New Zealand scientists and the atomic bomb

How proud New Zealand must be that the foundations of the amazing discovery
concerning latent atomic energy were laid by her own great scientist Rutherford.
– Viscount Bledisloe in telegram to New Zealand, 9 August 1945[1]

After atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Viscount Bledisloe, New Zealand’s former Governor-General, congratulated the country on her role in the victory: Rutherford’s work on the atomic nucleus was acknowledged as laying the scientific foundations for the development of what was then known as the ‘atomic bomb’.

Rutherford was not the only New Zealand scientist involved in the victory. After the bomb was dropped, the Government revealed the formerly secret role of a group of New Zealand scientists who had worked on the bomb programme, and told New Zealanders they should be ‘proud to know that some of her scientists of this generation were at the forefront of this latest development’.[2]

Ernest Marsden, [ca 1940s-1950s]. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ: 1/4-018564-F, sourced from

Ernest Marsden, [ca 1940s-1950s]. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, NZ: 1/4-018564-F, sourced from

The fact that some New Zealand scientists had been involved at all was due, in good part, to New Zealand’s Rutherford connection, and the efforts of Ernest Rutherford’s former student Ernest Marsden, now head of New Zealand’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). Many of the Commonwealth scientists working on the British nuclear research programme were, like Marsden, past students or colleagues of Rutherford, and Marsden was able to trade successfully on his reputation of being involved in the birth of nuclear physics, which, as Harrie Massey later said, had earned Marsden ‘a place among the immortals’.[3] In December 1943, when Marsden was in Washington DC, he had chanced upon James Chadwick, scientific director of the British nuclear research project, with Australian physicist Mark Oliphant and Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who had been smuggled out of Denmark and was travelling under an assumed name. Following the signing of the Québec Agreement, Chadwick and Oliphant were in Washington with the top-secret task of arranging details of scientific co-operation between the United Kingdom’s and United States’ nuclear research programmes. Oliphant later recalled that they were in their hotel lobby waiting for the elevator when they felt taps on their shoulders and turned to find Marsden in full military uniform. They were taken aback to hear Marsden say, ‘I can guess why two nuclear physicists are here!’[4] During the elevator journey Marsden put in a good word for New Zealand’s participation in the bomb project. He followed this up in London with Sir John Anderson, Chancellor of the Exchequer and the British minister in charge of atomic energy matters.

Robin Williams, a young physicist with the DSIR’s Radio Development Laboratory, recalled reporting to Wellington in July 1944 to find Marsden ‘cock-a-hoop about the fact that he had managed to get a number of New Zealanders in on the atom bomb project’.[5] Their terms of employment seconded them to the United Kingdom DSIR for one year, or for the duration of the war, whichever was longer. Marsden was very keen for New Zealand to launch an atomic research programme when the war finished, and following the secondment the men were required to return to New Zealand for at least one year.

New Zealand scientists on the Manhattan Project
Robin Williams and George Page joined a team of British scientists working on the electromagnetic separation of uranium at the University of California at Berkeley in July 1944. There were two other New Zealand-born scientists on the team who had arrived from the United Kingdom with the British group, one being Maurice Wilkins. (A larger group of New Zealand scientists had travelled to Canada to work with John Cockcroft on the nuclear energy project.)

The electromagnetic separation process involved first accelerating ionised uranium using an electric field, then passing the beam of accelerated ions through a magnetic field which deflected the uranium-235 ions slightly more than it deflected the uranium-238 ions (because of their lower mass), and allowed for separate collection of the two isotopes. The challenge was to design and build the most efficient plant possible, and theoretical and experimental physicists were needed to help solve problems arising from the design challenge and the operation of the plant. Williams mostly worked under Massey with a group of theoretical physicists who contributed to the project by improving the team’s understanding of the fundamental processes involved in uranium separation. Page, along with the engineers on the project, made significant contributions to improving and simplifying the design of the electromagnetic separation plant.

As a scientist-turned-administrator, Marsden was tremendously excited about these new applications of nuclear physics and felt stymied and frustrated in his administrative and managerial role in New Zealand, so far away from the action. He wrote regularly to the American-based scientists, asking, sometimes inappropriately, for details of their research. As he was unable to be involved in the North American research programme, Marsden directed his enthusiasm to plans for a nuclear research team in New Zealand after the war and a search for uranium in the South Island. In an April 1945 letter to one of the New Zealand scientists in Canada, Marsden wrote ‘we shall have a self-contained team on TA [Tube Alloys, the British code name for the nuclear project] in New Zealand in due course’ and ‘we are having quite a lot of fun chasing radioactive minerals (don’t repeat this!). They are fairly widespread in small concentrations and the problem is in care and methods of concentration.’[6] In July 1945 he gained Cabinet approval to place all the men working on the nuclear project in America, together with some remaining in New Zealand, in a special team and on the permanent staff of the DSIR.

