What in the world was going on in Rouss Hall? At Christmastime in 1941, the National Guard rumbled to a halt in front of the Physics Department’s former home, according to an account by physics professor F.L. Brown. Soldiers built a high fence around three sides of the building.
When classes resumed, civilian guards stood duty. Students could enter through only one door. Going anywhere besides the classrooms was verboten.
One day, as a prank, a researcher greeted a guard with a Nazi salute. He was immediately arrested. To ensure that he was a bona fide employee, the officer of the day rang the professor whose work demanded such security—Jesse Beams.
“Word got around,” wrote Brown, that whatever was going on was “no joking matter.”
First to U-235
Beams (Grad 1926) was a key figure in the Manhattan Project. In 1941, he became the first person to isolate the U-235 isotope, the enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. To do this, he used his own invention—the ultrahigh-speed gas centrifuge. It whirled poisonous uranium hexafluoride gas up to 1.5 million times a second to wrench away the radioactive U-235 from U-238. (“Wear a nose respirator,” wrote Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards, in a 1941 letter to Beams warning about uranium’s “toxic properties.”)
Beams’ work in Rouss on the bomb actually began in 1940 (without the guards). At the time, physicists and the U.S. government believed his technology was the best way to make weapons-grade uranium, according to Richard Hewlett, the chief historian of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.
But engineering problems remained unsolved. If anyone could perfect centrifuge technology, it would be Beams, one of the 20th century’s most brilliant physicists. He won the National Medal of Science, America’s highest such honor, in 1967, and thanks to the Manhattan Project, he gave UVA a stellar reputation in the sciences. Yet his work on the bomb is little known, its impact misunderstood.
Beams’ 50-year UVA career was a whirlwind of discovery. He was one of America’s “greatest experimental physicists,” according to UVA physics professor Walter Gordy in his biography of him. Beams held 16 U.S. patents, including the first patent (as co-inventor) of the guided missile. He explored radiation as a cancer cure, delved into quantum mechanics, precisely measured Newton’s gravitational constant, did basic work on nonlinear optics, advanced the study of viruses with his magnetic-suspension densimeter-viscometer, and was “a tour de force of experimental physics,” according to George Gillies (Engr ’76), a research professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering who worked with Beams.
Such was his devotion to science that in 1977, on the day he died, he summoned biochemistry professor D.W. Kupke to his bed to finish a scholarly paper.
“People say Beams deserved a Nobel Prize, and I agree,” says professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Houston Wood (Engr ’78), who also worked alongside Beams in the 1970s. “His ability to spin things at very, very high speeds and control them was amazing given the technology of his day.”
“He was a wizard who had tremendous intuition,” Gillies adds. “He pushed available technologies to the limit. He invented new technologies, and he saw what they revealed about basic physics.”
At the aerospace engineering building on Observatory Hill, Beams, who also did ballistics research, may have even blasted away with a machine gun in an underground tunnel. “It’s part of the lore of the place,” says engineering professor Chris Goyne, who operates lasers in “the pits,” the foreboding 60-foot-deep chambers where massive postwar centrifuges spun.
Beams’ wartime nuclear work began in 1937, when he became the first person to split an element (in this case chlorine) into isotopes—versions of an element with different masses. His ultracentrifuge attained otherworldly speeds because it spun with little friction, due to his breakthrough of using electromagnetic force to suspend its rotor in a vacuum container.
Prior to a heart attack in 1954, he earned a reputation as a “hard-driving professor,” says Wood, who heard that as a young professor Beams went to his lab at 5 p.m. on Fridays to make sure everyone was still working. What’s more, Wood adds, “he expected them to be there through the weekend.”
Beams relented when his wife, concerned that he worked too hard, bought him season football tickets. He went to the games, much to his assistants’ relief, because only then did they feel free to go. Nonetheless, at halftime Beams would return to the lab to check on experiments, according to Gordy.
By the 1970s, Beams had mellowed. “He was a very soft-spoken, sprightly little old guy,” Gillies recalls. “He always wore a disposable plastic white lab apron and a little bow tie and had his sleeves rolled up.”
Beams would have been intense in the dark days of World War II. Among scientists then, “there was no thought of a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes,” says Scott Kemp, an MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering who studied Beams’ wartime papers. “The only thing that would have been in the picture was the bomb.”
Beams’ government work started in 1940. In March of that year, he made a “very persuasive argument” at a high-level meeting of physicists for using centrifuges to create U-235, according to Kemp, who says, “No one really thought this was a scalable industrial process, but Beams convinced people to give centrifuges a go.”
Almost immediately, the Naval Research Laboratory approved Beams’ ambitious plan: He would create samples of U-235, at the same time proving that centrifuges were reliable enough to do the job around the clock in an industrial setting.
