National Treasures

The Truth Behind the TV Show Manhattan: Part II

Posted on: September 12th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi No Comments

 

The original interior of the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
The original interior of the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

One post couldn’t contain your questions about the WGN show Manhattan, so we’re bringing you a second dose of Q&A with Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society.

Today’s entry digs deeper into the social history and context at the Los Alamos site (one of three locations that make up our National Treasure, Manhattan Project Historic Sites).  Read on to discover which characters are real, what “computers” really meant, and what historical storyline McClenahan would like to see most on the show.

[Note: No big spoilers ahead, though we do refer to some plot points. So watch first if you’d like, then come back here for more fun facts!]

What was the nature of diversity at Los Alamos?

As far as we know, only one African-American was at Los Alamos during the Project. We only know this from pictures, and he was a military man.

A significant number of Native Americans from the nearby pueblos and Hispanics from ancient northern New Mexico villages worked on the project. They served in many capacities, especially housekeeping for women and construction trades for men.

Internationally, the project was quite diverse, with, among others, Hungarians, Poles, Germans, Italian, British, and American scientists working on the project.

Robert Oppenheimer at a party in Master Cottage at Los Alamos, New Mexico.  Credit: Los Alamos Historical Society
Robert Oppenheimer at a party in Master Cottage at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

What were security protocols/screenings like for these foreign scientists? What trumped security/spying concerns?

Security screenings consisted of long interviews with the subject, as well as the subject’s family, friends, neighbors, supervisors, and colleagues. Personnel files, FBI files (if they existed), and other documents were thoroughly combed. It was a long, slow process. One scientist complained that it took as long as a dog’s gestation period, and couldn’t the Army get it down to that of a rabbit?

Scientific ability and know-how trumped security concerns. The “gadget” needed to be made before the Nazis could get one, and American boys needed to be brought home from the war.

Were letters screened and edited to the degree depicted in the show -- for example, Dr. (Mrs.) Winter’s scientific paper?

Yes. The censorship was quite strict. Residents of The Hill [as the Los Alamos townsite was called] couldn’t even write home about the weather because censors were afraid the location of the lab might be pinpointed.

Characters on WGN's Manhattan at the Oak Ridge compound in Tennessee.
Characters on WGN's Manhattan at the Oak Ridge compound in Tennessee.

Which characters in the show are real? If fictional, are they based on anyone in particular?

So far, the only real characters are Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr. Unfortunately, while cast well, Oppenheimer’s character in the show is nothing like he was in Los Alamos. He was beloved and respected for his care and concern for the scientists and their families, his ability to successfully interface with the military on behalf of the civilians, and his leadership in moving the project along.

Frank Winter seems to be based upon a few folks. He has a few characteristics from Oppenheimer (driven to succeed, the family cook), Seth Neddermeyer (advocate for implosion), and perhaps George Kistiakowsky, the head of the explosives division for the project. Liza Winter also seems to have some Kitty Oppenheimer characteristics.

Charlie Isaacs seems to be a little bit Richard Feynman and a little bit James Franck, but married to the wife of Louis Hempelmann (the project’s medical director, who was married to Elinor Pulitzer, heir of the famous newspaper fortune).

Colonel Cox seems to be based on Peer de Silva, who was head of the security office in Los Alamos. He disagreed with General Groves about giving Oppenheimer a security clearance.

The Hungarian who appears to be the assistant lab director (Occam?) is, of course, based on Edward Teller. Teller was not as high in the project or as close to Oppenheimer as the character [is].

Gen. Leslie Groves (center), head of the Manhattan Project, presented the Army-Navy "E" Award flag to the Laboratory on October 16, 1945, with Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and University of California President Robert Sproul (right) looking on.
Gen. Leslie Groves (center), head of the Manhattan Project, presented the Army-Navy "E" Award flag to the Laboratory on October 16, 1945, with Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and University of California President Robert Sproul (right) looking on.

Is the real-life Dr. Frederick Reines portrayed in the show?

Not yet. We’re keeping an eye out for him, though! Dr. Reines, who discovered the neutrino, is the only person to receive a Nobel Prize for work done directly at the laboratory in Los Alamos (although more than two dozen folks associated with Los Alamos have won Nobel Prizes).

