In the mid-1950s, the small, secret weapons laboratory that eventually became Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was more vulnerable than is commonly recognized to being marginalized or closed, according to a physicist who is studying the Laboratory’s early years.

After three failed nuclear tests in the early to mid 1950s, there were recommendations in influential government circles that the young laboratory either be closed or reduced to a mere support role for Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, the physicist found.

In another surprising finding, the reversal of fortune that brought success and recognition to the young Livermore laboratory in the late 1950s may have resulted from the illnesses of three of the laboratory’s leaders, Ernest Lawrence, Edward Teller and Herbert York in 1954. They were laid up for months, forcing the responsibility of scientific leadership on to the shoulders of two brilliant, young physicists, John Foster and Harold Brown.

The originality of these two scientists and the teams they assembled led to nuclear weapon design changes that were soon demonstrated in successful explosive tests, which led to warheads small enough to fit on submarine-carried missiles. They altered the nuclear arsenal forever.

The physicist who conducted the study is Thomas Ramos, deputy program director in Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s defense programs. Most of his study is classified and publicly unavailable because it covers the detailed history of the Laboratory’s weapons design program.

However, the story of the Laboratory’s formation and the military, political and scientific currents that shaped the history of the time are public. Ramos spoke about them at a meeting of the Livermore Laboratory Retirees Association earlier this month.

He found two books particularly helpful: An American Genius, by Herbert Childs, the official University of California biography of Ernest Lawrence; and The Making Of The Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes.

In addition, he has interviewed many of the key Laboratory players from the early days: John Foster, Harold Brown, Mike May and others.

The Laboratory was created in 1952 to give a competitive impetus to the U.S. nuclear weapons program, which was widely recognized for its success in bringing World War II to a dramatic and sudden close.

The nuclear weapons of that era were large, heavy and difficult to carry, so there was interest in reducing their size and weight to make them more credible weapons in the face of what many saw as a continuing communist threat. However, many of those who worked on the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, the University of Chicago and elsewhere thought that there was no need to create nuclear weapons much more powerful than the ones that destroyed two Japanese cities in 1945.

Countering this view was an increased feeling of alarm about communism, particularly after the Soviet Union’s unexpected detonation of a nuclear explosive in 1949.

Two who felt that alarm were Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller. Teller, the Jewish refugee from fascism who feared totalitarianism in any form, was still at Los Alamos, continuing his long-time interest in concepts that might lead to a far more powerful “Super” bomb based on the release of fusion energy rather than fission.

Lawrence, an extraordinarily energetic experimental physicist, traveled the country discussing his concerns about American security now that Joseph Stalin had the atomic bomb.

Lawrence’s multidisciplinary approach to science at the Berkeley Radiation Lab had played a major role in the development of American physics over the past two decades. He was also extremely influential in the application of science to the War effort, helping organize R&D efforts ranging from the huge atom bomb project to the development of radar and then providing gifted staff to contribute to the vital work.

Teller and Lawrence agreed on the need for the Superbomb as well as on the advantages of creating a second laboratory beyond the one at Los Alamos. They had essential allies in such figures as Connecticut Sen. Brian McMahon, who had helped create the Atomic Energy Commission, and Alfred Loomis, the New York lawyer and physicist who helped make radar a success.

Teller and Lawrence had to have allies, because creation of a second laboratory was opposed by a variety of influential figures, starting with Los Alamos director Norris Bradbury. Bradbury feared that a second laboratory would pull scarce human and material resources away from the isolated northern New Mexico site and weaken the nation’s nuclear weapons program, Ramos recalled.

Even the Atomic Energy Commission was opposed, following the recommendation of its General Advisory Committee of experts, according to Ramos.

On the other hand, Teller and Lawrence continued to find new allies including Jimmy Doolittle, the famous Air Force general who led bombing missions over Japan, and David Griggs, the geophysicist who founded RAND Corporation and later became chief scientist for the Air Force.

To Ramos, one of the lessons that emerges from his study is the importance of creating and maintaining strong relations with key leaders who can be allies in efforts that require government support.

