Igniting The Light Elements: The Los Alamos Thermonuclear Weapon Project, 1942-1952

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Virginia Tech

The American system of nuclear weapons research and development was conceived and developed not as a result of technological determinism, but by a number of individual architects who promoted the growth of this large technologically-based complex. While some of the technological artifacts of this system, such as the fission weapons used in World War II, have been the subject of many historical studies, their technical successors -- fusion (or hydrogen) devices -- are representative of the largely unstudied highly secret realms of nuclear weapons science and engineering.

In the postwar period a small number of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory's staff and affiliates were responsible for theoretical work on fusion weapons, yet the program was subject to both the provisions and constraints of the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission, of which Los Alamos was a part. The Commission leadership's struggle to establish a mission for its network of laboratories, least of all to keep them operating, affected Los Alamos's leaders' decisions as to the course of weapons design and development projects.

Adapting Thomas P. Hughes's "large technological systems" thesis, I focus on the technical, social, political, and human problems that nuclear weapons scientists faced while pursuing the thermonuclear project, demonstrating why the early American thermonuclear bomb project was an immensely complicated scientific and technological undertaking. I concentrate mainly on Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory's Theoretical, or T, Division, and its members' attempts to complete an accurate mathematical treatment of the "Super" -- the most difficult problem in physics in the postwar period -- and other fusion weapon theories. Although tackling a theoretical problem, theoreticians had to address technical and engineering issues as well.

I demonstrate the relative value and importance of H-bomb research over time in the postwar era to scientific, politician, and military participants in this project. I analyze how and when participants in the H-bomb project recognized both blatant and subtle problems facing the project, how scientists solved them, and the relationship this process had to official nuclear weapons policies. Consequently, I show how the practice of nuclear weapons science in the postwar period became an extremely complex, technologically-based endeavor.

Computing, Physics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Nuclear Weapons