The Crawford Greenewalt Manhattan Project Diaries

Friday, August 26, 2011 - 12:00

An article drawing on a particularly remarkable document in Hagley’s archives department appeared recently in the July 2011 issue of Technology & Culture. In “Making the Invisible Engineer Visible: DuPont and the Recognition of Nuclear Expertise,” Sean F. Johnson explores the origins of the nuclear engineering field through the role played by DuPont to manufacture plutonium, first during the Second World War as part of the Manhattan Project, and then in the 1950s as part of the Cold War development of atomic energy. Johnson (a professor at the University of Glasgow), shows how the practical concerns of DuPont engineers clashed with the theoretical approach of academic scientists in the development of manufacturing and control systems for the new plants, and resulted in the creation of nuclear engineering as a new field that integrated knowledge from both engineers and scientists.

page from Crawford Greenwalt's DiaryAmong the DuPont documents that Professor Johnson uses to uncover this process is a set of diaries maintained by Crawford Greenewalt, a DuPont manager who served as the liaison between the company and the government-employer scientists at the University of Chicago (Greenewalt became DuPont’s president in 1948). Comprised of neat hand-written notes in a small loose-leaf notebook, the diaries contain Greenewalt’s private reflections on both the daunting scientific challenges of the early 1940s, (add comma) as well as commentary on relations between scientists and engineers working on the Manhattan Project. The government considered much of Greenewalt’s notes to be sensitive information and the pages are stamped “Secret;” it was not declassified and available for research until 1989. Even now, though most of the diary is public, some sections remain classified and are retained elsewhere, and a few pages have had material redacted from them.

Greenewalt’s diary allows Johnson to have a “fly on the wall” perspective on the scientific and personal dimensions of the early years of the Manhattan project. In his comments Greenewalt usually notes the effectiveness – or not – of experiments and speculates on their promise – or lack thereof. But his diaries also convey the human dimensions of these experiments, the personalities involved, the worries, and the excitement of trying to do things that had not been done before.

An extended entry for an experiment on December 2, 1942 at the University of Chicago laboratory led by Enrico Fermi conveys the diary’s richness. “Fermi was cool as a cucumber,” Greenewalt noted, while his associates “were excited or a bit scared” at their efforts to create a controlled chain reaction. After clinically describing experimental procedures, Greenewalt’s excitement breaks through as he explains its success, that “for the first time – a chain reaction has been demonstrated.” The assembled scientists broke into applause and gave Fermi (a) bottle of wine (albeit in a paper bag). He concluded emotionally that “It was for me a thrilling experience.”

To encourage research using this source Hagley has created typed, transcribed versions. But for those who want to touch a piece of history, the originals are kept, along with many other remarkable materials, in the library stacks, available for researchers to use.

Roger Horowitz is the Associate Director at the Center for Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Library