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 Real Estate: The Farmhouse Edition

Posted on: September 12th, 2014 by Geoff Montes 2 Comments

 

The six-bedroom Federal style home at Fairview Manor was once lived in by Maryland Governor Oden Bowie.
The six-bedroom Federal-style home at Fairview Manor was once lived in by Maryland Governor Oden Bowie.

Historic Fairview ManorBowie, Maryland

Located just 10 miles from Washington, D.C. in the suburb of Bowie, this former plantation stands as a tribute to a bygone era and comes with a pedigree from one of Maryland’s most famous political families. Situated on nearly 10 acres, the six-bedroom Federal-style main house was commissioned by Revolutionary War lieutenant Baruch Duckett circa 1790, and retains its original smoke house, terraces, and grand central hall. The manor was also once home to Oden Bowie, the 34th Governor of Maryland, who relocated to Fairview after serving his term. The Bowies were not only politically prominent, but also instrumental in bringing rail lines to the region following the Civil War. The property includes a guest house. Price: $995,000... 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.

Geoff Montes

Geoff Montes

Geoff Montes is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. He enjoys Art Deco architecture, any activity that can be done at the beach, and cotton candy.

[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.

Vernacular Architecture, One Exposure At A Time

Posted on: September 10th, 2014 by Katherine Flynn

 

Little Cabin Inn, Newburgh, NY. Originally an open-air fruit stand, the 1920s-era Little Cabin Inn has gone through stints as a tavern, a restaurant and vacation lodgings, and was owned and operated by the same family until its closure.
Little Cabin Inn, Newburgh, New York. Originally an open-air fruit stand, the 1920s-era Little Cabin Inn has gone through stints as a tavern, a restaurant, and vacation lodging, and is still owned and operated by the same family under the name Haven Coffee & Espresso Bar. 

In our Fall 2014 issue of Preservation magazine, we highlight a body of work shot by veteran photographers Steve Gross and Susan Daley over a period of several decades. As prolific fine art and commercial photographers, much of Gross and Daley’s output during their 30-year career has focused on historic houses, gardens, and interiors.

But while criss-crossing the country to shoot far-flung locations ranging from New Mexico to Louisiana to the Catskills, the duo were compelled to photograph the many unassuming buildings dotting the American landscape -- emblems of vernacular architecture.... 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.