Los Alamos Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Although we often think of nuclear weapons technology as advanced, cutting-edge, and modern, in fact the dawn of the era of atomic weapons was over 70 years ago.  The most current nuclear weapon designs in the U.S. arsenal are 40 years old.

While cutting-edge nuclear weapons research is underway today in terms of minimization of warheads, delivery vehicles, testing simulations, detection devices, materials, and other technologies, the core concept of nuclear fission dates back to the end of the 19th century with research on the element radium undertaken by Marie and Pierre Curie.

In 1909, the chemist Frederick Soddy observed that the energy associated with radioactive elements could be used “as an explosive incomparably more powerful in its activities than dynamite.”  The prominent science fiction author H.G. Wells, writing in his book The World Set Free (published in 1914), expanded upon Soddy’s comments and envisioned a world with nuclear power (to generate electricity) and even atomic bombs that would be used in a world war.

In the spring of 1939, the physicist Enrico Fermi told colleagues in New York that an atomic bomb with a core of radioactive material that would fit in his cupped hands could destroy a city. Fermi would go on to supervise the creation of the world’s first nuclear reactor on a squash court at the University of Chicago in late 1942.

The story of how these ideas evolved from the laboratory to science fiction to reality during World War II has been told many times and my intent here is not to repeat it in detail.  In the early 1940s, several prominent scientists, including Albert Einstein, realized that the energy unleashed in an atomic explosion could be used to develop a weapon of war with immense destructive capability that could change the course of the World War, which was then raging across the planet and causing the death and displacement of millions of people. These scientists sent a joint letter to President Franklin Roosevelt recommending that the U.S. begin a nuclear weapons program.

Letter from Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Albert Einstein to FDR concerning the atomic bomb

Fearing that the Nazi regime in Germany was in the process of building their own atomic bomb, the United States initiated the Manhattan Project in June 1942, under the co-direction of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer and Army General Leslie Groves. The top-secret project was headquartered in an isolated area in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and brought in expertise and materials from around the country in a race to develop the new weapon before any other country could do so. The project succeeded in developing and mastering the various technologies needed to build the world’s first atomic bomb, which was tested at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945, at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in southern New Mexico.

Overview of the Los Alamos Site in the 1940s

I recently visited the Manhattan Project National Historical Park in Los Alamos as well as the Trinity Site, and I would highly recommend both of these sites to anyone interested in science and history.

I’ve analyzed the Manhattan Project from the standpoint of how the leaders of that project leveraged innovation techniques to complete their work in such as astonishingly short period of time.

The Manhattan Project was, in some ways, a massive-scale innovation program that had to create entirely numerous new technologies from scratch. The scientists did not have a detailed roadmap of how to build an atomic bomb, yet they had to complete their work under the enormous pressures of a world war, knowing that every day that passed without them completing their mission, thousands more people around the world would suffer. Moreover, if the Germans or even the Japanese developed an atomic bomb, the results would be devastating for the free world.

Given these intense pressures, combined with the material privations of a country at war, the innovation techniques leveraged by the Manhattan Project are worthy of investigation. To simplify my analysis of their work, I will present several themes concerning the program and provide a modern innovation analogy for each theme. 

Leadership of Opposites

The Manhattan Project was led by two men with dramatically different personas.   Colonel Leslie Groves was the Army Corps of Engineers’ key leader on the just-completed project to build the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., an edifice that for many years would be the largest office building in the world. Groves wanted an overseas combat assignment to continue his career, but instead he was redirected to head the Manhattan Project and given a promotion to the rank of General.  Almost six feet tall and weighing around 250 pounds, Groves was the type of person who “muscled his way through life” and was “[g]ruff and plainspoken,” with little “time for the subtleties of diplomacy.”  His top aide, Colonel Kenneth Nichols, referred to Groves using words such as demanding, critical, abrasive, and sarcastic, but also noted that Groves was intelligent and had “the guts to make timely, difficult decisions.”

Groves took over the project on September 18, 1942 and set about finding a scientist to serve as the scientific director of the project.

