Palmer Physics Lab


Further to the digitized research on the contextualized tone of Princeton University and its stake in nuclear warfare, one of the buildings we peered into was Palmer Hall. There is research conducted on this space, in conjunction with Stephen Elwood Associate Director for Laboratory and Research Safety and Mudd Library Archives. Former Palmer Hall, and the current Frist Campus Center, is the old site of Palmer Hall and the Physics Department at Princeton. According to catalogued archival building plans at Mudd Library, 75% of Princeton physicists were part of the Manhattan Project that was responsible for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The basement of Palmer Hall building once contained a Cyclotron, a particle accelerator that slams matter against itself at amazingly high speeds, inducing radioactivity. This accelerator was the steppingstone in larger radioactive projects undertaken by the University and was responsible for much of the research that led to the creation of the atomic bomb. As part of the tour, I would invite the visitors to imagine themselves as a student here in the 1940s, walking past one of the most instrumental rooms in World War II; at one time 75% of the Physics Faculty at Princeton willingly contributed in some fashion to the Manhattan Project, and the students were completely oblivious.

Princeton Preceptorial of the Air, 1945

PA Control of Atomic Energy.pdf

On November 11, 1945, the thirteenth and final Preceptorial of the Air was broadcast, titled “Control of the Use of Atomic Energy.” The speakers included New Jersey Senator Howard Alexander Smith, Professor Henry DeWolf Smyth, Professor William S. Carpenter, and Professor John F. Sly ("Control of the Use of Atomic Energy”). Much of this preceptorial focuses on the political implications of the development of nuclear weapons, and the desire of many of the speakers to reduce the proliferation of nuclear technologies. Most of the speakers agree that the government must not restrict the research of these technologies, but there must be some regulation on how to handle the implications of such advanced technologies in broader international contexts.

The broadcast immediately mentions the faculty’s ties to the research and development of nuclear technologies, introducing Professor Smyth as “chairman of the department of physics at Princeton University and author of the official report on atomic energy for military purposes. Professor Smyth [is] a foremost student of nuclear physics and one of the important participants in the research that developed the atomic bomb” ("Control of the Use of Atomic Energy” A5209). He is established as one of the leading scientists in the field and a well-informed resource for listeners to trust.

Professor Smyth and the other panelists were asked a variety of questions about nuclear weapons and their reception and future in the international community. When questioned about the reporting on the use of atomic bombs after they were dropped, Smyth replied that “there have been exaggerations, such as early reports from the Jap (sic) press pertaining to the long-time poisoning of the ground and to the damaging effects of bomb radiations extending far beyond the area of the blast itself. These were not confirmed by later investigators” (A5209). He attempts to undersell the effects that his research has had on tens of thousands of people in Japan and the wider global community, which reflects many scientists’ viewpoints on the issue at the time.

The moderator also inquired about the proliferation of nuclear arms among other countries, and Smyth argued that “If 5,000 atomic bombs could wipe out all the great cities and industries of this or any other country… there would really not be much advantage in having more than 5,000 bombs” (A5210). He believed that in this sense, even small countries can have the capability to be major players on the world stage in a world of nuclear weapons.

However, the panelists did not believe that there should be strong controls or restrictions imposed on the research of nuclear weapons. This viewpoint is summed up best by Senator Smith, who states, “There is a grave danger of hampering the free scope of scientific research and discovery if anything approaching rigid governmental controls… are imposed on this or any other field of scientific effort” (A5210). He agrees that something must be done to reduce the danger of nuclear war, but he is unsure what route that should take, mirroring much of the other sentiment at the time.

To conclude, the moderator ends on a very optimistic note for how he sees the future: “If the world is not set out to destroy itself – and any such idea is inconceivable – the world must gradually agree, in good faith, to control for mutual benefit, this incalculable force” (A5211).

Interview with George Reynolds, Professor of Physics Emeritus, 1996

In an interview taken as a part of the Faculty Oral History Project, George Reynolds, Professor of Physics Emeritus, discusses his background and his time at Princeton. During his time as a student and later as a professor, he played an important role in the research and activities occurring at Palmer Physical Laboratory during and after the second world war. Reynolds joined the Princeton community as a graduate student in 1940 under an assistantship, and the following year he received a fellowship. He was an assistant to Professor Walker Blakeney, who was “doing some research under contract… called the CPPAB, the Committee for Passive Protection Against Bombing, and our roll (sic) was to study the properties of concrete and their resilience against bombs for the purpose of bomb shelters” (Reynolds, George 5). He was asked to join the team, and because “I’d been strongly under the influence of several conscientious objectors at Rutgers… and I told Walker Blakeny (sic) that I was glad to be in something that wasn’t on the attack, it was a defense” (5). According to Reynolds,

“These experiments involved coordination with the Civil Engineering Department who prepared certain concrete samples in the form of one foot cubes. Then they were taken up into the attic of Palmer and subjected to impact by means of scale bombs which I made in the shop” (5-6).

However, he didn’t work on the blast resistance project for long. He was scouted for a new program, the goal of which was “to study blast effects rather than the impact effect…. This new program was under the auspices of the National Defense Research Council, the NDRC, directly with Conan (sic)… the other side of Division Two [our division] was under water explosions conducted at Harvard. We did the air blasts” (6-7).

