Leslie Groves had a pretty big job already. As a colonel in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers, he had overall responsibility for the construction of the Pentagon. As a highly-disciplined peacetime officer, his management skills were valued by the War Department. But they had a bigger project in mind: The Manhattan Project, America’s efforts to build an atomic weapons capability. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is his legacy.
After 1947, the city became the responsibility of the Atomic Energy Commission. One of their briefs was to promote the “peaceful use of the atom,” and the American Museum of Atomic Energy was among their finer efforts. Generations of East Tennessee children were educated, if not indoctrinated in the benefits and the hazards of atomic energy – but mostly the benefits – while many of their parents fought the Cold War.
No child knew what his parent did in Oak Ridge. They knew plants and gates. They knew job titles, vaguely (engineer, machinist, chemist, physicist). But every child knew everything there was to know about atomic bombs and medical isotopes – because of this museum.
For a generation or more, a highlight of any visit to the museum was exposing a silver dime to a radioactive source and then having that dime sealed into a glass-faced capsule. Children then tested the radioactivity of their keepsake by passing it under a Geiger counter, setting off a rapid clacking to prove it was really “hot.” Of course, those dimes went right into every child’s front pocket.
Another highlight was the demonstration of the Van de Graaff generator, which generated a very high voltage charge. Selected children would be called up to place one hand on the generator and to take a fluorescent bulb in the other. The audience watched in wonder as the whirring machine’s electric charge passed through the child to light the bulb. Hysterics ensued, too, because the discharge caused the hair on the child’s head to rise straight into the air.
We tell you these stories here because you won’t have the same experience at today’s museum. But you will learn all about energy in all its forms, including nuclear, geothermal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, and more. In addition, you’ll see a dramatic exhibit that explains the who, the what, and the why of Oak Ridge. We’ll spend the morning here.
American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge, Tennessee