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In 1947, when the Atomic Energy Commission inherited from the Manhattan District the two scientific children of the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory—the facilities at Oak Ridge and Argonne—it decided to designate them "national laboratories." No one really knew what a national laboratory was. In a general way, these institutions were supposed to explore the peaceful uses of nuclear fission. But in choosing to call them "national" rather than "atomic energy" laboratories, the commission displayed extraordinary foresight, or perhaps luck. An atomic energy laboratory, in principal, goes out of business when the problems of atomic energy are solved, are taken over by commercial enterprises, or are regarded (as at present) as unimportant. A national laboratory, by contrast, is more or less ensured immortality by virtue of its name. The designation "national" implies that no problem of national importance—whether in energy, environment, defense, industrial competitiveness, or basic science—is necessarily off-limits.

In the 50 years since Oak Ridge National Laboratory was founded, it has become a full-fledged national socio-technological institute. Its capabilities span the entire range of scientific disciplines, including the social sciences. It addresses an array of problems whose only common attribute is their significance both to the nation and the world.

Who, for example, would have predicted in 1943 that ORNL in 1993 would be one of the world's most powerful environmental laboratories, equipped to address economic, climatological, ecological, and energy aspects of global climate change? Or who would have expected ORNL to emerge as one of the world's most powerful centers for the development of high-temperature materials?

How did this metamorphosis take place? After all, ORNL was conceived by its founding genius, Eugene P. Wigner, as a major center for nuclear reactor development.

In 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission, following the advice of the General Advisory Committee (GAC), decided that a laboratory in the hills of Tennessee could never achieve scientific distinction. It, therefore, designated Argonne as the country's only center for reactor development. The outlook for ORNL's survival was bleak. Robert Oppenheimer and James Conant were doubtful that the laboratory could survive; and I. I. Rabi, another prominent member of the GAC, tried to persuade the scientists of ORNL to move, en masse, to the newly formed Brookhaven National Laboratory. So, ever since it was founded, ORNL's survival has been an overriding concern.

But, in a sense, survival is the overriding concern of all organizations, profit or nonprofit. That the weapons laboratories during these 50 years have not had this worry has not saved them from confronting their survival now that peace has broken out. The question is, therefore, not, "Is survival your mission?"; the question is, "Have you accomplished `great things' that transcend the obvious, and ever-present, issue of survival?"

To record ORNL's transition from wartime pilot plant to national sociotechnical institute and to interpret its many achievements that transcend mere survival is the task accomplished so well by historians Leland Johnson and Daniel Schaffer in Oak Ridge National Laboratory: The First Fifty Years.

 "Gray eagles" such as myself who were present at the creation of the laboratory are falling off, one by one. With each of our deaths another bit of organizational memory disappears. Yet this memory is an important element of organizational morale. By knowing and understanding how ORNL overcame challenges to its very existence, and how it eventually achieved greatness should serve to inspire the new generation of Laboratory employees. For this accomplishment, the new generations, as well as the gray eagles, must be grateful to the authors of this splendid history of ORNL.

Alvin W. Weinberg ORNL Director (1955-1973)


This history of the first 50 years of Oak Ridge National Laboratory was prepared to commemorate the institution's golden anniversary in 1993. The Laboratory's 50th Year Celebration Committee provided direction and resources for the study, and we are grateful to its members for their guidance and encouragement. Don Trauger chaired the committee composed of Ed Aebischer, Bill Alexander, Darryl Armstrong, Stanley Auerbach, Deborah Barnes, Waldo Cohn, Charles Coutant, Joanne Gailar, Carolyn Krause, Charles Kuykendall, Ellison Taylor, Mike Wilkinson, and Alex Zucker—all current or retired Laboratory employees. Anne Calhoun, Kim Pepper, Barbara Baker, and Nancy Holcombe, also Laboratory staff members, coordinated the committee's work.

Our exploration of historical sources was facilitated by Martin Marietta Energy Systems librarians Mary Alexander, Gabrielle Boudreaux, Deborah Cole, Bob Conrad, Nancy Gray, Dianne Griffith, Kendra Jones, Bill Myers, Vicki Punsalan, and Deborah York; by Linda Cabage, Ray Evans, and Lynn Rodems, all of the Energy Systems Office of Public Affairs; by Becky Lawson, Lowell Langford (formerly of ORNL), Linda Crews, Shirlene Rudder, Marie Swenson, Yvonne Leffew, Shirley Adcock, Betty Clack, and Virginia Norman, all of Laboratory Records; by Carolyn Krause, Jim Pearce, and Bill Cabage, all of the Publications Division; and by photographer Frank Hoffman (retired) and his assistant Anna Conover, now of the Analysas Corporation. The authors appreciate their kind assistance.

For making available the resources of the Children's Museum of Oak Ridge, we owe special thanks to Jane Alderfer, Jim Overholt, and Selma Shapiro. Research assistants Susan Schexnayder, Cathy Shires, and Edythe Quinn provided invaluable insights into the voluminous materials, and administrative assistant Becky Robinson helped keep the information in order once it was collected. Marilyn Morgan, a graduate student in the University of Tennessee's English department and a Review intern, helped review the manuscript and wrote several sidebars, and Carolyn Krause, in addition to her work on Trauger's committee, helped write many of the sidebars, and, with Jim Pearce and Mike Aaron, edited the manuscript, and coordinated the work of the electronic publishers and layout artists.

