Sunday, July 15, 2012
On the Atomic Bomb: When FDR created the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) with Executive Order 8807 in 1941, he directed the U.S. government's resources at producing an atomic bomb. With calls from University of Chicago physicists (Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton, etc.) in the late 1930s to investigate uranium-235 as a potential source of these bombs, the feasibility of producing a bomb according to the principles of nuclear fission became doable. Even designing an atomic bomb seemed relatively straightforward by the early 1940s, but separating U-235 from U-238 presented the biggest problem to physicists and chemical engineers alike. As an isotope, U-235 made up less than 1% of all naturally occurring uranium in the world (unlike U-238, which constituted 99%). On its own, U-235 was not sufficient enough to initiate a chain reaction, so it had to be enriched to at least 80% purity. The first man-made chain reaction with U-235 occurred on December 2, 1942, in a rackets court under the football field at the University of Chicago. There was no cooling system, no radiation shield, and millions of Chicagoans going about their daily routines above ground. With man-made nuclear fission reactions now possible, everything from nuclear bombs to nuclear medicine to nuclear power appeared in reach. Ultimately, through the process of gaseous diffusion, Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, and Crawford Greenewalt were able to place about a billion dollars worth of uranium into "Little Boy" (the bomb that leveled Hiroshima in August 1945).
Sunday, July 1, 2012
On the New Industrial Designers: In the 1930s, there was a belief among many American artists and architects that they could essentially design the United States out of the Depression. According to cultural historian Jeffrey Meikle, by melding art and industry, these new industrial designers felt they could "reverse the Depression's plummeting sales and create a harmonious environment unknown since the Industrial Revolution." This kind of blind optimism about the possibilities of industrial design was very much in line with the idea that "social change follows technological innovation." If the Depression's fundamental economic problem was an over-saturated market caused by mass production, then industrial designers such as Henry Dreyfuss, Norman Bel Geddes, and Raymond Loewy believed they could incite mass consumption by designing streamlined household products. But on the whole, mass produced objects were considered too plain and ugly for mass appeal, so it would take the introduction of new industrial materials like plastics for designers to create their new streamlined objects. The cultural effects stemming from these new designs and materials were two-fold. First, it became O.K. to consume in America, and second, consumption became a necessary prerequisite for being considered modern. And perhaps there was no better demonstration of this modern consumerist mentality than the 1939 World's Fair in New York.