Fourth Spy Unearthed in U.S. Atomic Bomb Project, Part 2

We continue from (NY Times) Fourth Spy Unearthed in U.S. Atomic Bomb Project. In what follows, statements about Godsend are made as if they are facts. They aren’t facts; we’re just saving words.

Oscar Soberer, Soviet code name “Godsend”, was an electrical engineer. Then, as now, EE undergraduate training tended more to the math of devices than basic physics. An exception is the classical theory of electromagnetic fields, based on Maxwell’s equations. In 1940, this meant

  • Ohm’s law and Maxwell’s equations.
  • Radio waves and transmission lines; the telegrapher’s equation.
  • Electrical components — resistors, capacitors, inductors, vacuum tubes, and transducers.
  • Radio receivers and transmitters.
  • Telephony and telegraphy.
  • Rotating machinery based on magnetic fields — motors, generators, and converters.
  • Power transmission.

EE was a  tiny field compared to what it has become.  Nothing in the above syllabus gave Godsend the background to participate in the design of the Bomb. His usefulness was with supporting technology. In 1940, an EE with a BA typically knew more about rotating machinery/magnetic fields than today’s graduate. This brings us to the first part of Godsend’s employment, at Oak Ridge.

Only 4.7% of the Manhattan Project budget was spent at Los Alamos. Oak Ridge had the largest budget, for the production of U-235, the isotope used in one of the two Bomb designs. Four methods of production were simultaneously attempted. Two worked. Of the two, the Calutron was second-best, but that effort ran full bore until the #1 method, gaseous diffusion, was proven to be a complete end-to-end solution.

Note  “rotating machinery” in the above list. The calutron was not a rotating machine, but an EE with a practical grounding in magnetic fields would be well prepared in the fundamentals, able to absorb additional related knowledge, to work as a kind of high-level repairman. The calutrons, of which there were many  arranged in loops, used a precisely controlled magnetic field in a partial vacuum, to curve the trajectory of charged uranium ions through an angle. The lighter U-235 ions curved more, and fell into a collection bucket.

The calutrons were large, complex, and unreliable. Between 1942 and 1944, they required constant babying. They gradually improved. By 1944, with the kinks were mostly worked out, the #1 method, gaseous diffusion at K-25, had a clear lead. Godsend had to move on.

Assertion: Godsend worked at Oak Ridge maintaining the calutrons.  This specific activity prepared him for his next assignment, at Los Alamos. This assertion cannot be derived from an historical approach, because the role is too insignificant to be documented.

At this point, did Godsend provide the Soviets with useful information? The CIA paper quotes a lay statement, “he gave them the formula.”  The word has two completely different meanings:

  • Chemical composition.
  • Mathematical equation.

There were many of both. There was one formula or number, which I will not identify, that stood above the rest. It is not hard to measure now, but  how they got it back then is still classified. Since the Manhattan project was highly compartmentalized, it is unlikely that Godsend was in the custodial chain. Of course, someone could have talked.

Oak Ridge conducted assays of the purity of the refined uranium shipped to Los Alamos. In a few paragraphs, you’ll see how, if he provided the Soviets with information from Oak Ridge, how he was involved in those assays.

At Oak Ridge, Godsend was involved in the principle activity, the production of refined materials. Previously, materials synthesis had been the province of chemistry.   Let’s pull some stuff from (ACS pdf) The Rise of Instrumentation during World War II. Before World War II, instrumentation was rare in the chemical lab. Quoting,

The more widespread adoption of instruments transformed the appearance and feel of the chemistry laboratory. “If you look at a photo of a lab in the pre-1940s, the only things you see are a polarimeter, a refractometer, an analytical balance, a microscope,and lots of glassware,” says Gerald Gallwas, a Beckman Coulter retiree…

Godsend’s skills were required for calutron production. But after he left that program, where was he useful? Quoting from The Rise of…,

The need of the petroleum industry to find better means for analyzing complex hydrocarbon mixtures and the uranium isotope separation and atomic bomb production program (known as the Manhattan Project) stimulated the design and construction of new, improved mass spectrometers.

The calutron was an upscaled, specialized mass spectrometer, used to identify chemical compounds without traditional “wet chemistry.” This marked the rapid adoption of electronic instruments in the chemical laboratory. With Godsend’s calutron experience, he was well equipped to service mass spectrometers. Unlike the huge, specialized calutron, every chemical lab welcomed the availability of a nearby mass spectrometer. (They still tend to occupy dedicated spaces.)

So did Godsend provide the Soviets with information from Oak Ridge? As a maintainer, and possibly operator, of a mass spectrometer in the assay department, he was in close proximity to that information. Since the instruments of that time were not automated, it was impossible to conceal the results from the operator. Godsend’s expertise might have been required to interpret and transcribe the assay results.

Assertion: Following perfection of the calutrons, Godsend worked in the assay department at Oak Ridge. He was well positioned to know the exact composition of bomb-grade uranium. This corresponds to the nontechnical concept of a “formula.”

Godsend transferred to Los Alamos in 1944. Did Los Alamos have a big need for mass spectrometers? Stay tuned.

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