American Museum of Science and Energy
A room at the American Museum of Science and Energy
The name of this museum makes you think this is just a place to learn about science. Not true.
This is, just as the slogan goes, "where science and history meet." In fact, the historical displays at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge are among the most detailed of any local history museum in Tennessee. And this is a great place to learn about World War II.
A museum display on life in this area before Oak Ridge
On this virtual tour, we're going to focus on the historical displays.
First, let's learn the story of Oak Ridge. If you look at a really old map of Tennessee, you will notice that Oak Ridge isn't there. The place now occupied by Oak Ridge was completely rural before 1942. There were four farming communities in the area, but that was about it other than trees, mountains, and valleys.
A model of Albert Einstein
In 1939, the United States was on the verge of war with Germany, Japan and Italy. That year, a brilliant scientist named Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt informing him that the Germans were on the verge of splitting the atom and creating a powerful new weapon.
A couple of years later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States was drawn into World War II. A few months later, Roosevelt got Congress to secretly fund work on such a weapon in four locations -- Anderson County, Tennessee, being one of the four. The Tennessee site was chosen in part because it was close to Norris Dam, which was new at the time and was producing large amounts of excess electricity that were needed for such a project.
A letter received by someone who owned land in what is now Oak Ridge
With the war on, the government was in a hurry. People who lived on land that the military wanted were told that the government would be buying their property immediately. Many of them were told about the project -- referred to in public documents as the Clinton Engineer Works -- only weeks before they were supposed to be off their farms.
One of these people was Paralee Raby, and hers is an amazing story. Click here to read it.
The K-25 plant
Quickly the site was cleared and three large manufacturing plants were built. The plants were known as X-10, Y-12, and K-25. And, although the details of what went on in these massive facilities is above the scope of this web site, suffice it to say that each of the buildings was involved in trying to separate Uranium 235 -- used in the atomic bomb -- from Uranium 238.
Of course, we know this now, but most of the people who working at Oak Ridge during World War II didn't know anything about Uranium 235 or an atomic bomb. "The manager of one plant, for example, was kept completely isolated from other plants where different processes and methods were used," The New York Times later said. "Work was so compartmentalized that each worker knew only his own job, and had no inkling of how his part fitted into the whole."
Various types of early Oak Ridge housing
Tens of thousands of people were brought in from all over the country to work at these facilities, and in the early years these people were housed in all types of structures. As you can see from these pictures, most people lived in tiny houses that were built rather quickly.
Oak Ridge residents celebrate the end of World War II
By the summer of 1945 Oak Ridge had an estimated 75,000 residents, making the brand new town the fifth largest city in Tennessee. And the project succeeded in its mission. In July 1945 small amounts of Uranium 235 were carried from Oak Ridge to New Mexico, where they were placed in a nuclear bomb known as "Little Boy."
That bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and a few days later Japan surrendered, ending World War II.
The Japanese serviceman's flag
This entire story is told quite well at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. And you will find many artifacts on display. There is, for instance, a model of "Little Boy," the first atomic bomb ever dropped (don't worry; its only a model). There is a dollar bill signed by everyone directly involved in the dropping of the first atomic bomb. There is also a flag that was carried by a Japanese serviceman during World War II, signed by every member of the man's family before he went into battle.
The nuclear power display
Then, of course, there are the science and energy displays, and that is an entire other subject. The American Museum of Science and Energy is the perfect place to learn about electricity, and coal, and hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power. There are hands-on displays that students should find informative and fun.
Finally, you may be curious as to why this little girl's hair is standing on end. The device that she is touching, which you will find at the American Museum of Science and Energy, is known as a Van de Graaf Generator. It makes large amounts of static electricity.
An excellent high school-level book about the development of the atomic bomb was recently written by a teacher in Oak Ridge named Edward Sullivan. It is called The Ultimate Weapon: The Race to Develop the Atomic Bomb, and you can read more about this book by clicking here.