Reynolds states that he enjoyed his work, pushing the limits on what he could do. At some points, he carried out experiments that caused disturbances to the surrounding community:

“We were using ¼ poind (sic) TNT charges. My little immature brain was heading towards what I called scaling effects. I wanted to use different size charges to see where it was leading the large charges… so I surreptitiously began to use ½ pound charges and Blakeny was so good natured about it all, he sort of looked the other way. He was glad to get the data. Then one day I decided to use an eight poind (sic) charge, that’s where the phone calls came in. This was all done down behind the stadium where there was all just trees then. In fact there was just a dirt path” (7)

Reynolds heard about a program carried out by the Navy called Demolition of Landing Obstacles, and he had a strong interest in their research (7-8). The project was restricted to military officers only so Reynolds, as a civilian, could not get involved; to remedy this, he reached out to his connections and secured a deployment with the Navy working on amphibious technology. However, before he was sent to join the Navy, he got a call from Washington directly from Conant, director of the NDRC, who asked him to go work in Los Alamos (p8). “By then I had my PhD and I was a research physicist at NDRC. And we knew what was going on out west because our people had left to go there” (9).

Arriving in Los Alamos in the summer of 1944, there was an explosion at an ammunition depot nearby and Reynolds was called in to assess the damage. He told them that the explosion “went up high order and amount was 1,550 plus or minus 50 tons” (10). They then got the measurement out and saw that 1,540 tons had been on the boat, so, as Reynolds said, “unfortunately I was the expert” (10).

Reynolds also had strong ties to the actual deployment of atomic bombs in Japan. When asked about his connections, he answered with the following:

“I was involved heavily with the delivery of the second bomb and it made many flights out of Wendover Field Utah…. And we did dummy drops and ballistic studies. We were responsible for the simultaneous firing mechanism of the implosion and we had to check the electronics all the time” (11).

He was present for the launch of the B29 plane that carried the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, and the night before the plane took flight, Reynolds thought to himself, “We are not in top form. We could have made a mistake. I want to go ring out the circuits again.” (12). He joined a friend, Barney O’Keefe, in checking their work on the bomb. Together they discovered an error, corrected it, and then re-checked everything multiple times. He recalled being afraid that without that confirmation that everything was working, the launch would have gone more poorly.

Reynolds never ended up joining the crew on the flight, as confirmed by the interviewer, who states, “And then you were scrubbed at the last minute from the flight” (13). Reynolds responds, “Yes” (13). Without a change in plans, at least one Princeton physicist who had an undeniable stake in the physics department would have been on the flight that caused incomprehensible damage to the Japanese city of Nagasaki.

The Manhattan Project was lauded by many as a collaborative effort, but according to Reynolds, “We didn’t know what each other was doing. We were very careful” (16). Separate sections of the project didn’t receive information about the other sections, and Reynolds never mentioned it to the people around him, including his wife.

In addition to contributing many scientists to the research, “The magnets [at Princeton] got called. People would go out [to Los Alamos] from Princeton and say oh, there’s our magnet, I wondered where it had gone” (17). These magnets are still present on campus, though they have been relocated to Jadwin Hall, and they serve as another tangible reminder of the impact and involvement that Princeton had on the creation and proliferation of nuclear technology. To reiterate this point, the moderator states that “what we’re saying here is that Princeton physicists participated in all levels of this thing and it’s the human involvement of our people that’s all the way through the process, from beginning to end” (19). Reynolds agrees, in addition referencing physicists from other universities. He says that many of these other universities received recognition for their contributions, and that “Princeton didn’t push itself, but very key” (20).

After his time working on nuclear research, Reynolds’ research interests shifted to particle physics in order to study cosmic rays, becoming the director of the cosmic ray program at Princeton. He also taught two sections of the Army Atomic Energy Training Program, or AAETP, starting in 1946 and 1948, which was a two year program meant to familiarize officers with physics (24-25). Palmer Physical Laboratory was the location of this program, where, according to Reynolds, “About 15 or 20 highly selected Army officers came to take a two year crash program in physics designed to atomic physics… We had people all the way from captains, maybe even first lieutenants to lieutenant colonels in the program” (24) When asked about his thoughts regarding the education of military officers at Princeton, Reynolds states that “It wasn’t a question of good or evil it was a question of survival” (24).

He was also asked about Princeton’s involvement in governmental and industrial research, to which he replied, “it gave us marvelous opportunities to do what we wanted to do. We needed it and we weren’t restricted in any way” (25-26).

Later in his life, Reynolds served on the steering committee of Project Matterhorn and the Princeton Pen Accelerator as well as working as the director of elementary particles research, worked at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole to do research, as well as work at Brookhaven. As the interviewer said, “[he] really [was] involved in virtually everything the physics department did after the war” (29). Reynolds affirmed this: “Except for the actual low energy nuclear physics itself on [the] cyclotron, I was never a part of that.” Reynolds also later contributed to the creation of the Center for Environmental Studies, serving as the first director of the department.

George Reynolds' narrative of his life serves as a testament to the often overlooked ties between both Princeton as an institution and the physics department in Palmer Physical Laboratory with nuclear research in a primarily military context. His close involvement with the National Defense Research Council was not uncommon for scientists at the time, but his recollections of his time in Japan servicing a bomb just a few days before it was dropped at Nagasaki indicate a much closer relationship to the destruction caused than the institution would like to admit. The magnets at Jadwin serve as a tangible representation of this desire to be on the forefront of research that led to such incredible advances in technology, for purposes of both defense and energy,  over the course of the war.


"Control of the Use of Atomic Energy," with Senator Smith and Professors Smyth, Carpenter, and Sly; Historical Subject Files Collection, AC109, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Reynolds, George by Richard (Dick) Challener; Faculty Oral History Project, AC475, Princeton University Archives, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

Palmer Physics Lab