Period Photo of Oppenheimer – Minus his Trademark Porkpie Hat

Groves ended up selecting the Berkeley physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who was a diminutive, 128-pound, coughing and chain-smoking genius who was rarely seen without his trademark porkpie hat. Oppenheimer was ambitious and could be arrogant, but his knowledge was without equal.

Oppenheimer lacked experience in running large teams, however, and was more of a theorist in physics rather than an engineer or experimentalist. One friend described Oppenheimer as a “very impractical fellow […who] walked about with scuffed shoes and a funny hat, and […who] didn’t know anything about equipment.”

Statues of Groves and Oppenheimer at Los Alamos Historical Site

Leadership of the Manhattan Project required a combination of intellectual brilliance and operational expertise that it is unlikely would ever have been found in a single person. The sheer difficulty and sophistication of the science involved in the project meant that only one of the most intelligent physicists in the country could lead the scientific arm of the project.

On the logistics side, the fact that the project had to rely so heavily on the military for materials, construction, sites, security, and other aspects created a situation in which a physicist alone, however brilliant, could never have mastered all of the complexities involved in making such a huge project operate efficiently.

For example, the day after he assumed control of the project, Groves made arrangements to obtain 1,200 tons of high-grade uranium ore then, the following day, made arrangements to purchase a site at Oak Ridge, Tennessee that would be used for uranium processing.  Within a couple of weeks, he went on a tour across the country of all the laboratories engaged in uranium isotope separation, where he met Oppenheimer at U.C. Berkeley. One of his colleagues at Berkeley said that Oppenheimer “couldn’t run a hamburger stand,” but he embraced his mission wholeheartedly and became an effective leader of the scientific aspects of the project.

As Kai Bird notes in his biography of Oppenheimer, “[i]n retrospect, they were a perfect team to lead the effort to beat Germans in the race to build a nuclear weapon.”  “If Robert’s style of charismatic authority tended to breed consensus,” Bird continues, “Groves exercised his authority through intimidation.”

Innovation Lesson – The modern innovator is unlikely to have the luxury of splitting up leadership responsibilities between operations/logistics and vision.  For a large-scale project, this might be the case, but most of our innovation work will be on such a scale that the innovation leader has to wear both hats at the same time. The importance of this lesson from Los Alamos is that the innovation leader needs to be cognizant of the fact that one’s work has to cover both areas. If one spends too much time in the theoretical or visionary space, the logistics of the project will be neglected and could result in failure.

Likewise, an innovation leader who spends too much time in the operations and logistics aspects of a project would work to the detriment of the vision of the project.  Interestingly, once Oppenheimer began work at Los Alamos, he realized that he alone could not do both the jobs of the scientific director of the lab as well as the chief of the theoretical division, so he appointed the physicist Hans Bethe to lead the latter so he could focus on the former.

Location, Location, Location

The aphorism about real estate, that location is the most important element of a property sale, is applicable to many other scenarios as well.  In the case of the Manhattan Project, this held quite true. At the start of the project, Oppenheimer was receiving input from teams spread across the country. However, he recognized that “various groups working on fast-neutron fission at Princeton, Chicago, and Berkeley were sometimes just duplicating each other’s work […and] needed to collaborate in a central location.” Groves agreed that a central location could help the teams “come to grips with chemical, metallurgical, engineering, and ordnance problems that had so far received no consideration.”

While the notion of centralizing the teams in one location was largely intuitive, the idea of placing them in a very remote location was perhaps less obvious. The notion of a remote location was critical for security, for it would be nearly impossible to project the secrets of the project if the work were underway in a large city such as Chicago. Chicago had the advantage of hosting Fermi’s large team that had already made progress in nuclear physics, and the city possessed “world-class libraries and a large pool of experienced machinists, glass-blowers, engineers and other technicians” who would be needed for such a project.

Views of the Los Alamos Mesa – Note the Steep Cliffs

The location chosen for the project was Los Alamos, New Mexico, which was a barren site about 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe. The site was a large mesa, surrounded by mountains, with limited access in the form of a single entry road and steep, sheer rocky cliffs hundreds of feet tall protecting its flanks.  Oppenheimer knew the area well as he had ridden horses there when he was younger.

