Inventor of the Week Archive
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Julius Robert Oppenheimer is likely the first name that comes to mind when
one mentions the atomic bomb. He is credited with the creation of the devastating
device in the early 1940s, a version of which was used in two instances during
World War II. In the summer of 1945 bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities
and Japan surrendered shortly thereafter.
Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. He grew up in New
York and attended the Ethical Culture School there. Early on, he became especially
interested in languages and would learn one quickly just so he could read a
text in its original form. He was also very interested in math and science,
and considered a serious student and a rather intense person by his peers.
After he graduated from Harvard University in 1925, Oppenheimer studied at Cambridge University in England and pursued a PhD in Germany. He returned to the U.S. in 1929 and began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology.
Oppenheimer became deeply concerned by the rise of fascism in the 1930s and
took a strong stand against it. In 1939, when it became known to the U.S. that
Germans had split the atom, the implication was that the Nazis could develop
extremely powerful weapons. This realization prompted President Roosevelt to
establish the Manhattan Project in 1941.
In June 1942, Robert Oppenheimer was appointed its director.
Oppenheimer set up a new research station to develop atomic and other types of weapons at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Meanwhile, research was also being done at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Oppenheimer invited the most established physicists to Los Alamos to work on creating and atomic bomb. Eventually he was managing a team of more than three thousand people.
On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer witnessed the first explosion of an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, and, some say, changed the world forever. Within a month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities. Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.
After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S.
Atomic Energy Commission. He opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen
bomb. When President Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue,
but partly due his initial reluctance the political climate turned against him.
On December 21, 1953, Oppenheimer was accused of treason for delaying the naming
of Soviet agents, and also for opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. Although
he was cleared of the charges, his security access was taken away and his contract
as adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission was terminated.
Oppenheimer later held the academic post of director of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Award of the Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer retired from Princeton in 1966. He died of throat cancer in 1967.