The U.S. atomic bomb was such a secret, scientists and engineers sometimes talked in code. It was the Manhattan Project, not “The Atomic Bomb Project.” Plutonium was referred to as “copper,” and the bomb itself as “the gadget.”
But at the same time, scientists and engineers were furiously filing secret patent applications that described many of the parts in exquisite detail. Those patents sat not behind the fences at Los Alamos, but in a vault at the U.S. Patent Office.
The atomic bomb patents show up only as footnotes in most historical accounts, but they’ve recently consumed the life of Alex Wellerstein, a 26-year-old history of science graduate student at Harvard University, who wanted to know more about this largely forgotten part of the Manhattan Project.
A Patent on the Atomic Bomb?
A while back, Wellerstein was reading through an old news clipping from the 1960s which quoted a Manhattan Project scientist referring to a patent on the atomic bomb.
“I didn’t know what that meant,” Wellerstein says. “I didn’t know if it was rhetorical, or if there really was a patent on the atomic bomb.”
Wellerstein thought it was odd. Was the United States planning to sue the Germans if they built the bomb first?
The scientist quoted in the article, Philip Morrison, was still alive. So Wellerstein called him up. “He told me yes there was a patent, and he had to sign over his rights to it,” Wellerstein says. “He was supposed to be paid a dollar, and they never paid him.” Morrison died a few weeks after that call.
The patent for the bomb is still secret. But hundreds of other patents on various components have dribbled out over the years as the topics have become declassified.
There are patents for a “Neutronic Reactor” and a “Low Impedance Switch.” The documents have a kind of beauty to them, if you can set aside what they were actually used for. They are elegant diagrams with simple lines and numbered parts, almost like those instructions you get for putting together Ikea furniture.
Wellerstein dug through hundreds of pages of bureaucratic correspondence that he figures most historians found too boring to bother with. And he found an unpublished autobiography from one of the scientists who worked as a liaison to the patent office.
A Brand New Industry
Wellerstein says the idea behind the patent program was to give the government some legal protection. There were worries that if scientists working on the project owned the patents, they might use them to try to control how their inventions were used. (The Manhattan Project had a famous fight with the physicist Leo Szilard, who wanted financial compensation for a patent he had filed on nuclear chain reactions before the United States began working on the bomb.)
There was also concern that some private inventor or scientist abroad might patent something first, potentially causing trouble down the road.
“It’s an attempt to get a patent monopoly on an entire brand new industry,” Wellerstein says. “So that when the U.S. government exited World War II, they owned patents on practically everything related to atomic energy research at that point.”
Patenting atomic bomb technology presented obvious security problems. So the project made use of an obscure law whereby patent applications could be filed but no one would actually look at them or evaluate them. They would just be stamped secret and stored in a vault at the patent office.
Wellerstein says after the war this was seen by some as a major security risk.
“The patent system in general goes against all of the rules of Manhattan Project security,” he says, because instead of having all the information compartmentalized and disguised with code names, the patents laid everything out in language any engineer could understand.
Even during the war, some people feared the patent project might backfire. They worried that spies might be able to figure out that the United States was developing a bomb by trying to submit their own patent applications. Outsiders who filed patent applications on related topics got a note back saying their patent had been stamped secret, a clue that the government deemed the topic sensitive.
Apparently no spies tried that, though. And the patents piled up.
“It’s really quite impressive,” Wellerstein says. By 1947, more than 8,500 technical reports and 6,300 technical notebooks had been reviewed by patent officers, resulting in about 2,100 patent applications approved for filing.
Wellerstein is now posting his favorites on a Web site.
“What I really like about the atomic patents is that there is a wonderful banality to it. You really see it through the eyes of a patent lawyer,” he says. The bomb, a massive killing machine, is transformed into “the most boring of engineering feats,” as he calls it.
In the end, as far as he can tell, these patents had basically no effect on the course of history. Wellerstein thinks they will merit just a page or two in his thesis.