On top of the 7,200 foot-elevation plateau was an 800-acre ranch that was being used as a school for boys. From the ranch, one could see the snow-covered Jemez mountains (11,000 feet) in one direction, the Rio Grande Valley (a 40-mile view) in another direction, and the Sangre de Cristo mountains (13,000 feet) in the other direction.

When Groves saw the site, he purportedly said “[t]his is the place.”  Interestingly, spies from Japan and the Soviet Union ended up penetrating the project nonetheless, though perhaps they gleaned less information that they would have in a more populated setting.

More Views of the Los Alamos Mesa 

Views of the Mountains Surrounding the Los Alamos Historic Site 

Ashley Pond – Location of Building where Trinity Device was Assembled (known as ‘Ice House’)

Innovation Lesson – Just as location was an important variable in 1942, so, too, is location important for the work we do today as innovation practitioners.

As innovation leaders, we face myriad decisions about how to organize our teams on innovation projects. Working for large, often-global, corporations means that our experts are often widely dispersed across the country and even the planet.

With the prevalence of remote workers, we often lack even office spaces in various cities where we would be able to congregate on a regular basis. We do our best to manage these work efforts using communications tools and techniques, but in the end, I have always believed there is a benefit to co-locating teams who are working on major projects.

Where Los Alamos informs this decision is in terms of the physical aspects of the site. Having visited Los Alamos recently, I must say that the natural setting is absolutely beautiful. The scenery is stunning, almost breath-taking, and I imagine that any visitor to the site in 1942 and after would have been astonished at the natural beauty of the site.

The deep canyons separating the mesa from surrounding areas is clearly protected and almost impenetrable, to the point where any concerns about security would be lowered in priority so one could focus more on the work at hand than on secrecy.

While the site had privations because of its remoteness, including snow in the winter, high winds in the summer, and muddy roads in the shoulder seasons, I would submit that the sheer natural glory of this site would outweigh these challenges.

Being at Los Alamos is uplifting, so I have to think that some of the success of the project was due to this amazing location that was selected by Oppenheimer and Groves.  Even today, the top-secret Los Alamos National Laboratory is still located in the area, though the lab has moved over to the next mesa, where it is again separated from the public areas by a large canyon.

View of the New Los Alamos National Laboratory across the Canyon

As I stood there admiring the site, I could not help but think about how striking this location would have been to a new lab worker in the 1940s. First the worker would take a train across the country and arrive at the Santa Fe station.  He or she would then go to a small office across from the main Santa Fe plaza at 109 East Palace Avenue to a reception area to be processed by the Administrative Secretary Dorothy McKibben.

The road trip out of Santa Fe to the site, about 40 miles, is one of increasing scenic beauty as one approaches the site, with a small, winding mountain road leading to a single security gate for entry. That gate still stands today in a public park as a reminder of the original layout of the town. The message that this would have sent to even the most jaded scientist would be that the work underway here is of utmost importance, and would have likely put the scientist in a proper frame of mind to begin his or her work.

Santa Fe Office at 109 East Palace Ave where New Arrivals to Los Alamos would be Processed


Original Los Alamos Main Guard Gate – Now a Public Park

One scientist, James Tuck from England, noted that at Los Alamos he “found a spirit of Athens, or Plato, of an ideal republic.” Other scientists dubbed it an “island in the sky” or “Shangri-La.” 

Bernice Brode, the wife of physicist Robert Brode, wrote longingly of watching “the seasons come and go – the aspens turning gold in the fall against the dark evergreens; blizzards piling up snow in winter, the pale green of spring buds; and the dry desert wind whistling through the pines in summer.”

It was surely a touch of genius to establish our strange town on the mesa top, although many sensible people sensibly said that Los Alamos was a city that never should have been.”                – Bernice Brode

As innovators it is unlikely we will ever have the budget for our project to find work in a remote location as spectacular as Los Alamos. Yet when pulling team members together, we should think about the human spirit and make sure that we do things that can uplift them as they work on the innovation project.

A windowless basement conference room may be readily available for collaboration, but it may not enable the team to perform as effectively as might be the case in a higher floor room with a city or nature view. Something positive happens to people when they are in a place that uplifts them, and as innovators we should take this into consideration when thinking about locations for our projects.

