There’s a lot about Teresa Waldof’s grandfather, Harley Wilhelm, that she didn’t always know or more fully understand – including his humility and his role in creating the first nuclear weapons.
The United States invented nuclear weapons through the secret Manhattan Project during World War II – first trying to beat Nazi Germany at technology, then after Germany’s defeat and the first successful nuclear test in New Mexico, using the new weapons against Japan in a bid to force the nation’s surrender in war.
Long before he helped lead a key breakthrough in the Manhattan Project that made nuclear weapons possible, Waldof said his grandfather was a farmer’s son born outside of Ellston – the first in his family to graduate from high school — and a basketball star when the game was still New.
She never really knew what he went to work on, but that started to change after a building on the Iowa State University campus was named after her “grandfather” Wilhelm in 1985.
She will finally publish a book on the life of her grandfather and, on Monday, gives a free lecture on the subject on campus. The book is called “Wilhelm’s Way: The Inspirational Story of the Iowa Chemist Who Saved the Manhattan Project” and the talk is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the Sun Room at Memorial Union.
His speech will also be broadcast live and a recording available in a day or two. More information is available at news.iastate.edu/news/2022/02/28/ames-project.
“Shark in math and basketball”
Born in 1900, Waldof said Wilhelm was a phenomenal basketball player at the age of 14, sometimes scoring every point in a game.
A mentor encouraged him to pursue math and science in high school, but he had no plans to go to college.
However, his basketball prowess and strong performance in entrance exams earned him what was then called an “athletic loan” so he could afford to go to Drake University, where he majored. in mathematics but also studied chemistry and physics.
Waldof said a teacher described Wilhelm as a “‘math and basketball shark'”.
However, she said her grandfather was humble. In one example, newspapers at the time credited players other than Wilhelm for some big hits, but he wasn’t the only one to say anything to correct the misattribution as all that mattered was that his teammates knew the truth and that any basket helps to win the game.
After graduating, he became a high school teacher and basketball coach at Mapleton and the Guthrie Center, taking time off between grad school in chemistry at Drake before running out of money.
He then took a job coaching college basketball and football in Montana, but that didn’t go well, so he returned to Iowa for a PhD program in chemistry at Iowa. State, before entering college in 1928.
Outside Wilhelm Hall on campus, there is a plaque commemorating the 1942 discovery led by Frank Spedding and Wilhelm of the process to produce the highly pure uranium needed for the Manhattan Project.
At this point, Waldof said purified uranium could exist in powder form, but no one had found a way to create much larger, more solid amounts.
Spedding, who at the time was in charge of physical chemistry at Iowa State and patron of Wilhelm, had been recruited into the Manhattan Project and had attended secret meetings in Chicago in February 1942. Around this time, the weapons development program needed 12,000 pounds of pure uranium by this December to prove in an experiment that a controlled nuclear chain reaction was possible.
Fission nuclear weapons such as those dropped in August 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, are fueled by the splitting of structurally unstable atoms of certain elements – uranium or plutonium in the case of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki – into smaller pieces. The split releases energy which causes other atoms of the same element surrounding it to split, thus releasing more energy, and so on – a chain reaction induced by the creation of a critical mass of matter nuclear.
Waldof said other members of the Manhattan Project had been tasked with finding ways to create pure uranium in solid form, but there were doubts whether enough material could be gathered in time for the experiment. .
With these doubts, the Ames team led by Wilhelm under Spedding, was tasked with finding a substitute for pure uranium. But Wilhelm decided to try to find a process of purification as well, and he succeeded with what has been dubbed “the process of Ames”.
The Ames team at Iowa State then produced more than 1,000 tons of uranium for the Manhattan Project, according to a university press release.
The controlled chain reaction experiment of December 2, 1942 – led by Enrico Fermi, inside a tent on a squash court under the bleachers of an abandoned football field at the University of Chicago – also succeeded, opening the way to the possibilities of nuclear energy for generating electricity and making bombs.
Under the military direction of US Army Colonel Leslie R. Groves and civilian scientist Robert Oppenheimer, plans for the first bombs were then drawn up.
In Hiroshima, the bomb named “Little Boy” used conventional high explosives to shoot a mass of uranium from one barrel to another to trigger a fission reaction. The detonation consisted of only three pounds of uranium out of the bomb’s 100 pounds and the rest was dispersed by the explosion, releasing the equivalent energy of about 30 million pounds of TNT at a time.
The fireball, explosion and radiation released over the city on August 6, 1945 killed some 70,000 people immediately, according to the account of the US National Archives. Perhaps as many as 130,000 more people died in the months and years to come – from injuries, radiation poisoning, cancer and other long-term effects.
Japan surrendered on August 14 and World War II ended after the United States dropped a second, more powerful atomic bomb of a different design on August 9 on the city of Nagasaki, killing 40,000 people immediately and up to 140,000 in five years.
Living with history
Waldof doesn’t really know what his grandfather thought, not just of the bombings in Japan, but of all the development of nuclear weapons since.
He wrote a few short biographies of his life and childhood, three or four pages each. He also wrote a short descriptive essay of the founding of the Ames Laboratory – where, after the war, he became the first deputy director and retired in 1971 – and the Manhattan Project. Much of his research for the book was in archives.
She thinks the end of the war gave her pride, “but it wasn’t really talked about or bragged about.”
A neighbor’s son across the street died in the Battle of the Bulge against Nazi Germany on Wilhelm’s son’s 17th birthday.
“People who lived in those days knew people who were dying in war, and they wanted the war to end, and the work that Wilhelm did brought about a quick and decisive end to the war,” Waldof said.
She does, however, know something of her grandfather’s outlook. In 1955, Wilhelm presented his purification process before a conference in Switzerland on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, so that the rest of the world could share knowledge for purposes such as nuclear electricity and medicine.
In 1987 he also said – reflecting on the competition the United States thought it had with the Nazis during the war to build an atomic bomb – “Now we find ourselves in a race. Who is going to get it first?” He mentioned Germany, Italy and Japan, all aligned in World War II – and Russia.
“Where would we be today if Russia had had the atomic bomb first? We would probably be worse off than if Germany had had it first,” he said.
Whenever nuclear tensions arise with a nation, Waldof said of his own reflections on his grandfather’s legacy that, “In retrospect, the greatest obstacle to the use of atomic weapons is the fact that ‘they have been used and we know what comes of it’.
Waldof said Wilhelm developed bladder cancer when he was 90 – one of his children also developed it within six months of him – and Wilhelm died aged 95 in 1995.
She doesn’t know how well he and his fellow researchers in the 1940s understood the risks of radiation, but in addition to uranium, they worked with a host of other radioactive and toxic metals, and his family was exposed to uranium dust on his clothes which he brought home.
“It was a very emotional ride,” she said of researching the book about Wilhelm’s life. She had known him for the last 30 years of his life, but she now appreciates his humanity more – the way he openly engaged with people – and humility.
After his death, he had a closet full of awards from his career.
“He didn’t ask for recognition. It came to him,” she said.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be contacted by email at [email protected] He’s on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.