FRICK CHEMICAL LABORATORY by Meryl Liu and Quinn Haverstick
The Opening of the Frick Chemical Laboratory, c. 1926
In a press release dated May 18, 1920, Princeton University announced plans to build a new chemistry laboratory to “provide more adequate quarters for undergraduate and graduate instruction and for the enlarged research program which the chemistry department is undertaking” (Press Release). The release detailed many of the state-of-the-art features previously missing from Princeton’s chemistry department – “large, well-ventilated laboratories and efficient conditions of work and study” as well as “adequate material equipment” in “rooms in which research is conducted” (Press Release). This was a juxtaposition to the previous state of the chemical facilities at Princeton, where labs were “scattered, ill-suited, badly ventilated quarters” “scattered in four different buildings on the campus, most of them designed for purposes other than those for which they are being used” (Press Release).
Near the end of the press release, they mention some of the research that would be conducted in these new laboratories housed behind the beautiful collegiate Gothic façade: “the problem of radiation which has been operating the co-operative attention of physicists, astronomers, biologists, and chemists at Princeton'' (Press Release). This mention of radiation was an early indicator of things to come, as Princeton’s research led to further investigation of the atom and eventually the discovery of fission and the creation of the Atomic Bomb. Frick was the home of much of this research, in combination with the Department of Physics in Palmer Physical Laboratory and scientists throughout the country, often working at Universities.
On September 26, 1926, a dedication ceremony led by then-president John Grier Hibben on the terrace of the laboratory celebrated the opening of Frick. This program comprised a singing of “America,” speeches, symbolic acceptances of keys, concluding with the singing of “Old Nassau.”
The Princeton Analytical Group and the Manhattan Project, WWII
Princeton’s Department of Chemistry, then located here, was directly involved with the Manhattan Project. While this involvement is detailed already in another section on this website in relation to the leader of the Analytical Group, N. H. Furman, and the aims of the contract of the group (to develop methods for quantifying uranium ore for use in nuclear weapons and trace contaminants), correspondences in the Department of Chemistry archives reveal connections between Princeton Chemistry and other national laboratories, as well as sources of uranium ore.
Communications between Princeton Chemistry and Argonne National Laboratory at the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as the following:
- Ames Laboratory
- E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Co.
- Electro Metallurgical Co.
- Mallinckrodt Chemical Works
- Harshaw Chemical Co.
- Linde Air Products Co.
- The Brush Beryllium Company
Reveal connections between Princeton’s nuclear research and exploitative mining and extraction practices at the time, which commonly exploited Native Americans (ex. The Navajo Nation) for cheap labor while ignoring the health effects of radiation exposure to this day.
Princeton Preceptorial of the Air, 1945
“Faculty Broadcast on Atomic Energy to Open Weekly Princeton Radio Series Over WPAT.” The Princeton Bulletin, 10 August 1945.
On August 19, 1945, just ten days after the bombing of Nagasaki and thirteen days after the bombing of Hiroshima, the radio station WPAT in Paterson, NJ, broadcast the first of thirteen radio precepts, titled “The Age of Atomic Energy.” The professors speaking included Dr. Hugh Stott Taylor , chairman of the Department of Chemistry, as well as Professor Henry DeWolf Smyth, chairman of the Department of Physics , Professor Nathaniel Howell Furman , Professor of Chemistry, and Professor Harold Hance Sprout, Professor of Politics (“Age of Atomic Energy").
The professors on air delved into the chemistry behind the workings of the atomic bomb, starting with the history of the research behind atomic theory. They introduce the discovery of the possibility that matter can be created or destroyed, which had never been seen before Einstein discovered that mass is related to energy. They then explained how an atomic bomb works, diving into the details of bombarding a radioactive isotope and creating a chain reaction where neutrons are released, breaking up more and more isotopes and continuing until the radioactive materials are depleted. These radioactive materials were most often an isotope of uranium, U-235, which needed to be separated from U-238; however, this was difficult due to the fact that they were almost identical chemically. In order to obtain isotopes at the scale required to create weapons suitable for use by the military, Smyth says that “we realized that to achieve the atomic bomb we would have to extract U-235 on a gigantic scale. In record time, the great plants at Oak Ridge, Tenn., were built.” (“Age of Atomic Energy” 4).
What follows is a discussion of the creation of plutonium, which, according to Taylor, was the “first element of any kind manufactured in quantity by man… [which also] proves to be suitable material for an atomic bomb” (5). The irony that the first element fully created by humanity was used for so much destruction encapsulates much of the attitude towards research at the time. Taylor goes on to say that peacetime usage of the technology would come to fruition, but “the expected military advantages of uranium bombs were much more spectacular than those of a uranium power plant so they came first” (c).
Much of the discussion also centers on the responsibility of scientists for how their research is used, with each participant taking a unique stance on the issue. Taylor, who worked on much of the theoretical work, states that he believed that “science, by itself, is not able to control the use or the abuse of its findings” (4). Furman states that “one’s personal impression of the work was that a fine spirit of cooperation existed between military, governmental, industrial and university groups” (7). Smyth states that “scientists are citizens and human beings. Those of us on this project have been very human. For a good deal of the time in the last five years we have been just plain scared. We were not only afraid that the enemy would get atomic bombs before we did but we were afraid of what would happen to the world if anyone got them” (c-d). Sprout brings a unique perspective on the conversation as a professor of politics, stating the following:
“Every American should ponder the sobering thought that no nation has ever succeeded in keeping for very long a monopoly of any new scientific discovery or industrial process. If history teaches anything, it is that any prolonged attempt to keep the secret of atomic power away from other peoples can be expected to produce but one result: intensive research in the countries excluded from the secret, accompanied by fear and corroding resentment and distrust of those who already possess it” (b).
Bomb Commendation Letter, 1946
In a letter sent to Princeton University President Harold W. Dodds, Columbia University President Frank D. Fackenthal further solidifies the university’s involvement in the development of the atomic bomb, notifying the president of a commendation by the War Department and inviting him to share in the achievement. In the letter, dated February 18, 1946, Fackenthal explicitly states that “Princeton University is fully entitled to share in the commendation by the War Department” (Series 6: Atomic Bomb Commendation Letter).
"Age of Atomic Energy," with Professors Taylor, Smyth, Furman, and Sprout; Historical Subject Files Collection, AC109, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
“Faculty Broadcast on Atomic Energy to Open Weekly Princeton Radio Series Over WPAT.” Princeton Bulletin, Volume 3, Number 72, 10 August 1945.
Frick Dedication/Histories; Department of Chemistry Records, AC358, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
Frick Early Plans; Department of Chemistry Records, AC358, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
Series 6: Atomic Energy Bomb Commendation Letter; Department of Chemistry Records, AC358, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.