Even producing grams of the substance posed daunting hurdles. And no one knew whether a bomb would need 2 pounds or 200, according to an Atomic Energy Commission history. Physicist Harold Urey, who oversaw Beams’ work for the National Defense Research Committee, thought as many as 50,000 centrifuges might be needed.
While Beams waited to learn the fate of the funding bid, he sent this cryptic message to UVA President John Lloyd Newcomb (Engr 1903): “This letter is to inform you of recent proposals to us which may possibly result in the acquisition of funds for certain projects to be carried out in our laboratory. … We should like to have the opportunity of discussing with you (at your convenience) the reason for the Navy’s interest in this work and to obtain your counsel with regard to it.”
The Navy had good news: It funded Beams for a year with the grand sum of $6,353.57 (almost $117,000 in 2020 dollars).
In the following months, the Nazis conquered most of Europe, and with U.S. involvement in the war ever more likely, funding for Beams and researchers pursuing gaseous diffusion and electromagnetic separation grew greater. In August 1941, Beams got $95,000 (the equivalent of $1.6 million)—nearly four times more than other scientists—and he knew how to keep a secret. “He didn’t make it too obvious to us what was going on,” recalls retired UVA engineering professor Bob Kuhlthau (Grad ’44, ’48), who joined the project in 1943 as a grad student. Everyone on the small team knew how vital the project was, though. “We worked seven and a half days a week,” he says.
Problems mounted. Beams’ work had been delayed because of a death on the team and because he could not get uranium hexafluoride. “We have not had much success” creating U-235, he wrote in February 1941. Three months later, progress was still woeful. He had made U-235 but under “conditions … not especially favorable for a good separation.” Worse, they were “considerably contaminated.” After more than a year’s labor, Beams in September 1941 had only 1 gram of the gas to send to Briggs. Two other samples were lost in processing mishaps.
The best news Beams got that year might have been from Capt. C.W. Nimitz, chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation. Beams was a lieutenant commander in the Reserves, and the future chief of U.S. Pacific forces approved Beams’ request for a deferment from active duty.
In 1942, Beams’ centrifuge suffered repeated breakdowns due to friction and vibration problems, according to the Atomic Energy Commission. It was becoming clear that while “such a machine was capable of short runs, as required in a lab environment … [it] would not stand up to the demands of industrial-scale operation,” Kemp says.
Ross Gunn, the head of the Naval Research Laboratory, wrote Beams in April 1943 that “the future of the project looks very black indeed.” By this time, alternative manufacturing methods had produced better results, and in January 1944, the Manhattan Project killed Beams’ funding.
Three decades later, Beams defended his efforts: “The [centrifuge] proved to be an effective method of separating the uranium isotopes,” he wrote. Yet after working for nearly three years, he had made only 12.8 grams of U-235, an amount too small to impress Washington.
Twists amid the turns
History moves in strange ways. Beams’ failure led to Cold War triumphs for the free world and UVA.
Gaseous diffusion and electromagnetic separation were costly and complex, which meant only nations with vast resources could build nuclear weapons. Not until the late 1950s did research at UVA perfect centrifuge technology.
There is, however, a twist. Solving the centrifuge’s problems was done not by Beams but by visiting Austrian physicist Gernot Zippe, a former Luftwaffe officer who had begun his centrifuge research while imprisoned by the Russians.
“Beams initiated a whole program of research and development on campus that created a place for Zippe to come where he could transfer that technology to the West and enable very cost-efficient nuclear power,” Kemp says.
Had Beams succeeded and somehow perfected a reliable, economical centrifuge during WWII, Kemp believes, “there might have been considerably more nuclear proliferation starting in 1945.”
After the war, Uncle Sam smiled on UVA, according to Gillies. “[Beams] told me because of the service he and the University provided the War Department, the government was tremendously grateful,” he says. “Substantial funding was established after the war. At least two new science buildings were largely government funded as a result of the great work Beams and his group had done.”
“Those UVA labs existed because Beams started the ball rolling,” Kemp says. “His impact was not on the Manhattan Project but was much more on nuclear power later. He gave the U.S. an important leg up over the Russians, because he created a nucleus from which technology developed in Russia could be seeded here.”
Under Beams, UVA also became a place where the best young scientists wanted to be. “He attracted amazing, extremely hard-working students who he knew were really going to pull the oars on his projects,” Gillies says. Among the students he mentored was future University President Frank Hereford Jr. (Col ’43, Grad ’47) who, as a wartime Ph.D. student, assisted Beams in U-235 research.
Kupke, whom Beams summoned to his deathbed to finish a paper, put it more poetically: “He was a quiet man who thought deep thoughts about the universe and the role of mankind.”
The irony of Beams’ life is that such a man helped to create the bomb. “He was such a gentle soul,” Wood says.