.
Like most Americans at the time, Jones had no idea there were other research facilities around the country working to create the first atomic bomb. In Richland, Washington, at the Hanford site, reactors were constructed to produce plutonium-239. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the goal was to produce enriched uranium-235. Los Alamos, New Mexico, was the heart of the operation and home to overall weapons research and design. Before the scientists in Dayton produced and harnessed polonium, it existed only in theory. Though the members of the Dayton polonium team received certificates of appreciation from the Secretary of War under President Harry Truman, the work Jones and his colleagues did in support of the Manhattan Project has gone largely undocumented.
“Once I realized what we were doing and why we were doing it, when the secrecy had been intentionally made open, I felt that we did a good job and saved the tremendous cost of having to invade Japan.”
After the war, Jones was given the choice of reenlisting and continuing his work or going back to graduate school. He decided to return to Cornell, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1950. Dr. Jones worked at General Electric during the 1950s and early ’60s, designing nuclear power systems for submarines and, later, for land-based plants and space vehicles. In 1963, he moved to Richland, Washington, where his work concentrated on the development of mechanisms for gas-graphite reactions and radiation effects on the properties of nuclear graphites.
From 1970 to 1981, Dr. Jones was senior staff research scientist at Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. working on electrode technology. He closed out his career working as an industrial carbon consultant from 1983 to 1996.
In 1984, Dr. Jones endowed the Samuel S. Jones Phi Beta Kappa Scholarship in the Natural Sciences. He also has endowed the Samuel S. Jones Phi Beta Kappa Award for Intellectual Excellence to recognize outstanding student research.
“Every day, I tried to do the very best that I could,” says Dr. Jones. “Over the course of my life I have thought quite a lot what it is all about. I have examined the nature of physical reality. When I look at what life is all about I see so many people who—like a computer—have been programmed to look at life only one way. They fail to have a level of openness. I have been someone who has looked critically at life and who continues to ask, ‘How did we come to be the way we are’?”
Now living at a retirement home in Tucson, Arizona, Dr. Jones enjoys giving lectures to local residents about everything from poetry to how computers work. Sharp as ever, he has been working with Dr. Sarah Hardy in the English department to capture and organize his thoughts on science, faith, and life. The investigative life he has led continues—and will continue—as it enters its final stage. Dr. Jones says, “I already have my burial plans arranged. After my name and the dates of my life, there will be only one word on my tombstone: Truth.”
HAMPDEN-SYDNEY STILL produces outstanding scientists, and our connection to Los Alamos National Laboratory continues. Dr. Jon R. Schoonover ’81 joined LANL in 1993 as a technical staff member in the Chemical Science and Technology Division. He joined MST-7 (Polymers and Coatings Group) in 1999 to work on optical spectroscopy studies of polymeric materials. He is now deputy group leader of MST-7.
Thanks in great part to Dr. Schoonover, a steady stream of Hampden-Sydney students have been working at LANL in recent years. Dr. Anderson L. Marsh ’98, who is now a chemistry professor at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, was the first Hampden-Sydney student to work with Dr. Schoonover. More recently, Jonathan D. Cox ’05 worked for Dr. Schoonover in the summer of 2004 and for the 2005-06 academic year as a post-baccalaureate researcher using vibrational spectroscopy to study polymer foam. He is now a doctoral student at The George Washington University.
James C. Miller ’05 works at LANL as he completes his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from Texas A&M. This is his fifth summer at the lab, where he works on new methods for testing for uranium in urine as a counter-terrorism measure. He hopes to continue working there full-time after his 15-month graduate research fellowship ends.
John Campbell ’09 worked at the lab for three consecutive summers. Campbell worked with Dr. Schoonover in the summer of 2007, investigating a potential source of hydrogen gas that is environmentally friendly. During the next two summers, Campbell worked with another LANL scientist, Dr. Brian Patteson, designing and programming the graphical user interface used to process data from X-ray imaging instruments. He is now a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis.
Robert H. Hembree II ’09 worked at LANL in the summer of 2008. He is now in graduate school at the University of Florida.
For more than 70 years, Hampden-Sydney graduates have been involved in cutting-edge science. This small, rural College for men uses high levels of faculty-student interaction, challenging curriculum, and student research opportunities to produce outstanding graduates, particularly in science. The legacy established by Dr. Thomas E. Gilmer, Jr. ’23 and his students of the first half of the last century continues today through the dedicated faculty in the building that bears his name.