If you’ve ever read The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes then not only have you read an absolutely amazing book, you have also read about the historic and monumental moment of genius when the very thought occurred that eventually brought about the making of the atomic bomb. The story, which has been debated over the years, but seems to have some validity is one I just love to read from time-to-time. Here is what Rhodes writes about the matter:
In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come. […]
“As the light changed to green and I crossed the street,” Szilard recalls, “it … suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction. “I didn’t see at the moment just how one would go about finding such an element, or what experiments would be needed, but the idea never left me. In certain circumstances it might be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction, liberate energy on an industrial scale, and construct atomic bombs.” Leo Szilard stepped up onto the sidewalk. Behind him the light changed to red.
That’s some legit stuff right there! You see the man who is credited with first conceptualizing nuclear fission is named Leo Szilard and this dynamic and brilliant mental pioneer is the guy we can give much of the credit, or blame, for the creation of the atomic bomb. He has become one of the brilliant researchers we now consider to be a “father of the atomic bomb.” What is truly mind-blowing is that this theoretical concept that existed only in Szilard’s brain had no real application at the time it was conceived. Szilard has no idea what elements would behave in a manner that would allow nuclear fission to take place, but he knew that it could happen. From about 1933 forward he files for a number of patents surrounding the topic but still can’t quite figure out what type of fuel will make nuclear fission a reality. He certainly understood the potentially catastrophic consequences misuse of such technology could have through use of a bomb and although he got close to developing the correct reaction, he didn’t really have the right concepts in place to make a workable nuclear reactor. In fact, when a nuclear reactor was finally created by Enrico Fermi and Walter Zinn, Szilard who was a contemporary and research partner of theirs was present to see it work.
It may sound like he missed out on gaining full credit for a concept he fathered, but invention is more dynamic than that and remember that this is us looking back on something that was completely new and never before conceptualized. What Szilard did have was the idea that nuclear fission was possible. When other scientists came to similar findings and were able to make advances in similar areas of research, Szilard was perfectly situated to help put it all together. And, in the end, Szilard did play an important role in the making of the first atomic bomb as he wrote the letter signed by Albert Einstein that explained the concept of an atomic bomb, and the need for uranium as a fuel source, to Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America. From this letter, the Manhattan Project was formed which of course was the project that created the first atomic bombs that would eventually be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan near the end of World War II.
So, in the end Leo Szilard was not the sole inventor of the atomic bomb. In fact, no one person invented the bomb, it was the creation of many years and many researcher’s work that built upon the initial thought that Leo Szilard had on September 12, 1933 in the time it took him to cross a busy street in London. This my friends, is how one brilliant thought can change the world forever.
I hope you enjoyed the story.
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