For enlightenment and inspiring ideas, we are indebted to Laura Fermi, Richard Fox, Milton Lietzke, Herbert MacPherson, Herbert Pomerance, Herman Postma, Raymond Stoughton, Chet Thornton, Elaine Trauger, Alvin Trivelpiece, Alvin Weinberg, and a host of Laboratory personnel who took time from their busy schedules for both formal interviews and informal chats that broadened our understanding of the Laboratory's past. For the many fine photographs used here, we especially thank Ed Westcott, Frank Hoffman, and Bill Norris.

Astrophysicists tell us the space-time continuum and the behavior of light prevent us from seeing a true image of the present. Like it or not, these physicists say, only the past provides a clear portrait of our lives and behavior—a conclusion that historians are more than eager to share.

Unlike physicists and other scientists, however, historians and writers live in a world of changing human perceptions and behavior, not in a world of immutable natural laws and fixed physical phenomena. For these reasons, what follows should be considered a history, not the history, of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Except for rare instances (for example, the day that the Graphite Reactor went critical), people will disagree about the relative importance of specific Laboratory accomplishments and the relative contributions of various Laboratory staff members. Problems of assessment and attribution, moreover, are compounded by problems of space, time, and memory. For the writers, space limitations required selecting for discussion only a few of the Laboratory's many significant achievements, projects, and programs. For readers, 50 years of history dims memories and may place at odds what actually happened with what participants now think happened.

Despite these inevitable limitations, we hope this presentation of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's past will be conducive to a better understanding of its present, serving both as a guidepost for the Laboratory's strengths and a road map for its future endeavors. We also hope that readers, through these pages, are able to share some of the joy, excitement, and pride that have accompanied the Laboratory staff's journey of discovery.

Leland Johnson and Daniel Schaffer


One of the world's premier scientific research centers, Oak Ridge National Laboratory represents a marriage between science and industrial technology forged for national defense during the throes of global war. Currently managed by Martin Marietta Energy Systems, Inc., it is the oldest national laboratory on its original site, site of the world's oldest nuclear reactor, and home to the Department of Energy's largest and most diversified multiprogram laboratory.

As a government-sponsored institution managed by a private corporation to advance science and technology in partnership with universities and industrial firms, Oak Ridge, along with other national laboratories, embodied a new approach to scientific and governmental administration. Because solutions to energy and environmental problems have been found as much in engineering and applied technology as in basic science, the Laboratory, since its inception, has offered a vital link between the two and has always carried an avowedly semi-industrial appearance clothed by an academic predisposition.

Celebrating 50 years of service to the United States in 1993, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has changed the history of the nation and the world. As a remarkable and sometimes bewildering complex of sophisticated industrial, scientific, and educational activities in an isolated rural setting, the Laboratory encapsulates the ever changing nature of the U.S. research agenda, reflecting on a small, institutional scale sweeping shifts in national and global concerns during the past 50 years.

In its early years, the Laboratory employed 1500 scientists and support staff housed in primitive wooden frame buildings. There, people worked—often unknowingly—on the construction of a nuclear reactor and the production of plutonium from uranium. Since then, the Laboratory has passed through many transitions. In the postwar years, it survived budget and staff retrenchments by focusing on nuclear science and the development of nuclear energy for peaceful uses, including production of radioisotopes for biological research. In the 1960s, it became the first national laboratory to turn to research tied only tangentially to nuclear energy. During the 1970s, it expanded its research, in accord with shifting national priorities, to encompass all forms of energy and their impacts on the environment. In the 1980s, it became a multiprogram laboratory of the Department of Energy, leading broad research initiatives responsive to national needs. By its 50th anniversary, Oak Ridge National Laboratory had emerged as a leading global research center for issues related to energy, environment, and basic science and technology.

Currently employing about 4500 people, the Laboratory's research agenda ranges from global warming to energy conservation to high-temperature superconductivity to ozone-safe substitutes for chlorofluorocarbons. It is committed to improving national science education and to speeding the transfer of its technological developments to the commercial marketplace.

Since 1943, scientists and technicians at Oak Ridge National Laboratory have confronted issues vital to human life and its environment. Established to create nuclear weapons of unprecedented destructive power, the supreme paradox of its history is its subsequent contributions to improving energy production and use, the environment, health, and the economy. Millions of people have benefited from the results of the Laboratory's isotope production and research and development activities.

Examples of applications of ORNL efforts are isotopes and instruments for medical diagnosis and treatment; ultrapure vaccines that have minimal side effects; regulations to protect human health and safety; bone marrow transplants for radiation accident victims; higher-quality meat resulting from use of the technology to freeze and thaw embryos from superior animals and implant them in foster mothers; nuclear reactors that supply one-fifth of U.S. electricity; a more powerful U.S. Navy; energy-efficient refrigerators, hot-water heater, and other appliances; and stronger alloys and ceramics for use at high temperatures.

During the next 50 years, the Laboratory is likely to expand its agenda to encompass the full array of scientific and technical issues facing the nation and world. In the process, it will further enhance its role as a national laboratory in service to America's—and the world's—scientific and technical needs. The Laboratory, in short, has a history worth remembering and a future worth watching. 

Alvin Trivelpiece ORNL Director

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