Don’t Forget the Basics

While natural beauty was a key element of the Los Alamos site, Oppenheimer and Groves also understood the need to meet the basic requirements for their team members. They arranged to build an entire, almost self-sufficient city onsite at the central lab location so that team members could focus on their work and not have to feel like they were missing other aspects of life. The site would contain a viable community managed by a city engineer and included quarters for bachelors as well as family homes with electricity, fireplaces, refrigerators, hot-water heaters, and wood-fired stoves.

House of Physicist Hans Bethe 

Innovation LessonIt is said that an Army travels on its stomach, and my experience has been that the most important thing we can do as innovation leaders, at least in terms of meeting logistics, is to make sure that the needs of our team members are taken care of, which means regular breaks, drinks, food, and anything else that people need to stay focused on their work,  By removing these distractions, one could argue that more brainpower is freed up to focus on solving innovation challenges.

Although there were not phones (for security reasons), the houses were similar to what a team member would have in a less remote location. Likewise, the site included servants for housework, a school for children, a library, laundry service, a hospital, garbage collection, a cinema, a cantina, multiple dining facilities, a post exchange, a movie theater, and recreational activities such as hiking and skiing. The goal was to make life as normal as possible so that the team members could focus on the task at hand rather than worrying about other distractions.

Fuller Lodge at Los Alamos Site – Used for Community Activities

Information Sharing

We take for granted today the need to share information across towers, teams, organizations, and, in some cases, even across companies.  In the case of the Manhattan Project, the critical need for secrecy and the military-style leadership of General Groves put a damper on this normal flow of information.  Groves wanted tight control over information and was paranoid about leaks and espionage.

The physicist Ernest Lawrence once paid a visit to the site to speak to a group of the lab’s scientists about an important topic. Before his speech, Groves pulled Lawrence aside and “carefully briefed him on what he was not allowed to say to his audience.”  Lawrence later took his position at the blackboard and proceeded to tell his colleagues that although General Groves does not want me to say this, I will say it anyway.  Eventually Groves relented, acknowledging that “at Los Alamos the rules of science had trumped the principles of military security.”

Hans Bethe pushed the idea of a weekly, open-ended meeting among the scientists across the different towers (experimental physics, theoretical physics, chemistry, metallurgy), to discuss various topics about the project and share information liberally about the challenges each were facing in their areas. The first colloquium was held in April, 1943, and was led by Oppenheimer’s former student, Bob Serber. The session covered the project from end-to-end in terms of the goal of creating bombs using uranium or plutonium that could be small enough to be delivered from an airplane.

For many of the attendees, this was the first time they heard the entire story of why they were there, as the compartmentalization if information had kept them blinded to other parts of the project. Serber went on to provide four additional four-hour lectures that delved into the details of the bomb, including the mechanisms considered to trigger the chain reaction that would start the explosion. These lectures stimulated exactly the kinds of creative discussion that Oppenheimer wanted, and definitely aided the progress of the overall project.

Innovation Lesson – Although we as innovators do not face the types of information secrecy challenges that the Los Alamos scientists faced, we still spend a great deal of time thinking about information security. In some ways, our challenges are different because of the prevalence of cybersecurity challenges. In particular, if we work for large corporations, we have to be extra-careful about protecting information about our innovation work. Simple steps such as not putting critical information in a non-encrypted email, not using public WiFi hotspots, and using screen protectors when working in public areas (such as on a plane), are important habits.

Yet the lesson from Los Alamos goes beyond information security. Rather, it serves as a reminder that even in wartime, information security should not become such a focus that it overwhelms the natural need, within a project, for information-sharing and dialogue across towers or organizations.  There is a balance to be struck in which an innovation leader protects key attributes of an innovation while also sharing just enough data with colleagues to be able to leverage their expertise to move the project forward.

Introduction for New Team Members

As noted above, Bob Serber’s multiple lectures on the project provided a stimulating arena in which the various scientists involved could bounce ideas off each other and discuss the challenges they were facing. Scientists could also gain a better understanding of how their individual tasks fit into the overall project’s objectives.

