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The Truth Behind the TV Show Manhattan: Part II

Posted on: September 12th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi 1 Comment

 

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.

[Historic Bars] Veteran Boxers Association Ring 1 in Philadelphia

Posted on: September 11th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi

 

Preservation Nation continues its tour of historic bars as we slide (or stumble) our way into the musty dugouts that have served as the home bases for sports fans across the nation as they ride the bench and cheer their favorite teams. Next up for America’s historic sports bars: the Veteran Boxers Association Ring 1 in Philadelphia.

The name "Ring 1" marks that the Philadelphia chapter was the first in the country. Credit: Duncan Kendall
The name "Ring 1" marks that the Philadelphia chapter was the first in the country.

When you first walk into the Veteran Boxers Association in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Philadelphia, you’re not sure if you’re in a bar, a clubhouse, or a museum. But after your first drink and a spin around the room, you realize this quirky venue is all three in one.... 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.

The Truth Behind the TV Show Manhattan: Part I

Posted on: September 11th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi 10 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.

 

Credit: Chris Morris/National Trust for Historic Preservation
Charles Phoenix, left, was born to love kitschy American culture, retro places, and vintage cars. 

Who says history can’t be fun? Certainly not Charles Phoenix , a performer, humorist, chef, and author best known for exploring America’s pop cultural past and present. (And maybe as equally well known for his Thanksgiving dessert creation, the Cherpumple.)

This summer, Phoenix will explore a number of iconic retro places in California, including the Wig Wam Motel in San Bernadino -- where he held a one-night-only event in June to celebrate both the Rt. 66 landmark’s recent National Register listing and also its dedicated owners/restorers -- and the upcoming Moonlight Rollerway Jubilee in Glendale.

We caught up with Phoenix in between all these hopping events to learn what first instilled in him his love for kitsch, what places have inspired him over the years, and why he doesn’t consider himself a preservationist.
... 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.

[Preservation Tips & Tools] Retrofitting Historic Windows

Posted on: May 27th, 2014 by Julia Rocchi 3 Comments

 

Now that we have a beautiful, new Preservation Tips & Tools template, we're looking back at some of our most popular "10 on Tuesday" toolkits and giving them a refresh with our new look. 

Windows are the most visible, yet most commonly underappreciated, components of older and historic homes and buildings.

In addition to adding beauty and character, original windows serve a great purpose -- they connect the outside of the building to the inside and, as an integral part of the architecture, offer invaluable clues to a building's history.

Despite this value, however, historic windows often get the blame for a building’s energy loss. Most often, people jump to replace their historic windows because a) companies promise that their replacement windows will save clients time and money, and b) it’s promoted as the "green" thing to do. In fact, a thriving industry has grown around this perceived need to replace rather than restore.

A report from our Preservation Green Lab in Seattle, Saving Windows, Saving Money: Evaluating the Energy Performance of Window Retrofit and Replacement, tackles this unfortunate perception head-on. The study examines multiple ways you can retrofit (read: modify) your historic windows for better performance, and outlines each option’s energy, carbon, and cost savings across a variety of climates.

The heartening result: Retrofits for historic windows perform comparably to new replacement windows, and almost every retrofit option offers a better return on investment (at a fraction of the cost).... 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.