Edward Teller and the Development of the H-Bomb

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Podcast Transcript

During the Second World War, the United States established the highly secret Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb based on nuclear fission.

While the Manhattan Project was ultimately successful, some in the program were thinking bigger.  They felt that the explosion from an uncontrolled fission reaction could be used to create an even larger explosion using nuclear fusion. 

One man, in particular, felt that such a device was necessary and spearheaded the efforts after the war to develop a fusion-based hydrogen bomb.

Learn more about Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

To understand Edward Teller, you need to understand where he came from and the circumstances he grew up under, as they influenced his worldview for the rest of his life.

Edward Teller was born in 1908 in Budapest in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

He was born to a Jewish family with a mother who was a pianist and a father who was an attorney.

He grew up in a very particular time and place. He was part of a generation of highly talented Hungarian academics who had profoundly impacted the world of science. This group of Hungarian Jewish intellectuals became known as the Martians because of their enormous impact on physics and mathematics in the first half of the 20th century. 

The term came from the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who, when asked where all the aliens were, responded, “They are already here among us – they just call themselves Hungarians.”

Teller’s formative years in Hungary were lived under communism during the brief rule of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 and then under Hungarian military leader Miklós Horthy, who was closely allied to Adolf Hitler. 

In 1926, Teller left to study in Germany because of quotas placed on Jewish students in Hungarian Universities. 

He attended the University of Karlsruhe, where he got a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. However, a visiting professor named Herman Mark got him interested in physics and the burgeoning world of quantum physics. 

He transferred to the University of Munich to study physics, where he suffered an injury jumping off a streetcar that left him with a limp for the rest of his life. He continued on to the University of Leipzig, where he received his PhD in physics, studying under his adviser Werner Heisenberg. 

He continued to work in Germany, but with the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933, Germany was no longer a safe place for Jewish academics. He moved to England, and then to Copenhagen to work with Neils Bohr, and finally was offered a position at George Washington University in Washington DC in 1935.

While in the US, Teller made several profound advancements. He was the co-discoverer of the Jahn–Teller effect, which is a phenomenon in chemistry where certain molecules distort their shape to lower their energy and become more stable when they have specific arrangements of electrons.

He was also instrumental in developing the Brunauer–Emmett–Teller theory, which explains the physical absorption of gas molecules on a solid surface.

In March 1941, almost nine months before the United States entered the Second World War, Teller became a naturalized American Citizen.

In 1942, Edward Teller was involved in many low-level meetings that were precursors of the Manhattan Project. 

He met with Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize winner who created the first controlled nuclear reaction. During their discussion of the possibility of creating an atomic bomb, Fermi made an offhand comment that it might be possible to create an even larger bomb by using a fission reaction to produce an even bigger fusion reaction.

Teller was initially skeptical but became fascinated with the idea.

It was a conversation that would have profound implications for Edward Teller and the world. 

Teller was later invited to a seminar in Berkeley organized by Robert Oppenheimer, which was a prelude to the Manhattan Project. During the seminar, Teller kept trying to change the discussion from the creation of a fission bomb to that of a fusion bomb, which was dubbed the “super.”

Teller was invited to join the Manhattan Project and moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943 and was assigned to the Theoretical Division. He was passed over by Oppenheimer to run the division, which was a snub that he would never forget. 

He was given various assignments to see how different bomb proposals would work, none of which panned out. Despite his work on options for a fission bomb, he continued to advocate for a fusion bomb. 

He was eventually transferred to a group to work on a fusion bomb, which came to nothing during the war. 

An interesting side note: when the Trinity Test, the first atomic bomb explosion, was conducted on July 16, 1945, Edward Teller was one of the only physicists actually to watch the explosion with protective eyewear. Everyone else lay down with their backs turned as instructed.

He later said the detonation “was as if I had pulled open the curtain in a dark room and broad daylight streamed in.”

After the war, Teller continued his interest in developing a fusion bomb. However, he soon realized that his initial idea for designing such a device wouldn’t work, but he still advocated research on such a device. 

After the war, the Soviet Union began installing puppet governments in Eastern European countries, including Hungary, where he still had family members living. 

What changed the fortunes of the fusion bomb was the 1949 test detonation of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union. 

President Truman needed to respond and announce the development of a program to create a hydrogen bomb.

Here, I should briefly describe the difference between an atomic bomb using nuclear fission and a hydrogen bomb using nuclear fusion. 

The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atomic bombs that used an uncontrolled nuclear fission reaction. Refined uranium or plutonium undergoes an uncontrolled reaction where an atom splits, causing neutrons to be released, which split other atoms, which release neutrons, and so on.

A fusion bomb is based on fusing together lighter elements, particularly hydrogen. This is the same process that occurs in the sun. However, to achieve fusion, you need very high temperatures and pressure. One of the only things that can produce such temperatures is an atomic bomb. 

