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co-developer of the United States's first atomic and hydrogen bombs
Edward Teller was born into an affluent, educated Jewish family in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on January 15, 1908. A math prodigy, he was educated in private schools, with frequent disruptions from political turmoil caused by the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. In 1926, he entered the University of Karlsruhe (Germany), from which he graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. In 1928 he transferred to the University of Munich to study quantum mechanics. His studies were interrupted, however, by a streetcar accident that severed his leg. After recovering from his injury he resumed his studies at the University of Leipzig, from which he received his Ph.D. in physics in 1930. He then spent two years as a research consultant at the University of Göttingen. In February 1934 he married Augusta Maria Harkanyi.
In 1934 Teller decided to leave Germany to escape the rule of Adolf Hitler. With the aid of the Jewish Rescue Committee, he made his way to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he worked under Niels Bohr at the Institute for Theoretical Physics. In 1935 he was invited to become a professor of Physics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he worked with Russian physicist George Garnow until 1941. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1941.
While at George Washington, Teller worked as a theoretical physicist in the fields of quantum, molecular, and nuclear physics, but his interest eventually turned to the uses of nuclear energy, both fission and fusion. In 1942 Teller was invited to be a part of J. Robert Oppenheimer's summer planning seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, for the origins of the Manhattan Project. He worked with Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago and with Oppenheimer at Berkeley before moving to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943. As head of a group in the Thereotical Physics division at Los Alamos, Teller was able to show through careful calculations that the explosion of a nuclear bomb would be enormously powerful but only destroy a limited area, rather than leading to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction that could conceivably consume the entire earth. The world's first atom bomb was successfully tested at Alamagordo, New Mexico, in 1945.
Throughout the project and after, Teller tried to convince his superiors to pursue fusion and create a thermonuclear weapon, but was constantly turned down. Disappointed, he left Los Alamos in 1946 and returned to the University of Chicago. After the Soviet Union conducted its first test of an atomic device in August 1949, Teller began lobbying the government to support a program to build a hydrogen bomb. After much work, he and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam finally came up with an H-bomb design that would work. Although Congress approved further work, Teller was not chosen to head the project. The first hydrogen bomb was successfully detonated on Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1952.
Disappointed at not being chosen to lead the hydrogen bomb project and dissatisfied with the pace of research and development on thermonuclear and advanced fission weapons at Los Alamos, Teller convinced Congress and the armed forces to establish an independent nuclear-weapons laboratory. His lobbying efforts resulted in establishment of the University of California Radiation Laboratory (now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) in 1952. He subsequently served as consultant and associate director of the lab. Following his retirement from the lab in 1975, he was appointed Director Emeritus at the Livermore Laboratory and senior research fellow at Hoover Institute for the Study of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, positions he held until his death.
Edward Teller died at his home on the Stanford University campus, on September 9, 2003.
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This page was last updated on 08/28/2018.