Ursinus College and the Manhattan Project
The 2023 film “Oppenheimer” has brought the story of the atomic bomb back into the popular culture spotlight. But did you know that two Ursinus College alumni worked on the infamous “Manhattan Project”? John DeWire (Class of 1938) and Evan Snyder (Class of 1944) each provided expertise to the Project prior to their distinguished careers in research and teaching.
Begun in 1942, The Manhattan Project was a research and development project during World War II that produced the world’s first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States and facilitated in a remote location, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. The project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the United States Army Corps of Engineers while the Laboratory was headed by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical and nuclear physicist.
The success of the project led to the creation of the first nuclear bombs. Testing of the nuclear bomb, secretly known as the “Trinity Test,” occurred on July 16th, 1945. Shortly after the Trinity test, the atomic bomb known as Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, a city in Japan, on August 6th, 1945. Just three days later, the second atomic bomb, Fat Man, was dropped on another Japanese city, Nagasaki. The dropping of these bombs officially forced the Japanese to surrender. The Manhattan Project ended in 1947.
According to the Department of Energy, the Project employed a massive (yet secret) labor force – 130,000 at its peak – of military, civilian and scientific personnel. Among them: Ursinus College graduates Dr. John W. DeWire (1916-1990) and Dr. Evan S. Snyder (1924-2009).
John DeWire graduated magna cum laude from Ursinus College in 1938 (with Physics Department Honors) and did graduate work in experimental nuclear physics at Ohio State University where he earned his Ph.D. in 1942. He worked on a uranium isotope separation project on Robert R. Wilson’s team at Princeton University until being recruited by Oppenheimer to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. DeWire recalled these events in the October 24, 1974 Ursinus College Weekly: “In January, 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer came to Princeton, told us about the chain reaction that [Enrico] Fermi and his co-workers had brought about in Chicago the previous month, and asked us to go to Los Alamos to help establish a laboratory to investigate the possibility of an atomic weapon.” DeWire was tasked with testing the physics of nuclear properties for the design of nuclear weapons and measured the neutron growth rate at the first nuclear explosion. In the Spring 1946 Ursinus College Alumni Journal, DeWire recounted his experience as an official observer of the Trinity Test: “At dawn of the morning of July 16, I stood on the desert in New Mexico and saw six miles away the explosion of the first atomic bomb … the whole desert suddenly became brighter than the brightest midday. I could feel the radiant heat in the first instant of the explosion. The ball of fire had to be observed through the most dense welding goggles; otherwise it would have caused temporary blindness.”
Following his time at Los Alamos, Dr. DeWire worked at Cornell University as a research associate and distinguished physics department faculty member for forty years until retiring in 1986. In 1982, he recorded an interview with historian Martin J. Sherwin, co-author of American Prometheus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The interview and transcript are available at the “Voices of the Manhattan Project” website, a joint project of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and the Los Alamos Historical Society.
Evan S. Snyder graduated magna cum laude from Ursinus College in 1944 (with Physics Department Honors) and immediately began teaching at Ursinus. He was quickly drafted into the U.S. Army, however, and found himself supporting the war effort in Los Alamos as a Technician 4th Grade with the 9812th Technical Service Unit and worked as an Electronics Engineering Aide for the Manhattan Project. According to Keystone Grange No. 2 in Trappe (a fraternal organization and agricultural club Snyder would later join), “Evan often reflected in seminars his inner conflict with having worked on such an enormous project of such prestige, while knowing that the end result would be two-fold; the atomic bomb would perish lives and put an end to World War II.”
Snyder returned to Ursinus College in 1946 and, while teaching, earned his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. In the early 1950s, he worked with fellow Physics Professor Dr. John Heilemann to develop a new type of cloud chamber after a thief stole equipment from the Physics Lab (as told in the March 1955 Ursinus College Alumni Journal). For 45 years he would serve many roles on the campus, including Chair of the Physics Department and Acting Dean of the College. As a lecturer, he was most famously known for riding a unicycle on a lab bench to demonstrate the principles of force. The November 9, 1979 Grizzly newspaper details how Dr. Snyder spent many of his summers: teaching for the National Science Foundation as a Visiting Professor at New Mexico State University, doing research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and (in 1961) analyzing Air Force weapons systems for the Pentagon. During this same period in the 1960s, Snyder served as a member of the Montgomery County Civil Defense Council. He provided instruction in the proper use of Geiger Counters to test for radiological fallout (as noted in the November 29 1962 Independent and Montgomery Transcript) and advocated for the use of fallout shelters in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States in a November 17 1960 Independent and Montgomery Transcript letter to the editor.
Evan Snyder had many other interests, including Pennsylvania German studies. The April 3, 1975 Ursinus Weekly newspaper describes the introduction of the Pennsylvania Dutch Studies program at Ursinus College, with Snyder responsible for language and linguistics and Dr. William T. Parsons focusing on art, culture and history. Snyder was a member of the Trappe Historical Society, the Pennsylvania German Society, the Pennsylvania Folklife Society, the Goschenhoppen Historians and the Pennsylvania Canal Association. Long after his retirement in 1991, Dr. Snyder never stopped teaching. He continued to lecture and provide demonstrations at the Kutztown Folk Festival, including showing how simple objects like string, paper and wood could be turned into amusing toys for children. Watching an old-time toy demonstration (from 2007) preserved by Kutztown University, it is easy to imagine how he must have enthralled students in his physics classes at Ursinus College.
For more information about Ursinus College alumni, World War II, and other topics, please consult the Ursinusiana Collection in Digital Commons or plan a visit to the Archives in Myrin Library.
Special thanks to Myrin Library Intern Brianna Moscarelli for contributing to this story.