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The atom bomb: 1941-1945

In the months before World War II the latest rumour spreading among physicists is that colleagues in Germany are experimenting to achieve nuclear fission. All are well aware that if such a chain reaction proves possible, it could be used to generate a massive explosion.

On 2 August 1939 Einstein writes to President Roosevelt warning him of the danger if Nazi Germany achieves such a weapon ahead of the free world. Roosevelt is slow to act on this advice, but on 6 December 1941 (oddly enough the day before Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war) he decides that every effort must be made to achieve an atomic bomb. The research, taking place at several locations, becomes known as the Manhattan Project.

The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction is achieved almost exactly a year later, on 2 December 1942, at the university of Chicago. Another two and a half years (and $2 billion) are required before this can be harnessed, at Los Alamos in New Mexico, in the form of a reliable explosive device. The bomb is tested on 16 July 1945, in the New Mexican desert at Alamogordo.

The billowing mushroom effect, one of the abiding images of the 20th century, is seen for the first time as the explosion releases power equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. A window breaks 150 miles away. A few days later, 8000 miles away, President Truman tells Stalin in Potsdam that the USA now has 'an entirely novel form of bomb' which will speedily bring to an end Japanese resistance.

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