New Zealand reaction to the atomic bombs
A year after the New Zealand scientists arrived in the United States, the first weapons were assembled. The first, Trinity, was tested in the Nevada desert in July 1945. Then, on 6 August, an American B-29 bomber exploded a 3-metre-long bomb containing 60 kilograms of uranium-235 above the city of Hiroshima. The press release issued by the White House later that day described the bomb as ‘the greatest achievement of organized science in history’.[7] Three days later, an even more powerful plutonium-based fission bomb was exploded over Nagasaki. Burn injuries and radiation affected many of the initial survivors, and by the end of 1945 an estimated 140,000 people had died from the Hiroshima bomb and 70,000 from the Nagasaki bomb.

Few New Zealanders would have connected the work of New Zealand scientists with the dropping of the first nuclear bombs, but an official New Zealand press release, issued on 13 August 1945, linked the bombs to Rutherford’s early work, provided information about Marsden’s uranium survey, and outlined the role of the New Zealand scientists working in North America, saying how New Zealanders should be proud that her scientists were at the forefront of this latest development.

Japan agreed to surrender the day after Nagasaki was bombed. The general reaction in New Zealand, and in other Allied countries, was one of jubilation and relief. The war that had taken more than 11,000 New Zealand lives and had an impact on every aspect of society was finally over. While it was marvelled at that a single bomb dropped from a great height could cause such devastation, there was initially no awareness of how fundamentally different these bombs were: the conventional bombings of cities like Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden had produced more casualties than in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, and the longer-term effects of radiation from the bombs were not yet known.

Even people who recognised the horrific aspect of the new type of bomb were able to put a positive spin on it: the New Zealand Listener editorial of 17 August described the use of the atomic bomb as having ‘sickened many people and given others a faint gleam of hope’, but took the stance that it was ‘justifiable to hope as well as to shudder’ — there was hope that the atomic bomb could mean the end of war.[8] There were a few letters to the editor about the bomb — mostly expressing the hope that it could mean an end to war forever — but most New Zealanders were focused on relatives still overseas and on the practical necessities of coping with wartime shortages like how to re-waterproof an old raincoat, or how to make a fowl-house from old sacks and a wooden frame. Some people, however, realised the enormity of this new scientific and military development. A few days after the bombings, philosophy lecturer Karl Popper addressed a packed lecture hall at the University of Canterbury with the words ‘when the first atomic bomb exploded, the world as we have come to know it came, I believe, to an end’.[9]

Robin Williams was holidaying in California with his wife when they saw the news headline announcing the Hiroshima bombing, and he realised that it was the result of the project he had been working on. Williams remembers no discussion of moral issues among the British scientists in his team, and soon after he returned to Berkeley the assembled team began to disperse.

Jim McCahon, who had been employed on Marsden’s South Island uranium search, was in the laboratory in Wellington, analysing samples taken in the search, when he heard a radio bulletin announcing the Hiroshima bombing. He later described himself and his colleagues as having been astounded. When the uranium survey was first announced, they had found the German paper detailing the initial discovery of uranium fission in which ‘they had surmised that this could be used as a source of enormous amounts of energy but … not as an explosion. So we were thinking of nuclear power supplies … but not bombs.’[10]

A Labour Government, under Prime Minister Peter Fraser, was in power in New Zealand when Japan was bombed. There was no big discussion about the atomic bomb in Parliament, but various politicians referred to it, amid debate about other issues, in a mostly positive light. Robert Macfarlane, Labour MP for Christchurch South, accused people who wrote letters to the newspaper expressing indignation about the use of the bomb of being ‘Pacifists’ — a derogatory term during wartime — and saying that apart from its use as a destructive weapon, the atomic bomb ‘might have opened a new era of development for the people of the world, and so some good may arise from its invention’.[11] Major Clarence Skinner, a minister in the Labour Government, spoke proudly of the work of the British and American scientists, who didn’t take long ‘to show the Japanese scientists who could do the best’. He continued by saying, ‘A couple of doses of atomic bomb worked the oracle, and now we see these Japanese taking orders from mere mortal men. I join with other members in offering my gratitude for what has happened during the last few weeks — the ending of the war.’[12] Another Labour MP, Edward Cullen, had a less positive view and expressed his opinion that the atomic bomb was ‘a frightful instrument against humanity’.[13]

