Aarhus University Seal

Master's Thesis Exam: Niels Jessen-Hansen

Manhattanprojektet: En analyse af udviklingen af et komplekst, stort teknologisk system

Info about event


Friday 24 August 2018,  at 10:15 - 11:30


Aud D4 (1531-219)

This thesis gives an analysis of crucial scientific and technological developments that combined with political and organizational aspects influenced the development of nuclear weapons technology seen as a large technological system. The analytical approach is based on the theoretical framework of the evolution of large technological systems (LTS) by Thomas P. Hughes (1987). The LTS framework is particularly useful in analyzing the interaction between different aspects and actors during the research and development of nuclear weapons and in highlighting particular characteristics of the large technological system by utilizing specific focus points such as, momentum, phases, system builders and reverse salients.

A largely chronological structure has been chosen to show how pivotal discoveries, and insights, in the field of nuclear physics laid the foundation for the Manhattan project. The first phase of the evolution of the system was characterized by a series of scientific breakthroughs in the period 1896 to 1938. The radioactivity of uranium was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel who, starting from a wrong idea, progressively realized what he was observing. The study of the penetrating power and of the effect of electric and magnetic fields allowed scientists to demonstrate nuclear radiation with its three components alpha, beta and gamma. Bothe and Becker performed an experiment in 1930, which was further investigated by Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie which in turn led James Chadwick to the discovery of the neutron in 1932. Immediately, the neutron, became an essential experimental tool in nuclear physics, and completely changed the whole research landscape. Enrico Fermi and his group applied neutron-bombardment techniques to induce artificial radioactivity. A crucial discovery of Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, Lise Meitner, Niels Bohr and Otto Frisch, was nuclear fission. Szilard contributed with a patented idea of a chain reaction mechanism which enabled the possibility to liberate energy from atomic matter. Nuclear physics became a military science, at the very moment when the Second World War was beginning.

The Manhattan project was an industrial development and production undertaking of unprecedented size and momentum and various aspects of governmental and military support contributed differently to the overall momentum of the system during the evolution of the system. The success of the project was dependent on scientific laboratories and scientist for essential technical data and theoretical understanding of various processes.

Four individual system builders have been identified during the phases of LTS: Szilard, Bush, Groves and Oppenheimer. Szilard was, although not independent in fulfilling the role as inventor entrepreneur like the ones T.P. Hughes previous has examined, essential in the first and second phase of the evolution of the system in gathering financial and political support. Bush, Groves and Oppenheimer took on system builder roles as manager-entrepreneurs and solved crucial organizational problems which hindered the growth and development of the system. Most of the advances on the research and the development in the evolution of the large technological system were made as a result of the collective workforce of scientists, but would not have been possible without effective management and organization.