Edward Teller: what did he discover


Intro page

1. Teller's triumph?

2. Gone fission

3. Credit - or blame?

The Mark 17 was the first H-bomb that could be dropped from a plane. Its 25-foot steel casing was about 3.5 inches thick and weighed almost 21 tons. A Teller invention allowed miniature H-bombs. Photo: National Atomic Museum

Today's huge arsenal of 10,000-plus strategic nukes relies on another Teller breakthrough: boosting.

Who done it?
Although few modern inventions are the product of a single mind, scientists have long debated who should get credit for the central element of the thermonuclear bomb, the Teller-Ulam design. As many experts note, Teller frequently downplayed Ulam's part. "Teller for the last few decades of his life held a position that was not supported by the evidence provided by others, and even the evidence provided by himself, that he created the Teller-Ulam design," says Carey Sublette.

Giant metal cylinder in warehouse. "Although he had argued for years that [radiation] compression would not help a hydrogen bomb, he said he independently ... came up with whole idea by himself, but kept it confidential," Sublette adds. "That is an extremely un-Teller-like behavior. ...He was always very aggressive about promoting his ideas."

Instead, Sublette thinks that Ulam, who had immersed himself in "the most detailed calculations anyone had done on thermonuclear combustion, knew more about the subject than anybody in the world at that point. Thus... he realized that extreme compression was the solution."

Although other informed opinions differ, Teller usually gets considerable credit:

Herbert York, a Los Alamos physicist, observed that while Ulam had proposed an idea, Teller deserved "51 percent of the credit" because he had "sketched out a super bomb."

Norris Bradbury, who later directed Los Alamos, said, "Don't ask me who's the father of the H-bomb, because nobody is..." (see Dark Sun, p. 468-9). In Bradbury's view, the bomb was a group effort.

Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, told The Why Files, " It would be a mistake to give Teller sole credit for coming up with the idea or refining it. As with many things scientific, it was very much a group effort" (see How Ulam... in the bibliography).

Get a boost
The long debate over credit for Teller-Ulam obscures Teller's prior contribution to nuclear weapons, says Sublette, author of a book tentatively titled "A Handbook of Nuclear Weapons." In 1945, Teller suggested placing a few grams of fusion fuel in an atomic bomb, where it would fuse and unleash neutrons. "In many ways, it was his most important contribution, but it doesn't get a lot of publicity," says Sublette. "It's very fundamental; every U.S. nuclear weapon is fusion boosted. Only 1 percent of the energy comes from fusion, but it produces a storm of high-energy neutrons, which instantly fissions a large proportion of the core."

Because a "boosted" bomb requires less conventional explosive and fission fuel, it makes "a very small bomb with high yield," Sublette says. "The miniaturized thermonuclear weapons we have today, on cruise missiles, stacked 10-high on the MX, 14-high on the Trident 2 missile, require very small atomic bombs, and that requires fusion boosting. We could not have produced the huge arsenal of 10,000-plus strategic nuclear weapons that we had around 1990 without this breakthrough."

Teller and Johnson confer in presidential office.
Teller's influence was as much political as scientific. Teller confers with President Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960's. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The legacy of Edward Teller
How to assess the impact of Teller's long, active life? While it's easy to portray him as Dr. Strangelove, he was a brilliant, energetic man who had witnessed the dark side of humanity. After World War I, his homeland, Hungary, was briefly ruled by communists. As a young physicist, he watched Germany elect Adolph Hitler and begin persecuting Jews and others. These motivations, historian Robert Norris says, left him with "deep feelings about communism and totalitarianism... so his sensitivity toward our adversaries over the decades were always finely tuned, and it fit in with the Cold War."

A gray-haired, wiry Oppenheimer gazes downward.Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Los Alamos laboratory, later lost his security clearance when Teller and others suggested he might be a Soviet spy. Many scientists never forgave Teller for undermining Oppenheimer, who brilliantly led the atomic-bomb project. Photo: Los Alamos National Laboratory

To admirers, that was exactly what United States needed during the Cold War. Michael Anastasio, director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said, "The loss of Dr. Edward Teller is a great loss for this Laboratory and for the nation. He was a passionate advocate for science and the development of Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He put his heart and soul into this Laboratory and into ensuring the security of this nation, and his dedication never foundered."

After the war, atomic scientists who were awed by their own creation formed the Council for a Livable World, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to address issues of war, peace and technology.

Teller was the most outspoken of the atomic scientists who took an opposite tack. Instead of controlling nuclear weapons, they wanted to give the United States an unassailable arsenal. But now, when the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea are causing terrific headaches, did all of that ingenuity backfire?

Perhaps, says Bulletin editor Schwartz. Teller, he says, "helped make the world safe, or unsafe, for nuclear warfare. ...In a sense, he helped create the balance of power, helped make the world an exceedingly dangerous place in the name of trying to make it safer."

Orange explosion and smoke against blue sky.
On May 25, 1953, a giant artillery fired a nuclear warhead with the power of 15,000 ton of TNT at the Nevada Test Site. With another Teller brainstorm, fusion boosting, the Bomb could now fit a (huge) cannon. Photo: Department of Energy

And while Teller played a key role in the Teller-Ulam invention, he may actually have delayed development of the bomb that won World War II, Schwartz adds. "During the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer and others thought his interest in thermonuclear bombs was hindering the development of the atom bomb." Although Teller probably realized that a thermonuclear bomb required an atomic-bomb trigger, "it didn't matter to him, he wanted to focus on his particular project."

Indeed. York, who worked in the atomic trenches with Teller for many years, says, "You can't understand Teller without using the word 'messiah.' He was absolutely certain he was right about everything, and was absolutely determined to get his way. He was obsessed, was always obsessed. You combine those two characteristics, and he had a lot of influence."

Still of video of building exploding. I'll huff and I'll puff... In 1953, the government tested nuclear weapons on typical American homes and furnishings. This house fried in a bath of radiation, and then blew it away. No word on the Barcalounger.... Click here to see 416K movie.

That influence was evident in Teller's vehement resistance to a nuclear-test ban. York, who also became an important government advisor, notes that even President Dwight Eisenhower questioned Teller's impact. In Ike's farewell speech, he famously cautioned against the influence of the military-industrial complex. Less famously, he also cautioned about the influence of what he termed the "scientific-technological elite."

York says he later asked the former president who he was referring to, "and without any hesitation, without thinking, he responded 'Teller and [Werner] von Braun'" (the German rocket scientist who helped found the U.S. space program).

Eisenhower, York says, "regarded Teller as a bad influence."

Can we influence you to check out our H-bomb bibliography?


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