Yet these lectures also resulted in the creation of something that would benefit every new entrant into the program in the future.  Serber’s lecture notes were typed up into a 24-page summary that was titled The Los Alamos Primer.  New scientists who arrived to start work on the project would immediately receive and be expected to read the material to get up to speed quickly on the overall program. This prevented other scientists from having to stop what they were doing to bring a new team member up to speed.

Innovation Lesson – One of the unique and, indeed, interesting aspects of the career of the innovation practitioner is the speed at which an innovator has to move from idea to idea, or project to project, as part of one’s daily work activities.  It is rare that an innovator would be assigned to work on a single idea for a long period of time. Rather, the innovator has to be able to juggle multiple projects and ideas at the same time.

Another attribute of innovation leadership is the need to bring others into a project or session and get them up to speed quickly, depending on how the idea has progressed over time. For example, an innovation may start out focusing on a particular technology solution but, as the work evolves, it may turn out that the team needs a completely new technology or process to complete the work.  In this scenario, the innovation team would need to bring new expertise into the project quickly and get that person up to speed on the overall program so that he or she could begin contributing to the project without delay.

Serber’s Lecture Notes which became the Los Alamos Primer

The example of The Los Alamos Primer is instructive in that it shows how important it is for a team to have a mechanism to execute this knowledge-transfer work quickly and effectively.  The key is for this information to be at a high enough level to be able to bring a manager up to speed on the project while also being detailed enough technically to instruct a technical expert on the work at hand.  In my experience, I rarely joined projects that had the correct amount of information available for newcomers.


The information provided was either at such a high level as to be useless to technical subject matter experts (bullet points or contract-type verbiage), or too technical to be useful to managers and executives (overly complex spider diagrams).  Thus anytime I joined or ran a program, my first task was to work with the team members to prepare this package. Little did I know that I was modeling this against The Los Alamos Primer all along.

Speed Has Its Own Virtue

The Manhattan Project represents one of the fastest, large-scale scientific development projects in world history.  From June 1942, the project took an idea from theoretical physics and turned it into a fully-functional and successfully-tested device by July 1945, merely three years later. The project required the development of entirely new processes in manufacturing, metallurgy, chemistry, ordnance, and physics, and was done under the intense pressures of a global war.  Although in our modern world three years seems like a long period of time, it is difficult to overstate the challenges faced by Robert Oppenheimer and the Los Alamos scientists.

Yet despite the complexity of their work, one element remained constant throughout the project – the importance of speed.  The reason for the importance of speed was twofold.  First, the scientists knew that the sooner they could complete development of this weapon, the sooner they would have the chance to end a war that was killing thousands of people around the world on a daily basis.  Second, the scientists knew that they were in an intense, head-to-head race with Nazi Germany to develop the bomb and that if the Germans obtained the weapon before the U.S. did, the results would be catastrophic.

Given the typical collaboration among international scientists before the war, the Los Alamos scientists knew their German counterparts quite well.  They knew exactly where Germany had started in its atomic research before the war, and they knew the mindset and capabilities of their opponents.

The physicist Isidor Rabi, a friend of Oppenheimer’s from Berkeley, visited Los Alamos in mid-1944 and met with the scientific team to discuss the program.

Rabi noted that “[w]e went over the whole thing again and the history of our own development and tried to see where they [the Germans] could have been cleverer, where they might have had better judgment and avoided this error or that error . . …We finally arrived at the conclusion that they could be exactly up to us, or perhaps further. We felt very solemn. One didn’t know what the enemy had.  One didn’t want to lose a single day, a single week.  And certainly, a month would be a calamity.” 

Rabi’s realization that the Germans were at least neck-and-neck with Los Alamos meant that every minute was precious and that the lab had to continue to focus on speed above all else.

Indeed, in the crucial period of the 1940s in the development of the atomic bomb, the real challenge was not basic information about how to make the bomb. For the most part, scientists around the world understood the core concepts. The real challenge was to create and execute the massive industrial processes required to produce  fissionable material (uranium 235 or plutonium) and to put that material into a device that could be delivered via an aircraft.

In the summer of 1943, Oppenheimer told a Los Alamos security officer that “[t]he danger […] was not that the technical information about the bomb might leak to another country.”  Rather, he continued, “[t]he real secret was ‘the intensity of our effort’ and the scale of the ‘international investment involved.’”  In other words, if “other governments understood the resources America was throwing into the bomb effort, they might attempt to duplicate the bomb project.