The principal behind a hydrogen bomb is to use a fission explosion to create the conditions for hydrogen nuclei to fuse together. This is also known as a thermonuclear explosion: thermo, meaning heat, and nuclear, from the atomic nucleus.

Many leading physicists who had worked on the atomic bomb didn’t want to work on the hydrogen bomb because they didn’t think it was feasible.

Teller’s own early ideas on a fusion bomb were shown not to work. Teller had underestimated the amount of tritium necessary, an isotope of hydrogen. Nonetheless, he was still the fusion bomb’s biggest advocate. 

The big breakthrough in the development of the hydrogen bomb came in March 1951. Teller and the Polish-American mathematician Stanislaw Ulam came up with a revolutionary design. It was a two-stage design using a separate fission explosion and then using the X-rays created in an atomic fission blast to compress the hydrogen.

To this day, there is controversy surrounding the Teller–Ulam design. Both Teller and Ulam, for years, took the majority of the credit, and other physicists have supported one or the other. 

Regardless of who the primary contributor was, both Teller and Ulam acknowledged the work of the other. The Teller–Ulam design became the design for hydrogen bombs, and it is believed that it has been the primary design for everyone ever made. 

There are elements of the 1951 design which are still classified today.

When the time came to turn the theory into reality, Teller was passed over to lead the project because of the controversy surrounding the credit for the Teller–Ulam design and because of his generally prickly personality.

Once the theoretical problem had been solved, it was simply a matter of engineering.

Teller felt that the bomb could be ready by July 1952, but Marshall Holloway, the program director selected over Teller, felt it couldn’t be done until November. 

Teller eventually left Los Alamos and became one of the co-founders of Livermore Labs, which is today operated by the Department of Energy and is the primary research center for nuclear weapons research.

The end result was the Ivy Mike test, which took place on November 1, 1952, on the Enewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands. 

It was the world’s first thermonuclear explosion and, at that point, the largest man made explosion in history. 

The hydrogen bomb was indeed significantly more powerful than the atomic bombs which preceded it. The detonation was the equivalent of 10.4 million tons of TNT, or 700 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. 

Unlike the Trinity Test, which was kept secret for months, the Ivy Mike test quickly made headlines. The media began referring to Edward Teller with a title that stuck throughout his life: the father of the hydrogen bomb. 

This gave Teller a much higher public profile than he had before. 

In addition to the controversy surrounding the credit for the development of the H-Bomb, Teller stepped into even more controversy in 1954. 

Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, was subject to a security clearance hearing by the United States Atomic Energy Commission.

Oppenheimer had voiced opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb, and he had associated with known communists in the past. This was now a much bigger deal in the middle of the Cold War and McCarthyism than it was during the middle of World War Two.

Teller was the only scientist to testify in favor of revoking Oppenheimer’s security status. If you look at his actual testimony, it actually wasn’t that damning, and if he hadn’t testified at all, Oppenheimer still probably would probably still have had his security clearance revoked.

Many people think that Teller’s testimony had to do with being passed over for the head of the theoretical team during the Manhattan Project. 

Nonetheless, it made Edward Teller a pariah amongst many in the physics community. Many of his friends refused to speak to him or even shake his hand at conferences. 

However, his status amongst the military and in the government only grew. 

In 1958, he became the director at Livermore Labs, which put him front and center in influencing American defense policy. Even after stepping down as director of the lab in 1960, he remained highly influential for decades. 

That year, he was a signatory to a petition to increase US defense spending by $3 billion dollars….at a time when three billion was a lot of money. 

His opposition to all things communist resulted in opposition to any sort of compromise with the Soviets on anything related to nuclear weapons. He opposed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the Anti-ballistic Missle Treaty.

In the 1980s, he came out as one of the staunchest defenders of the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as Star Wars.

He also was an advocate for the non-military use of nuclear weapons, including detonating them to create artificial harbors in Alaska, using them to try and weaken hurricanes, extracting oil sands in Alberta, and even detonating them on the moon to analyze the dust that is kicked up.

He even proposed the development of a one-gigaton nuclear weapon, far larger than any ever built, to deflect an asteroid.

You also probably wouldn’t be shocked to find that he was a supporter of Project Orion, which wanted to launch spaceships using nuclear weapons.

He was also one of the very first people to have raised the issue of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels. He first brought it up in 1957 and actually mentioned it at an address of the American Petroleum Institute in 1959. 

Edward Teller’s cavalier advocacy for nuclear weapons throughout his life, for almost every possible use, ran counter to almost everyone else in the world of physics. 

Edward Teller died in 2003 at the age of 95. 

Before his death, he was interviewed by Esquire Magazine. In it, he was asked if he had any regrets about developing the most devastating weapon the world had ever known.

He responded by saying, “That I spent my life working on weapons, I have not the least regret. I succeeded. I believe that by building the H-bomb, I contributed to winning the Cold War without bloodshed. I am not overly modest.”