Computers were women?

Yes! At the beginning of the century, women's minds were considered better suited for detailed, repetitive tasks. Some of the computers brought brilliance and innovation to their work despite men's underestimation of their abilities.

Before the Manhattan Project, computers worked in the Harvard College Observatory in the 1890s. Henrietta Swan Leavitt made discoveries which allowed for the realization that our universe is expanding. Computers also worked for the Army during WWII at the University of Pennsylvania on ballistics research. Some went on to be among the first programmers for the ENIAC.

What's one interesting storyline/issue you hope is portrayed on the show?

Speaking personally, I’d like to see the Special Engineer Detachment. Some 1,600 young men who were studying physics, chemistry, and engineering in college were drafted and brought to Los Alamos to help in the tech area with all sorts of tech-related jobs. After the war, many of these young men went on to get their Ph.D.s, and at least six of them won Nobel Prizes.

Still have a question? Ask it in the comments, and also follow the post-episode Q&As at Los Alamos Historical Society for more information.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

The Truth Behind the TV Show Manhattan: Part I

Posted on: September 11th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi No Comments

 

An image from WGN's Manhattan shows a recreation of a nuclear testing site.
A scene from WGN's Manhattan depicts a nuclear testing site in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

If you’re not watching the new series Manhattan on WGN, you should start. Why? Because this depiction of the Manhattan Project captures all the drama, intrigue, and suspense of the atomic era’s dawn -- and shows that fact can be just as fascinating as fiction.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

This Labor Day, Celebrate Chicago’s Pullman Historic District

Posted on: August 29th, 2014 by Katherine Flynn 3 Comments

 

Founded in 1880, Pullman was America’s first planned community. Credit: Cynthia Lynn
Founded in 1880, Pullman was America’s first planned model industrial community.

Labor Day: one last chance for beach vacations, barbecues, and making the most of summer’s warm weather before the autumn chill sets in. What many Americans probably don’t realize, however, is that the origins of this holiday weren’t nearly as idyllic.

As it so happens, the roots of Labor Day are closely tied to one of our National Treasures, Chicago’s Pullman National Historic District.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores and uncovering the stories behind historic places. Follow her on Twitter at @kateallthetime.

9 Iconic Movie Sets, Starring … The Antiquities Act

Posted on: August 28th, 2014 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

 

Written by Denise Ryan, Director of Public Lands Policy

An R2-D2 character visits Death Valley (also known as the planet Tatooine in "Star Wars"). Credit: Alyse & Remi, Flickr
An R2-D2 figure visits Death Valley National Park (also known as the planet Tatooine in "Star Wars").

The Antiquities Act may sound like a dusty old piece of legislation, a relic of a bygone era that long ago ceased to have relevance for average Americans. But you will spill your popcorn to learn that the Antiquities Act -- considered America’s first preservation law enacted in 1906 -- continues to play a critical role in protecting places across the country that have been featured in some of Hollywood’s best-known blockbusters.

From “Star Wars” to “Titanic,” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” some of our most beloved movies were filmed in landscapes protected by the Antiquities Act. Here, we feature some of our favorites.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

 

Written by Raina Regan, Community Preservation Specialist, Indiana Landmarks

Aerial view of the plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Credit: American Museum of Science and Energy
Aerial view of the plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Science, secrecy, and a large sense of scale uniquely identify those sites associated with the Manhattan Project. Of the three primary sites -- Los Alamos, New Mexico; Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee -- the latter has always captured my interest because of its moniker “The Secret City.”

The Manhattan Engineer District built an entirely new military reservation on 59,000 acres in an isolated area of rural Tennessee. Construction on the site began in 1942, with the townsite located in the northeast corner of the six-mile-long reservation. Clinton Engineer Works, the Army’s name for the Oak Ridge Manhattan Project site during World War II, hosted the Project’s uranium enrichment plants (K-25 and Y-12) and the pilot plutonium production reactor (X-10).

After reading Denise Kiernan’s The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II and supporting the proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park, I felt compelled to visit the city which had fascinated me for years. I convinced my sister, a fellow history buff who had also recently read Kiernan’s book, to take an atomic-inspired road trip to eastern Tennessee.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.