Japanese spies had indeed infiltrated the Manhattan Project, but “the intelligence reports reaching Tokyo were evidently of poor quality, since they gave the impression that the Manhattan Project was proceeding slowly; [which resulted in t]he Japanese nuclear experts conclud[ing] that they could take their time.”

Innovation Lesson – We spend a lot of time in our innovation work focusing on speed.  We try to push hard through organizational or bureaucratic obstacles that stand in the way of our success, and one job of the innovation leader is to be impatient and unsatisfied with answers that result in an inordinate amount of time being required for a certain task to be completed, especially a task that is critical to the success of the project.  There is always a balance to strike, though, between pushing for speed in certain areas while recognizing those areas that are worth an additional investment of time.  It is the job of the innovation leader to manage this balance.

Oppenheimer seemed to possess an innate ability to manage this challenge of speed versus thoroughness. One scientist “marveled at how often Oppie seemed to be physically present at each new breakthrough in the project […] and noted that his main influence came from his continuous and intense presence, which produced a sense of direct participation in all of us.”

Hans Bethe “recalled the day Oppie dropped in to a session on metallurgy and listened to an inconclusive debate over what type of refractory container should be used for melting plutonium.”  “After listening to the argument,” he noted, “Oppie summed up the discussion […and although h]e didn’t directly propose a solution, […] by the time he left the room the right answer was clear to all.”

In the scenario of the metallurgy debate, Oppenheimer could have simply deferred to speed and stated a preferred answer then left the room, but that would not have been the best way to continue fostering cooperation and teamwork among his colleagues and would not have allowed them to reach the correct conclusion on their own. Although his presence in the room was a facilitator for a speedy outcome, he did so in a way that was unobtrusive. Yet this sense of balance did not preclude Oppenheimer from taking a firm stand on issues when the success of the project was at stake.

Scale Model of the Trinity Implosion Device

The bomb that was to be used in the first test at the Trinity Site was an implosion device using plutonium that required a set of very difficult-to-manufacture shaped explosive charges (known as lenses) that would concentrate the initial detonation in a manner sufficient to start a chain reaction in the plutonium core. The task to develop these lenses fell to an explosives expert from Harvard, George Kistiakowsky. The Harvard scholar was “opinionated and strong-willed” and had a number of run-ins with his military counterpart, Captain Deke Parsons.


Kistiakowsky had been unable to complete a successful manufacturing process for the explosive lenses required for the bomb, and by January 1945, this was an area of growing concern for the project. Captain Parsons at one point asked Oppenheimer to abandon the lenses so the team could create a different technology for the implosion device, but Oppenheimer made the call to stick with Kistiakowsky’s original design. By May 1945, the team perfected the implosion design using lenses, and this was the mechanism that triggered the successful explosion two months later at the Trinity site.

In the end, Kai Bird notes, “[b]omb-building was more engineering that theoretical physics.”

Yet Oppenheimer proved to be “as singularly adept at marshaling his scientists to overcome technical and engineering obstacles as he had been at stimulating his students to new insights at Berkeley.” Hans Bethe summarized Oppenheimer’s impact as follows: “Los Alamos might have succeeded without him, but certainly only with much greater strain, less enthusiasm, and less speed.”  Oppenheimer’s example of balanced leadership, a bit of genius, and a focus on stimulating the bright minds around him, can serve as an example for modern innovators concerning how to increase the speed of their projects.

Implosion Device Ring Detonator

Test the Most Complex Component

In Robert Serber’s overview seminars on the Los Alamos project, there were two different types of atomic bombs that the scientists planned to develop. The first type would use a core of enriched uranium (U-235), about the size of a cantaloupe fruit, which would weigh around 33 pounds.

The second bomb type would use plutonium (produced via neutron-capture from U-238) and would be the size of an orange, weighing only 11 pounds. The U-235 bomb would be detonated by a shotgun-style mechanism in which a slug of uranium would be shot into another slug of the same material, which would generate a nuclear chain reaction and and atomic explosion.