Fears that the Soviets might be moving from a fission weapon to a far more powerful fusion bomb ultimately tilted the argument in favor of creation of a second laboratory. Several candidate sites were suggested and rejected. The one eventually chosen was an old Naval Air Station just east of Livermore where an experimental accelerator was being developed in hopes of generating a domestic supply of nuclear materials for the weapons program.

The small laboratory at Livermore opened in September 1952. Ramos quotes Herb York, the first director, as remembering working in un-air-conditioned offices on 112° days. Ramos brought chuckles from the Lab retirees when he explained that the operation was small at first in part because “Ma Bell would only give them eight telephones, and one of those was for the gate guard.”

The scientific staff were mostly from the Berkeley Radiation Lab, many of them having been part of a 1951 effort to develop improved detectors to support the Los Alamos nuclear test program.

Although York was supposed to be in charge, Lawrence was the true authority at Livermore, Ramos believes. Lawrence was a “workaholic.” He had surprised both York and Foster during their graduate school days by wandering in to the Berkeley Radiation Lab late in the evening while they were putting the final touches on doctoral theses. Ramos suspects that Lawrence saw a kindred, hard-working spirit in York, which is why he chose him to be the first Livermore lab director.

Livermore was supposed to explore new nuclear design directions rather than follow the lead of Los Alamos, Ramos said. During Teller’s time in New Mexico, Los Alamos had already developed the concept of the fusion Super bomb and was beginning to prove its practicality in nuclear tests.

Los Alamos was already satisfying the Air Force, at that time the principal customer for nuclear weapons, by providing powerful strategic bombs. These were large, heavy and of no military value for the Army or the Navy, which had no practical way to deploy them.

Livermore was thus forced to innovate, particularly along the lines of miniaturization. In this, they were both helped and held back by the fertile imagination of Edward Teller. Teller’s scientific ideas were often impractical, but he was forceful and stubborn in pursuing them. His dominance put a difficult burden on a talented but young scientific staff.

In any event, Livermore’s first three nuclear tests were failures. One test, Ruth, merely bent the shot tower, the metal structure that had held the putative nuclear explosive above ground.

Los Alamos couldn’t resist poking fun at the young laboratory. It sent a framed photograph of the damaged tower structure and asked if Livermore would consider leaving its future shot towers intact so Los Alamos could reuse them.

After these failures, the head of the General Advisory Committee, the group of experts that advised the Atomic Energy Commission, called Livermore’s efforts “amateurish” and wondered whether it would ever be “an important laboratory.”

Ironically in 1954, it was the illnesses of the Laboratory’s three leaders that led to a dramatic and far-reaching change in fortunes. Lawrence and Teller were sidelined for months with colitis, while York came down with a persistent, debilitating disease that some believe may have been Valley fever.

Left in charge were 32-year-old John Foster and 28-year-old Harold Brown, both to become laboratory directors and national scientific leaders in future years. While Ramos was unable to discuss specific nuclear weapon design changes, he said that they led to higher explosive yield in smaller, lighter packages that in time made it possible for nuclear warheads to be carried on missiles that fit on submarines and that could be used for the battlefield.

These changes almost certainly could not have been made at Los Alamos, even by Foster and Brown, Ramos believes. Los Alamos organization was top-down and relatively formal. It consisted of distinct, high quality technical groups, each of which carried out its separate function, guided overall by theoretical physicists.

By contrast, he said, Livermore was prohibited from following the large-weapon path of Los Alamos, which forced it to seek innovative means of “going small.”

Guided by Lawrence’s legacy from the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, Livermore staff were young experimentalists who shifted fluidly between groups as jobs required. They lacked job titles for the most part – even York, who led the Livermore site, did not receive the title of Director until Lawrence suggested it offhandedly in 1954.

Most important, perhaps, Lawrence was always upbeat and looking to the future. He would not allow gloom or despondency. Even after the third failed nuclear test, he showed up at the Livermore site and told the young scientists not to despair but to ask what they could learn from the failures.

Learn they did, and the Laboratory was soon “leading the world in nuclear weapon design,” Ramos said.