Walter Brattain was sitting in his Village apartment on a quiet Sunday afternoon, listening to the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Toscanini, when the broadcast was interrupted by an announcement that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. After the shock came Brattain’s realization that some projects he had been working on at Bell Labs had suddenly become an urgent matter. Even before the United States entered World War II he had been part of a team working long hours on the cavity magnetron, a revolutionary development in radar detection invented by British scientists that Winston Churchill had offered to the United States in exchange for mass-producing it for the war effort.

In the fall of 1940, the magnetron was demonstrated at Bell Labs to jaw-dropping effect. I. I. Rabi, one of the observers, immediately abandoned his fission project to work on radar at MIT. Brattain had been assigned to a super-secret team innocuously called the “tube group” that worked in a converted biscuit factory on West Street, across from the lab. Within a record-breaking two months, they had perfected the magnetron and adapted it for mass production. This humble factory, long gone, was the site of what has been called the most important scientific project of the war. As Rabi put it, “The atomic bomb ended the war. Radar won it.”

“The Largest Collection of Crackpots Ever Seen”

In 1933, Germany had three times the Nobel Prize laureates in nuclear physics, many of them Jewish, than were in the United States. By 1942, most of them were here, working on the Manhattan Project, a code name to disguise a massive program for building an atomic bomb that involved the entire country. In charge of the operation was General Leslie Groves. Even though he had little regard for scientists (“We have gathered the largest collection of crackpots ever seen,” he told his staff.) he had seen what the magnetron could do and gave them all the leeway they needed to keep inventing.

Bell Labs West Street is not listed as an official Manhattan Project site, but during the war nearly all its work was on military electronics, much of it still classified. The entire lab was restructured in ways that will never appear on an organizational chart, and the radar lab was expanded to the Graybar Building on Varick Street, which also provided housing for the hundreds of scientists and technicians that now crowded the halls of West Street.

In magnetics and acoustic science, Bell Labs had always been ahead of the game, but the war work was a collaborative effort that involved the best minds of the entire country. According to Bell alumnus John Pierce, “The approach was contrary to the philosophy of military development, in which you do all the things that you already know how to do first because it’s a way of spending money. We worked on what we needed and didn’t have. We moved fast. We just had to and so we did.”

Brattain had a new assignment, applying his discovery of the amazing properties of silicon to invent a compact version of the magnetron called the magnetic airborne detector. “Our men went along during test flights because absolutely nobody else knew how to run the system.” Harvey Fletcher headed a team of engineers that developed an airborne sonar system that located deep-water submarines and blew them up with acoustically guided torpedoes. Claude Shannon worked on high-speed electronic equipment that deciphered the Enigma Code, which the Germans thought was invincible. The M9 anti-aircraft system that brought down 9 out of 10 horrific V-1 buzz bombs launched into England from the coast of France; mobile radio systems for troop coordination; a hand-held rocket launcher called the bazooka that could bring down a tank – the list of Bell Lab’s wartime inventions saved lives and did much to win the war.

“The Biggest Thing I Ever Did Was Never Known”

A small number of Bell scientists also worked in close collaboration with Columbia University on uranium enrichment, the last hurdle before production of an atomic bomb could begin. A physicist with training in metallurgy finally succeeded in developing a material for the separation of isotopes of uranium by gaseous diffusion of uranium hexafluoride. He said, “I am the one responsible for the breakthrough, and it is the basis of nuclear energy today. I don’t suppose any of my friends at Bell even realized I did this work. The biggest thing I ever did was never known.” Now that the diffusion problem had been resolved, as one scientist put it, “There’s only one way to build a bomb.” In short order all the people working on that project left for parts unknown.

Claude Shannon later remarked that while he was working on secrecy systems during the war, “all that time I was thinking about information theory. It’s a close connection, one trying to conceal, the other to transmit. Who knows, if the war hadn’t come, it might never have happened.” Several years later, when Shockley and Brattain invented the transistor, theory met application and from that came the computer age. From the convergence of many brilliant minds during the war came the means to blow up the world, and when the war was over, the means to shrink the world to desktop size. Science: the best and worst of human endeavor.

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