The other mechanism was the implosion model, in which a ring of explosives surrounding a fissile core could be detonated at the same time, compressing the core and initiating a chain reaction. Serber suggested that the final weight of the bomb, including the fissile material and all the detonators, guidance, casing, and other components would be about 2,000 pounds, which would allow it to be easily delivered via an aircraft. In fact, the final bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima weighed a total of 9,700 pounds.

As Bird notes, “[s]ome of the physics of building an atomic bomb were still uncertain, but the real imponderables lay in the field of engineering and ordnance design.”  “Producing sufficient amounts of either U-235 or plutonium,” he continues, “would require a massive industrial effort.” 

Yet once the materials were obtained, the scientists were confident that they could make a bomb.  The scientists were very confident of the shotgun-style approach and decided that they did not need to test that specific device. Rather, they decided that “a test of the [implosion] plutonium bomb was essential before it could be used as a weapon of war.”

Oppenheimer and his team reviewed a list of eight sites and settled on Trinity site in New Mexico, which was part of the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range.  The site was desolate and secluded and was known by the Spanish name “Jornada del Muerto,” which means “journey of death,” due to the inhospitable (dry, hot, and remote) conditions there.

Trinity Site Landscape – Jornada del Muerto

Oppenheimer concluded that this was the perfect location since it was isolated and secret but still close enough to Los Alamos to allow for easy commuting back and forth.  I visited the site recently and can confirm how isolated the area still is even today, but it is also a strikingly beautiful location, surrounded by desert and mountains.


Trinity Site Obelisk

Fence Surrounding Site Trinity Site – Background Radiation Level = 0.5 mrem Commercial Cross-Country Flight = 2.0 mrem

Before the final test at Trinity Site, the scientists rigged up another tower nearby and conducted an explosion of 100 tons of TNT to serve as a control for the atomic test (the actual atomic bomb yielded the equivalent of 20,000 tons). This would allow them to compare the yield of the plutonium device against the precise results generated by the static TNT test nearby.

Period photo showing the Trinity Blast (top) and the control TNT blast (bottom)

The scientists also considered an additional safeguard for their test, using a device nicknamed “Jumbo.” Jumbo was a huge steel cylinder 25 feet long and 10 feet high, weighing 214 tons. Built in Ohio and shipped to Trinity Site via train, Jumbo was originally planned as a failsafe casing around the plutonium bomb. The plutonium bomb worked via two explosions: an initial implosion via shaped charges followed by a chain reaction of the plutonium core.  If the bomb worked as planned, Jumbo would be vaporized immediately.

Jumbo Casing at Trinity Site – Note the Overall Size

If the plutonium core did not undergo a chain reaction, then the scientists wanted to use Jumbo to capture the radioactive plutonium to keep it from spreading around the test site. Since this was half the known supply of plutonium in the world at the time, it was important to have a plan to salvage it if necessary, as well as to prevent the spread of the dangerous material around the area.

In the end, the scientists did not use Jumbo because they were confident the bomb would go off as designed, but the steel casing is still on the site today to give visitors a feel for the size of the original device, which would have fit inside the casing. Jumbo is sitting at the site today on its side, and visitors can easily walk through it.

Indeed, one of the most interesting images from the era is a picture of the scientists hoisting the plutonium core from their car at the test site. The scientists had to drive the plutonium from Los Alamos to the Trinity Site, a distance of 221 miles, in the dead of summer.

Plutonium Being Moved from the Car to the Sites

I made that drive the morning of the April 2017 Trinity Site open house (actually I had a head start since I was staying in Santa Fe, for a distance of only 188 miles), and it was not an easy trip in a 2016-model car on modern, high-speed roads. I could not imagine doing this in a non-air conditioned 1940s-era car on two-lane roads.The scientists assembled the bomb using explosive components and plutonium cores from Los Alamos using a pecial set of tools from a kit that was identical to the ones that were in transit to Tinian island in the Pacific, where the bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be assembled. This was to provide a further test of the tools and processes to be followed in the war zone by trying them out first at Trinity.

Only July 16,1945, the bomb was detonated successfully, creating a shock wave that broke windows 120 miles away and that was felt as far as 160 miles away.  A few weeks later, on August 6, 1945, the B-29 named Enola Gay dropped the untested, gun-type uranium bomb over Hiroshima.

