Pop Culture

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 1 Comment

 

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.

[Interview] Q & A with Musician and Design Blogger Moby

Posted on: September 5th, 2014 by Meghan Drueding 2 Comments

 

The dramatic exterior of Moby’s restored 1920s French Norman-style house in Los Angeles. Credit Moby
The dramatic exterior of Moby’s restored 1920s French Norman-style house in Los Angeles

In our conversation with Moby for the upcoming Fall 2014 issue of Preservation magazine, he had so many interesting things to say that we didn’t have room for the whole interview in print. Read on for an extended version of our talk with the multitalented electronic musician and DJ, whose writings and photographs of local buildings are showcased on his blog Moby Los Angeles Architecture. An avid architecture and preservation buff, Moby has also shared with us some photos of his restored 1920s house in Los Angeles, which you can see below.... 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.

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the managing editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for mid-century modern, walkable cities, and coffee table books about architecture and design.

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.

Estelle Axton: A Woman, A Place, and the Memphis Sound

Posted on: August 13th, 2014 by Guest Writer 2 Comments

 

Siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton defied cultural norms in the Jim Crow era to found Stax Records, one of the most influential soul and R&B labels of the 1960s and '70s. Credit: Stax Museum of American Soul Music
Siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton defied cultural norms in the Jim Crow era to found Stax Records, one of the most influential soul and R&B labels of the 1960s and '70s.

There's no obvious reason why Estelle Axton and her brother Jim Stewart should have been the kind of people who would established Stax Records in the Jim Crow South.

One of the most prominent and influential soul and R&B labels of the 1960s, Stax artists included Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett, and Isaac Hayes, backed by the house band, Booker T. and the MGs. The studio was located in the blue-collar African-American neighborhood of South Memphis, was founded by a pair of white siblings, and was a tightknit family of black and white artists working together.

"Jim and Estelle were righteous people who were living during a time and in a place that suggested that they should be anything other than who they were," says Deanie Parker, who joined the Stax family as a teenager and went on to become director of publicity. Parker helped establish the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which opened in 2003 on the site of the original studio.... 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.