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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

When the U.S. built the atomic bomb back in World War II, the project was so secret the scientists sometimes talked in code. Given that secrecy, it may surprise you to learn that they were also furiously filing applications for patents, and describing the parts in exquisite detail.

Though only footnotes in most historical accounts, those patents have recently consumed the life of one young historian at Harvard. And he told NPR's David Kestenbaum about the massive and largely forgotten effort to patent the technology behind the bomb.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: Alex Wallerstein is 26 years old and he hopes about two years away from his PhD. This patent thing has been a bit of a detour. He says his journey began when he was reading a newspaper clipping from the 1960s. In it a scientist mentioned something Wellerstein found strange: a patent for the atomic bomb.

Mr. ALEX WELLERSTEIN (Student): I didn't know what that meant. I didn't know if it was just rhetorical, or if it really meant there was a patent on the atomic bomb.

KESTENBAUM: He chuckled. Why patents? Was the unfortunately planning to sue the Germans for patent infringement if they built the bomb first?

The news article quoted a Manhattan Project physicist named Philip Morrison as saying he was an author on the patent. And Morrison was still alive.

Mr. WELLERSTEIN: I was able to get in contact with him just a few weeks before he passed away actually. And he told me yes there was a patent, and he had to sign over his rights to it. And he was supposed to be paid a dollar, and they never paid him.

KESTENBAUM: That patent is still secret, but others on various components have dribbled out over the years as the topics have become declassified. There's one for a "Neutronic Reactor" and a "Low Impedance Switch." They have a kind of beauty to them, if you can set aside what they were actually used for. Elegant diagrams with simple lines and numbered parts, almost like those instructions you get for putting together Ikea furniture.

Wallerstein couldn't find anything in the historical literature about why the government filed for these patents given the apparent security risk. So he went through microfilm archives of bureaucratic correspondence, hundreds of pages that he guesses historians figured were too boring to bother with. And he found an unpublished autobiography by one of the scientists who worked as a liaison to the patent office

In general, Wellerstein says, the idea behind the patents was to give the government blanket protection against contractors who might try to profit from federally funded research, as insurance against scientists who might want to control how their work was used.

Mr. WELLERSTEIN: You really see that this is not just an attempt to patent one invention. It's an attempt to get a patent monopoly on a brand new industry. 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.

KESTENBAUM: But 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 not inside a fence at Los Alamos, but in a vault at the patent office. In hindsight, Wellerstein says, it all seems a little odd.

Mr. WELLERSTEIN: The patent system in general kind of goes against all of the rules of Manhattan Project security. Instead of having all the information compartmentalized and in different places and people not knowing the whole story and being used with code names for materials - instead you need everything centralized and everything written in a language that hypothetically any engineer can understand.

KESTENBAUM: This actually came up in a congressional hearing after the war. According to the transcript, one U.S. senator said, quote, "I didn't dream, frankly, up until this point that there was a patent application down there showing how the bomb was put together. Did you?" No, said another senator, personally I regret it.

Wellerstein said there was even a moment in the middle of the war when some people feared the patent project might backfire. They worried spies might be able to figure out the U.S. was working on the bomb by trying to submit their own patent applications, because if you submitted your own patent on something the government was working on, you'd get a note back in the mail saying your patent had been made secret, a clue that you'd gotten too close to something sensitive.

Mr. WELLERSTEIN: Usually these orders, and I've seen a few of them, all they do is say your patent has been made secret. Here's what the law says on that. Don't tell anybody about this. Don't call us, we'll call you.

KESTENBAUM: Apparently no spies tried that, though. And the patents piled up. Wellerstein said that by 1947 the atomic bomb project had written up over 2,000 separate inventions. Wellerstein is now posting his favorites on a Web site.

Mr. WELLERSTEIN: What I really like about the atomic patents is that there's a wonderful banality to it. I mean, you really see it through the eyes of a patent lawyer. And you see the bomb, which is this, you know, incredible, sort of massive killing machine, turned into the most boring of engineering feats.

KESTENBAUM: Wellerstein says, in the end, as far as he can tell, these patents had basically no effect on the course of history.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see the detailed drawing for a method of separating uranium and several more patents from the Manhattan Project at npr.org.

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