“Little Boy” Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Model

Innovation Lesson As innovators we sometimes are fortunate enough to reach the point where the technology or process that we have been working on so intensively is finally ready for testing. Although there are dozens of different and valid approaches to testing (including testing early and often in the development process), the Los Alamos examples provides some interesting food for thought.  In the case of the atomic bomb, the scientists were faced with intense pressures and speed demands due to the ongoing world war, and also faced the challenge of a limited supply of fissile material. They could not afford to follow a typical testing protocol in which they try out many different designs and conduct tests over and over while making slight variations to key variables each time and assessing the outcome.

Since the entire supply of plutonium in the world at that time could fit into a small case, and since it had taken such a huge industrial effort to create it in the first place, the scientists could not be flexible with their testing protocols.  What was most interesting to me, however, was the fact that they chose to focus their testing efforts on the most complex solution (the implosion design), while they chose not to test at all the gun-type U-235 bomb that was actually dropped on Hiroshima.  Indeed, that bomb contained a failsafe mechanism involving secondary explosions to ensure the bomb’s components would be completely destroyed if it failed to explode as designed using the radar altimeter above the target.

For the innovator, this lesson could be of importance if we were faced with multiple scenarios to test and limited time or budget to complete those tests.  Would it make sense to test the most difficult and complex solution first and assume that the basic solutions would work as designed? This is counter to how we normally approach testing, but makes for an interesting possibility.  The Los Alamos scientists certainly used their extensive knowledge of physics to make their critical decision on testing, and we as innovators may not have the luxury of all that assembled brainpower to execute our work.  However, the counter-intuitive approach of testing the most complex elements first may be worth considering in certain scenarios.

Multiple Different Paths

As mentioned above, the production of fissile material proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of the Manhattan Project.  The physicist Niels Bohr “had understood since 1939 that the discovery of nuclear fission made an atomic bomb feasible, but he believed that they engineering necessary for separating out U-235 would require an immense, and therefore impractical, industrial effort.”  The Manhattan Project attacked this “immense” and “impractical” industrial effort using the construction of massive facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Hanford, Washington to produce these critical materials.

Oak Ridge focused on uranium-235 production and the scientists there hedged their bets by launching three different methods of U-235 production simultaneously: gaseous diffusion, liquid thermal diffusion, and electromagnetic separation via calutrons. Liquid thermal diffusion proved to be inefficient, but the Manhattan Project was able to use portions of all three approaches to manufacture their fissile material, with uranium 238 starting in thermal diffusion then moving to gaseous diffusion then electromagnetic separation, with the percentage of U-235 increasing each step along the way.

Oak Ridge was also the site for the buildout and operation of the pilot reactor that became the model for the plutonium-producing reactors at the Hanford site.  At the Hanford facility, scientists built three reactors to produce plutonium.  As the Atomic Heritage Foundation notes, “[t]he mammoth plants built to process uranium and plutonium were major achievements in engineering.”

Innovation Lesson – From an innovation standpoint, the lesson here is a reminder of the importance of running multiple parallel threads on an initiative to increase the likelihood of success.  Focusing too much attention and too many resources on a single thread in an initiative, however promising that singular approach may be, can be a risky strategy for the innovator.  Had the Manhattan Project focused solely on the very inefficient liquid thermal diffusion method of uranium enrichment, then the project might have been delayed even longer in producing the fissile materials needed for the bomb.  While we may not always have the resources to do so, it is nonetheless important to consider this when organizing work efforts around an important innovation initiative.

Photos Courtesy of the Author


Graham Farmelo, “Fumbling with Pandora’s Box,” The Wall Street Journal (June 10, 2017), p. C9.

“Trinity Site,” White Sands Missile Range brochure for site visitors (April 2017).

“Manhattan Project National Historical Park,” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.

Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).

Gregg Herken, “He’s the Bomb,” The New York Times Book Review (November 20, 2016), p. 23.

Steven E. Koonin, “Can We Trust Our Aging Nukes?” The Wall Street Journal (October 15, 2016), p. C3.


Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Manhattan Project National Historical Park, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

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scott_bowdenScott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden

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