beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

Physics on Horseback: Secret Film of Fermilab's Founding Director

Fermilab's flamboyant founding director, Robert Rathbun Wilson (1914-2000), worked as a cowhand in Wyoming some years before he joined the cyclotron builders at the University of California in Berkeley. Eventually he became part of the effort to develop a uranium fission weapon, working at Princeton University on an isotope-separation device he called the isotron.

For the final stages of the Manhattan Project, Wilson and his wife Jane moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico. Physicists, young and old, lived with their families in relative isolation on the secret site.

Many years later, Wilson would become the first director of Fermilab, as once again the U.S. government constructed a large physics laboratory, and once again a community of people from across the world took shape there.

(By the way, if you're wondering, Wilson the cowboy is the reason Fermilab has a herd of bison.)

What I did not know until recently is that secret home movies taken at Los Alamos in the 1940s exist. And this footage, or anyway a portion of it, has recently been released.

Hugh Bradner, another physicist, obtained unofficial permission to film the people of the Manhattan Project. The ten-minute video posted to Youtube covers lots of recreation: people swimming, hiking, playing with dogs, and skiing. We also see areas of technical interest: buildings and equipment that must have been classified. There are scenes of scientists climbing aboard trucks for the journey to the Trinity site, where the first bomb would be detonated in July of 1945.

I grabbed some frames from the point, about six and a half minutes into the clip, where Bradner accompanies Bob and Jane Wilson, and Robert and Charlotte Serber, on a horse horseback journey through mountainous country.  Since we see Bob Wilson cinching the straps on a pack horse, I infer that this was a camping trip of some days' duration.

I believe these are the first color photos of the Wilsons during this period that I have seen.

Robert Rathbun Wilson, helpfully labeled by the folks at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which released the video. (An imperfection in the film frame puts a black dot on his elbow.)

Bob Wilson and his pack horse.

Robert Serber, on left, and Robert Wilson, right, on the trail.

Campers ride through wooded area.

Jane Wilson, wife of Robert Wilson.

Charlotte Serber, cigarette in hand, points out Hugh Bradner's movie camera to her horse.

Charlotte Serber and Jane Wilson edited a good book, Standing By and Making Do: Women of Wartime Los Alamos, that paints a vivid picture of life in the secret town during wartime.

As Los Alamos got going in 1943, Robert Serber, a Berkeley theorist, gave arriving scientists the lectures that became the lab's first publication, The Los Alamos Primer.

Here's the Youtube compilation of Bradner's movies.

[Edited 30 July 2013 to add: The Youtube link seems to have gone; I found another copy of the video at, but I'm having trouble embedding it.]

Tip o' the beamjockey hat to Alex Wellerstein, whose fascinating nuclear secrecy blog Restricted Data made me aware that the footage had appeared on Youtube.

Pretty good summary of the films from the Atomic Heritage Foundation site.

Here's an article from station KOAT in Albuquerque that quotes LANL historian Alan Carr and video manager John Bass. I am grateful to Los Alamos National Laboratory for making this footage available.
Tags: fermilab, history, nuclear weapons, physics
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