Women and the Atomic Bomb


The Manhattan Project

source: nuclearnews.net

During World War II, the United States began a research and development (R&D) project to create the first nuclear weapon. It was a top secret program dubbed the “Manhattan Project.” Nuclear weapons require enriched uranium, which was one of the most challenging tasks of the project. The process involved electromagnetic separation using industrial-scale machines called calutrons, a mass spectrometer designed to separate isotopes of uranium.

The calutrons were prone to equipment failure and suffered from a shortage of spare parts, making an attentive and capable operator all the more valuable. At the time, there was a shortage in labor as most men were called into service. This led the Tennessee Eastman Company to recruit women to work with the calutrons.

Calutron Girls

source: lanl.gov

These courageous women left their families to serve their country in a program that they knew little about. Trained like soldiers not to ask questions or reason why, the women weren’t told the details of the work they’d be contributing to. Yet, they knew that the work they were doing was vital to helping her nation win the war. Gladys Owens, the women on the right, recalls a conversation she had with a manager:

“We can train you how to do what is needed, but cannot tell you what you are doing.  I can only tell you that if our enemies beat us to it, God have mercy on us!” http://smithdray1.net/

source: lanl.gov

source: lanl.gov

Leaders at the company initially doubted their abilities, calling them young “hillbilly” girls. They showed great work ethic and even out-produced their male counterparts in optimizing uranium production. Their clear success earned them the fond nickname “Calutron Girls.”