Halfway Through First Season of WGN’s Manhattan

Workers loading uranium slugs into the X-10 Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Photo public domain

LAHS News:

There was a great turnout for the Los Alamos Historical Society’s viewing of the seventh episode of WGN’s new series, Manhattan, a fictionalized look at life in Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project.

The episode was high in drama, but we found a lot of history to discuss! Every week the Society updates a bulletin board in the Museum to continue exploring questions and reactions as the 13-episode series continues. Previous episodes are discussed on this website, and on our Facebook page.

Join the Los Alamos Historical Society 8-9:30 p.m. Sundays at Time Out Pizzeria in Los Alamos for a viewing and discussion of Manhattan (TV-14 rating).

How many channels did X-10 have?
The X-10 graphite reactor at Oak Ridge was constructed with 1,248 channels (Manhattan got this right!) in which rows of uranium slugs formed long rods. Slugs were pushed into the channels from the face of the pile and the irradiated slugs would fall from the back wall through a chute into an underwater bucket. These slugs were stored underwater to somewhat reduce the radioactivity then eventually transported to the chemistry division and the plutonium was separated out. The X-10 reactor was continuously cooled with air that circulated through the channels on all sides of the slugs.

Were there problems with X-10 starting up?
No. However there was a problem when the B Reactor at Hanford Site in Washington started up. This reactor was the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. When it first went critical it was operating with 1,500 tubes filled with uranium fuel. This amount of tubes was not enough to maintain the nuclear chain reaction and the tubes were producing another element called xenon that was “poisoning” the reaction by capturing too many neutrons. The reactor was shut down. It was discovered that the addition of 504 more tubes filled with uranium fuel solved the problem and plutonium was successfully produced.

Were there parties like that?
We aren’t sure if Abby was on or off the Hill at that party, but it reminded us some of the dorm parties thrown by bachelor scientists. In Tales of Los Alamos, Bernice Brode described them as “the biggest and brassiest parties…the boys took out all furniture from the common rooms to make room for dancing.” She remembers punches made with whatever liquor could be got, with maybe a few small cans of fruit juice “for style,” all poured over a slab of ice in a huge plastic bowl borrowed from a chemistry lab.

Was Dr. Sinclair based on a real person?
There were many African American scientists on the Manhattan Project, but none that we’ve found at Los Alamos or at Oak Ridge. Many worked at the Met Lab in Chicago. One of the best known is chemist Samuel Proctor Massie, who went on to become President of North Carolina College and later the first African American professor at the Naval Academy.

Was there only one female scientist?
There were multiple female scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project. One, Maria Goeppert Mayer, joined the Manhattan Project in the spring of 1942 and ultimately won a Nobel Prize. During the Manhattan Project she worked with Harold Urey on the separation of isotopes of uranium at Columbia university in the codenamed SAM (Substitute or Special Alloy Metals) Laboratory. Goeppert worked for a short time in Los Alamos beginning in February 1945 for Edward Teller, but moved shortly thereafter in July 1945 when her husband returned from the Pacific. She accepted a job at Argonne National Laboratory in 1946 and received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963.


  • The Forbes Prize for physicists is an invention of the show.
  • The poem quoted in this episode was “Mending Wall,” written by Robert Frost in 1914.
  • The wooden chimney on Paloma’s home is very unlikely.
  • “Meltdown” was first used in reference to nuclear reactors in 1956. The X-10 reactor was originally called the “X-10 pile” or the “Clinton pile,” but over the course of the Project “reactor’ came to replace the word “pile.”
  • Oak Ridge was a dry town, and in his interview on the Voices of the Manhattan Project site, chemist George Cowan remembered that he “packed a suitcase full of bottles of rye” for a trip to Oak Ridge.
  • The establishment of Site Y not only dislocated Hispanic homesteaders but also prevented local Puebloans from accessing areas traditionally used for rituals. The Tewa traditionally perform a releasing rite on the fourth evening after a death to conclude a soul’s journey to the underworld.
  • The official Girl Scout uniform of the 1940’s consisted of a medium green dress for Intermediates. The dresses had buttons instead of zippers because of Wartime restrictions on the use of metals. Windsor ties also replaced neckerchiefs in 1943 to conserve fabrics.
  • Frank Winter: “This’ll all be Indian land. Like it never happened.”
  • Oppenheimer, when asked after the war what should happen to Los Alamos: “Give it back to the Indians.”    
  • Charlie to Helen, discussing the reactor at Oak Ridge: “Hope the natives are friendly.”
  • Arthur Compton telling James Conant of Fermi’s successful nuclear reactor in Chicago in code over the phone:
  • Compton: “The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.”
  • Conant: “How were the natives?”
  • Compton: “Very friendly.”

For more information, call the Historical Society at 505.662.6272.


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