Ranch School closes, "Buck Rogers Project" begins

The old Technical area site map.

The Headquarter's Building.

The Z Building.

The Y Building.

The X Building.

The Los Alamos Ranch School closed on Feb. 8, 1943. By that time, digging and trenching on the site had already begun, because Oppenheimer was concerned that a delay in the start of construction, which permitted the final class to finish its curriculum for the year, would postpone completion of the design of the atomic bomb.

The Army also acquired other land for the site. Ninety per cent of this land, 54,000 acres of semiarid forest and grazing land, was already controlled by the federal government and easily transferred to the Manhattan Project. The remaining 8,900 acres was purchased in five separate sections. The total cost for all private land was $414,971 or about $4 million in 1993 dollars.

By early December, the M.M. Sundt Construction Co. of Tucson, Ariz., had been engaged to build the buildings surrounding Ashley Pond that would house the Laboratory. Robert Oppenheimer, Edwin McMillan and John Manley had supplied specifications for the new buildings that would supplement the 54 Ranch School buildings.

Groves on Nov. 30, 1942, directed that the existing Ranch School buildings be converted as follows: the Big House into bachelor quarters, recreation room and library; a five-car garage into a fire station; the arts and crafts building into a nursery school and two bachelor quarters; and other ranch school homes into housing.

To the existing buildings were added soldiers' barracks, a mess hall, officers' quarters, an administration building, a theater, an infirmary, as well as apartments, a bachelor dormitory, laboratory technical buildings and utilities for civilian scientists. These were built with great urgency, and the plans were changed constantly both during and after December 1942 as Oppenheimer visited the architect-engineers on a biweekly basis to refine the plans.

For the Albuquerque Corps of Engineers, the project became known as the "Buck Rogers Project," because no one had any idea what was going on, having been told that it was to be a "heavy bombardment range," a claim made patently false by the plans.

McMillan and Oppenheimer's fellow theorists at the University of California, and Hugh Bradner and Manley at the University of Chicago, planned the equipment for the new laboratory at Los Alamos. McMillan's office at UC became the center of the planning effort. McMillan ordered the machine tools, the electronic components and other equipment he thought appropriate for a major nuclear physics laboratory, based on his experience at UC's Radiation Laboratory.

The largest items were the accelerators. Oppenheimer, McMillan and Manley decided that electrostatic generators (Van de Graaff accelerators), a Cockcroft-Walton machine and a good cyclotron would be required to carry on the experimental measurements that would be transferred to Los Alamos from scattered research sites across the country.

McMillan traveled throughout the country evaluating cyclotrons that might be used for the project and chose the Harvard cyclotron as the best. Manley selected the University of Illinois' Cockcroft-Walton accelerator and two Van de Graaff accelerators at the University of Wisconsin: the "long tank," a 22-foot-long machine that could produce energies of up to 2.6 million electron-volts, and the "short tank," a 17-foot-long machine built by Joseph McKibben, a graduate physics student at the University of Wisconsin who accompanied both accelerators to Los Alamos.

The original technical complex included an administrative building (T Building), which also housed the theoretical physics group and was connected by a walkway to the chemistry and physics laboratories (U and Z buildings). There were separate laboratories for the Van de Graaff and Cockcroft-Walton accelerators at either end of the U and Z buildings and shops (V building), a cryogenic laboratory and the cyclotron (buildings Y and X). It was sufficient, the planners felt, for about 100 scientists, the number Oppenheimer, Manley and McMillan anticipated would staff the Laboratory.

By the end of December, Oppenheimer noted that the town would have school teachers; two hospitals, one military and one civilian; an Army post exchange; a cafeteria; garbage collection; laundry service in Santa Fe; and a recreation officer to oversee libraries, pack trips, movies and so on. Eighteen hundred workers were already busy building facilities. Oppenheimer also described the housing, geography and clothing that would be expected. The new town would have to provide for the scientists' needs just as the Laboratory provided for their work.

Bradner was charged with determining what those needs were. Bradner had been working at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago after a stint at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory where he had worked on magnetic induction mines. He sought guidance in Chicago's yellow pages to indicate what facilities a town should have to make life possible. "Since banks didn't advertise, I completely forgot the need of a bank there," he recalled.

Although the Corps of Engineers ensured some organization beyond that offered by the Yellow Pages, Los Alamos looked like a "boom town."

By the end of January 1943, it was still unclear what the basic nature of the Laboratory would be. Manley complained, "At frequent intervals in the pre-Los Alamos period I would bug Oppie about the organization of the laboratory, that is, who would he put in charge of the various elements of the enterprise, theory, experimental groups, services, stock, procurement, personnel and so on. Each time, he was about as unresponsive to such mundane matters as an experimentalist would expect a theoretical physicist to be, perhaps more so."

Oppenheimer tried to arrange for a dummy contract between the Office of Scientific Research and Development (the National Defense Research Committee's parent organization) and California Institute of Technology or Harvard to operate the laboratory. He felt this would ensure flexibility and adequate salaries to recruit civilian scientists as well as funds for procurement. This arrangement would also avoid Army bureaucratic entanglements. Oppenheimer planned to pay scientists twelve-tenths of their university salaries or use the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scale if they did not have a university salary upon which to base their pay.

Most basic was the question of whether the laboratory would be militarized. Although Oppenheimer had agreed with Groves that the scientists at Los Alamos would be commissioned, he was running into resistance. This presented a real problem in recruiting the staff for the new Laboratory.

- Bob Seidel

Next: Oppenheimer and recruiting for Los Alamos