Manhattan Engineering District, 2007
Installation View
FRAC Pays de la Loire, Carquefou
Photo: Marc Domage


Manhattan Engineering District

July 4, 1934 in a nursing home near Sallanches, France, Marie Curie dies from aplastic anemia brought on by the research with radioactive substances by which she and others founded modern nuclear physics. The rest of this story mainly concerns men, embracing a whole chain reaction of key scientists and politicians in the first half of the 20th century. As Marie Curie dies, Enrico Fermi and his team in Rome are bombarding uranium with neutrons. In 1938, inspired by the Fermi experiments, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann begin to perform similar experiments in Germany, publishing their experimental results without realizing that they had split an atom. Later the same year, Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch correctly interpret these results as the splitting of the uranium nucleus after absorbing a neutron.

On August 2, 1939, Leo Szilárd and Albert Einstein write a letter advising the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, that Nazi Germany might be conducting research into the possibility of using nuclear fission to create atomic bombs, suggesting that the United States start researching the possibility itself. Two months later, Roosevelt founds the S-1 Uranium Committee, headed by Lyman Briggs. Shortly after, Enrico Fermi starts his neutron experiment program at the University of Chicago, which leads to the construction of the first nuclear pile, Chicago Pile-1.

By 1941, the Germans are leading the race for the atomic bomb. They have a heavy-water plant, high-grade uranium compounds, a nearly complete cyclotron, capable scientists and engineers, and the world’s biggest chemical engineering industry. However, the German program, directed by Werner Heisenberg, stalls after 1941 for various reasons: perhaps because the scientist involved were getting moral qualms, but certainly because many of them were forced to flee Germany in light of their religious, ethnic or political affiliations.

In 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the scientists Ernest Lawrence, Vannevar Bush, Arthur Compton, and James Conant work to wrest control of the bomb project away from the S-1 Uranium Committee, which they felt was proceeding too slowly. Still, the U.S. Army does not initiate the Manhattan Engineering District until the summer of 1942. The director was General Leslie R. Groves, who appoints Robert Oppenheimer as scientific director. Oppenheimer has earlier conducted scientific research into various fields, including astrophysics, nuclear physics, and quantum mechanics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is known as a sympathizer of communist and radical political ideas. Nonetheless, Groves is willing to take a risk on Oppenheimer and the U.S. Army, in fact, manages to maintain a very high level of security, confidentiality and silence about the whole program.

Development and research of the atomic bomb takes place from 1942-1945. It is primarily an engineering task of gigantic proportions, since the theoretical part, nuclear science, was already more or less in place before the war. Thanks to the theoretical work of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, John Wheeler, and others, the scientists know that nuclear fission is possible, the reaction being a massive explosion of energy. The Manhattan Engineering District encompasses over 30 different research and production locations, with the three main facilities in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Tennessee site is chosen for the vast quantities of cheap hydroelectric power already available there, which is required for producing uranium-235 in giant ion separation magnets. The Hanford Engineering Works in Washington likewise has water resources, from the Columbia River, to cool down the three reactors that are built at the site and for the three plutonium-processing canyons used to separate the necessary plutonium for the atomic bomb. Chosen for its remoteness, the Los Alamos National Laboratory is where the atomic bombs are assembled. Los Alamos also functions as a manufacturing site for casings and explosive lenses and for fabricating fissile materials into bomb cores. These three main sites of production and development are all far away from the coastlines and therefore almost impossible to reach by the Japanese or the Germans.

On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt has a terrible headache and dies while sitting for a portrait painting by the artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff. The same day, Harry S. Truman is sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States. The change of presidency probably has significant impact on how World War II was ended.

In 1945, after two years of research and development, plutonium gun-type bombs, it turns out, are unable to reach the critical mass required for a chain reaction: the plutonium guns simply fizzle. It was clear that the way to go was toward a bomb involving implosion, which could generate the critical mass necessary to trigger a chain reaction. Most of the research and engineering efforts are then directed toward an implosion type of plutonium bomb. This leads to “The Gadget,” an implosion-type nuclear explosive device using plutonium. A subcritical sphere of plutonium is placed in the center of a hollow sphere of highly explosive material. Numerous detonators located on the surface of the explosives are fired simultaneously to produce powerful inward pressure on the core, compressing it and increasing its density, resulting in a supercritical condition and a nuclear explosion. On May 7, a pre-test explosion of 108 tons of TNT is carried out to calibrate the instrumentation.

On July 16, 1945, at 33.6773° N 106.4757° W, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the first test of a nuclear weapon is conducted. The Gadget is detonated as it hangs suspended from a 100-foot steel tower. The explosion happens at 05:29:45 a.m. The device explodes with energy equivalent to around 19 kiloton. Oppenheimer names it the “Trinity” test.

The Manhattan Engineering District, popular known as the Manhattan Project, was the most far-reaching and expensive research and development project during World War II and still stands as one of the largest projects ever carried out by humankind. At its peak, the project involved 130,000 employees, though only a tiny fraction of them knew what they were working on. The project managed to stay secret throughout the war, until August 6, 1945. The consequences of the Manhattan Engineering District have been countless, in terms of both military and civil technology and in its political aftereffects that are felt this day.

The Gadget 1945, 2007
Steel and plastics
230 x 170 x 160 cm
Photo: Marc Domage

Note: Replica of the first nuclear weapon device from the Trinity Test.
Kistiakowsky’s Dark Implosion, 2007
wood, rubber, metal
160 x 290 x 290 cm

Note: Replica of one of the first implosion experiments made by Ukranian scientist George Bogdan Kistiakowsky in 1943. Implosion was used in order to make the mass critical, resulting in a nuclear explosion.
Fermi Equation, 2007
dessin de craie sur tableau noir/chalk drawing on blackboard
350 x 180 cm
Photo: Marc Domage

Note: Drawings about fission bomb assembly methods from the publication Los Alamos Primer and an equation drawn by Enrico Fermi (Physicists have debated this image for many years. Some think the equation is a mistake. Others, remembering his famous sense of humour, point to the twinkle in his eyes and believe he was just having a bit of fun).
Chevrolet, 2007
450 x 165 x 140 cm
Photo: Marc Domage
Recharging Trinitite, 2007 (detail)
Vitrine, computer, Geiger counter, uraninite, trinitite
125 x 150 x 45 cm
Photo: Marc Domage

Note: Trinitite is the name given to the soil that was fused into a glass-like consistency by the heat from the Trinity Test, the world’s first nuclear explosion that took place July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo New Mexico. This set-up reexpose original trinitite from the Trinity Test to radiation by the use of radioactive uranitite. The levels of radioactivity is measured by a Geiger counter connected to an IBM computer.
MAUD/S-1 Uranium Committee/MED, 2007
Slide projector with 80 slides

Note: Found images from the history of the Manhattan Project.

Recharging Trinitite, 2007
Vitrine, computer, Geiger counter, uraninite, trinitite
125 x 150 x 45 cm
Photo: Marc Domage