Julius Robert Oppenheimer is likely the
first name that comes to mind when one mentions the atomic bomb. He is
credited with the creation of the devastating device in the early 1940s, a
version of which was used in two instances during World War II. In the
summer of 1945 bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities and Japan
surrendered shortly thereafter.
Oppenheimer was born in New York City on April 22, 1904. He grew up in
New York and attended the Ethical Culture School there. Early on, he became
especially interested in languages and would learn one quickly just so he
could read a text in its original form. He was also very interested in math
and science, and considered a serious student and a rather intense person by
After he graduated from Harvard University in 1925, Oppenheimer studied
at Cambridge University in England and pursued a PhD in Germany. He returned
to the U.S. in 1929 and began teaching at the University of California at
Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology.
Oppenheimer became deeply concerned by the rise of fascism in the 1930s
and took a strong stand against it. In 1939, when it became known to the
U.S. that Germans had split the atom, the implication was that the Nazis
could develop extremely powerful weapons. This realization prompted
President Roosevelt to establish the Manhattan Project in 1941. In June
1942, Robert Oppenheimer was appointed its director.
Oppenheimer set up a new research station to develop atomic and other
types of weapons at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Meanwhile, research was also
being done at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, and in Oak
Ridge, Tennessee, Oppenheimer invited the most established physicists to Los
Alamos to work on creating and atomic bomb. Eventually he was managing a
team of more than three thousand people.
On July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer witnessed the first explosion of an atomic
bomb in the New Mexico desert, and, some say, changed the world forever.
Within a month, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities. Japan
surrendered on August 10, 1945.
After the war, Oppenheimer chaired the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. He
opposed developing an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. When President
Truman finally approved it, Oppenheimer did not argue, but partly due his
initial reluctance the political climate turned against him. On December 21,
1953, Oppenheimer was accused of treason for delaying the naming of Soviet
agents, and also for opposing the building of the hydrogen bomb. Although he
was cleared of the charges, his security access was taken away and his
contract as adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission was terminated.
Oppenheimer later held the academic post of director of the Institute of
Advanced Study at Princeton University. In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson
presented Oppenheimer with the Enrico Fermi Award of the Atomic Energy
Commission. Oppenheimer retired from Princeton in 1966. He died of throat
cancer in 1967.