Scientists were quick to realise the dangers of this new weapon. In September 1945, Williams and Page were among thirteen British Berkeley scientists, including Wilkins, Oliphant and Massey, who, acting on their belief that ‘the advent of this new weapon of destruction ought to be the signal for renewed efforts to achieve lasting world peace’ signed a letter to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee calling for international control of the use of atomic energy and urging co-operation with Russian and other scientists.[14] This desire for international scientific co-operation with regard to nuclear weapons was widespread. ‘Any attempt at secrecy in this epoch-making field of research is fraught with the gravest possible danger to our civilisation,’ Marsden said.[15]

In January 1946, less than six months after the dropping of the first atomic bombs, New Zealand was one of 51 nations represented at the first General Assembly of the United Nations. The first resolution adopted concerned the establishment of an Atomic Energy Commission, comprising the members of the Security Council, plus Canada, to deal with issues related to the peaceful uses of atomic energy and the elimination of atomic and other weapons of mass destruction. In the general debate in the plenary meeting, the New Zealand representative suggested that control of the Commission should not be left exclusively to the Security Council, as had been suggested, but should rather be the responsibility of the entire General Assembly — this way small countries like New Zealand could continue to be able to have a say on such issues — but this was not heeded.

The atomic age begins – with Atomic Red lipstick
In New Zealand, once the excitement of the end of the war was over, there was a growing awareness that a new age, the ‘atomic age’, had begun. In New Zealand, as in the rest of the Western world, the atomic age was seen as a modern and sophisticated new era. In a 1946 issue of the New Zealand Listener, alongside the advertisements for pointy bras, laxatives and cork-tipped cigarettes, were advertisements for Atomic Red lipstick. It seems in appalling bad taste now to link sexuality with weapons that had killed tens of thousands of people, but the Atomic Red lipstick ads promised women they’d be ‘charged with excitement … devastating … all conquering’, saying women who wore the lipstick were chic and daring.

The atomic age was seen as an exciting and sophisticated new era, as evidenced by Monterey’s advertisements for Atomic Red lipstick. New Zealand Listener, 15 Feb. 1946 and 8 Mar. 1946.

The atomic age was seen as an exciting and sophisticated new era, as evidenced by Monterey’s advertisements for Atomic Red lipstick. New Zealand Listener, 15 Feb. 1946 and 8 Mar. 1946.

 This blog post is adapted from my recent book Mad on Radium: New Zealand in the Atomic Age, available here from Auckland University Press.

[1] Viscount Bledisloe to Minister of External Affairs, 9 Aug. 1945, EA1, W2619, 121/1/1, part 1, ANZ.

[2]‘New Zealand Participation in Atomic Bomb Development’, issued to the press on 13 Aug. 1945, EA1, W2619, 121/1/1, part 1, ANZ.

[3]H. H. Massey, in Marsden Editorial Committee, Sir Ernest Marsden 80th Birthday Book, A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1969, p. 47.

[4]M. G. Oliphant, in ibid, p. 102.

[5]Robin Williams, ‘Reflections on My Involvement in the Manhattan Project’, seminar at Victoria University of Wellington, 10 Aug. 2001.

[6]Marsden to George, 5 Apr. 1945, SIR1, W1414, 74/10, ANZ.

[7]Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Touchstone, New York, 1986, p. 735.

[8]Editorial, ‘Horror with Some Hope’, New Zealand Listener, 17 Aug. 1945, p. 5.

[9]Dewes and Green, op cit., p. 9; Strange, op cit.

[10]Personal recollections by Jim McCahon, op cit..

[11]New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 269, 1945, p. 266.

[12]New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 269, 1945, p. 752.

[13]New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 269, 1945, p. 486.

[14]Letter to Attlee, signed by Williams and others, 19 Sep. 1945, Robin Williams’s personal archives.

[15]Marsden to Minister of Scientific and Industrial Research, 12 Sep. 1945, EA1, W2619, 121/1/1, part 1, ANZ.
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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
This entry was posted in History of science, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to New Zealand scientists and the atomic bomb

  1. Hm, how about the Japanese scientists and their atomic program? A slight detail often forgotten, even in Japan…

  2. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #62: Alpha Pappa | A Glonk's HPS Blog

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