Gladys Owens

Originally published on Technicians Make it Happen 15th May 2019. Below is the full version.

  • Name: Gladys Owens
  • DOB: 1926
  • Age today: 93
  • From: Tennessee, USA
  • Area of work: Industrial technician on the Calutron machines – Manhattan Project
    Without them we… Without Gladys and her fellow ‘Calutron Girls’ the war against Japan may have been prolonged as it would have taken much longer for the first atomic bomb to have been completed.

Gladys Owens was just 19 years of age when she arrived to work in the town of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was 1945 and she was to spend 8 months working there as a technician on the Manhattan Project. Gladys would become one of the “Calutron Girls” whose role, though none of them knew it at the time, was key to the building of the first atomic bomb.

This photograph of the Calutron technicians is one of the most famous photographs from Oak Ridge and Gladys Owens is the technician closest to the camera.
This photograph of the Calutron technicians is one of the most famous photographs from Oak Ridge and Gladys Owens is the technician closest to the camera.

The enrichment of uranium was the one of the most challenging aspects of building the first atomic bomb. It is the process of separating the “weapons grade” uranium isotope, U-235, from the other main isotope of uranium, U-238. This process had never been conducted before and the scale of the challenge required an industrial approach, so Oak Ridge, a town of 75,000 people that sprang up in just 2 years, was built in the Tennessee hills to facilitate this. Oak Ridge wasn’t on any maps and few of the people who worked there knew its true purpose, but this is where Gladys lived and worked from January to August 1945.

D-Unit Loading Operation. Loading handlers are using a loading dolly to install a calutron. Calutrons were referred to as "D-Units" during the war, not as calutrons.
D-Unit Loading Operation. Loading handlers are using a loading dolly to install a calutron. Calutrons were referred to as “D-Units” during the war, not as calutrons.

The machine principally used for the process of enriching uranium was called the Calutron, named after the CALifornia University, where they had been designed by Ernest O. Lawrence and his team, and the cycloTRON, an existing machine on which the design was based. Eventually 1152 of these electromagnetic machines were built and they ran 24 hours a day. This required a very large workforce, which is where Gladys came in. The job advert called for female high school graduates – however, as being a Calutron technician was a difficult job, only two out of every 3000 women who applied were chosen.

Without knowing the exact purpose of her work, Gladys spent her time, as she put it, “watching meters and adjusting dials”. She knew that magnets were involved as “if you wore bobby pins to work, they’d go flying up against the wall.” Gladys remembers their introduction to the work from one of the managers, “We can train you how to do what is needed, but cannot tell you what you are doing. I can only tell you that if our enemies beat us to it, God have mercy on us!” She and her colleagues did not find out what they were doing there until the war was over.

The meters and dials that Gladys was monitoring allowed her to control the electromagnets that were vital to the operation of the Calutrons. To separate the ‘weapons grade’ U-235 from the U-238 the Calutron process involved firing uranium ions through an electromagnetic field. The very slightly different masses of these two ions meant that, with careful control of the electromagnets, the uranium ions could be made to follow different paths and so hit different targets. The uranium could then be collected by scraping it off the target.

Alpha Racetrack, Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant, Oak Ridge
Alpha Racetrack, Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant, Oak Ridge

Control of this process took patience, precision, watchfulness, and timing for the technicians to maximise the amount of U-235 hitting the target. Unfortunately, when Lawrence and his team found out that these technicians had been hired to run their machines they complained. They were convinced that the job required scientists with PhDs, not “hillbilly girls”.

So, the company who had built the Calutrons and hired the technicians, Tennessee Eastman Corporation, decided to run a competition. The technicians were pitted against Lawrence’s team to see who could separate the most U-235 in a week. It is highly likely that the technicians did not know about this competition but despite this disadvantage, the technicians ‘won’ easily. Lawrence, rather condescendingly, put their victory down to the scientists’ superior knowledge of the process. He suggested that this was a handicap as they were trying to fix the process while running it instead of just doing what they were told. This response massively undervalued the hard work, and more importantly the technical skill of the “Calutron Girls”, who continued to run these machines successfully and efficiently until the end of the war.

It was on 6th August 1945 that a voice shouted out into the night from the second floor of an Oak Ridge dormitory, “Uranium! Uranium! Uranium!” a word that no-one in Oak Ridge had dared to utter until that day. It was the day President Harry S. Truman had announced to the world that the US had dropped a new weapon, a uranium bomb, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. For Gladys and the others who worked at Oak Ridge the secret was out and they now knew what they had been working on. Gladys has mixed feelings about her part in the Manhattan project. “Sometimes I’m proud of what I was involved in,” she says, “and sometimes I cry about it. We changed the world”.

Here Gladys is shown seated as she was 59 years ago. Although this is not the control panel she would have worked at, her’s was decommissioned many year ago, the controls are identical to what she would have used in 1945.
Here Gladys is shown seated as she was 59 years ago. Although this is not the control panel she would have worked at, her’s was decommissioned many year ago, the controls are identical to what she would have used in 1945.

After the war, a photo was released of Gladys at work in Oak Ridge that led to her becoming the face of the “Calutron Girls”. She went on to become an accountant and is now retired and living in Bowling Green, Kentucky*.

References

A good introduction to the history of Oak Ridge can be found in Jessica Taylor’s film, Lost Worlds: Secret Cities of the Atomic Bomb (2007). Also, Denise Kiernan’s 2013 book The Girls of Atomic City which is a fascinating read. Information about Gladys Owen’s experiences is spread around various sources including a 2006 Guardian article by Jessica Taylor and an article on D. Ray Smith’s fascinating website. There is also a novelisation of life at Oak Ridge by Janet Beard called The Atomic City Girls: A Novel (2018).

The fascinating technical history of the Calutrons is discussed in various places including:

  • Vincent C. Jones, MANHATTAN: THE ARMY AND THE ATOMIC BOMB, (1985)
  • Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939/1946, A History of The United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume I, (1962)
  • William E. Parkins, The Uranium Bomb, the Calutron, and the Space-Charge Problem, Physics Today 58, 5, 45 (2005).

 * as of 2006 (see Guardian article by Jessica Taylor)

 Other Calutron Girls

There have been several Calutron Girls identified, interviewed, and written about. I have included a few names below:

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