Materials Documenting the Birth of the Nuclear Age to Be Digitized

Physicist Leo Szilard

The papers of Leo Szilard, one of the nation’s most influential scientists, will soon be digitized by the University of California, San Diego Library, thanks to a $93,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

The Library’s Leo Szilard materials, which extend from 1938 to 1998, chronicle the birth of the nuclear age, the work of the Manhattan Project—which Szilard helped to create—and the beginnings of the study of molecular biology. While the physicist and inventor played an essential role in the development of the atomic bomb, he was a passionate advocate for global arms control and argued for using the bomb as a deterrent, not as a force for destruction.

Szilard working with Albert Einstein on his letter to President Roosevelt, which resulted in the Manhattan Project.

Principal Investigator for the digitization project, which is expected to take approximately two years, is Brian E. C. Schottlaender, the Audrey Geisel University Librarian at UC San Diego. The project will be administered by Lynda Claassen, director of the Library’s Mandeville Special Collections, which houses the Szilard papers.

“We are very pleased to have received this grant from the NHPRC to digitize these historically important and influential materials,” said Schottlaender. “The Szilard papers are fascinating because they reveal the back story of how the atomic bomb was created, and the moral and ethical dilemmas that that powerful creation caused for Szilard and his fellow scientists.”

Physicist Leo Szilard

More than 50,000 items will be digitized through the project, said Schottlaender, including some 550 photographs, as well as several hours of video and audio recordings. The papers include correspondence with numerous fellow scientists with whom Szilard collaborated, including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Jonas Salk, Edward Teller, and Linus Pauling. Also included are a variety of biographical materials, such as immigration papers and passports—Szilard was born in Budapest, emigrating to the U.S. in 1938-- and biographical articles and sketches.

In addition to manuscripts, scientific papers, and notebooks, the collection includes drafts, figures, and notes related to the Szilard’s patents, including an early patent in refrigeration held with Albert Einstein and the patent for a “neutronic reactor” developed with Enrico Fermi. Materials related to Szilard’s singular achievements on the “nuclear chain reaction” and “chemostat” are also part of the collection.

Draft pages of Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt (above and below).

“While this collection has been well-used by scholars and researchers, making these materials available digitally will significantly increase their usage,” said Claassen. “It will also expand awareness of Szilard’s work, and the example he provided of how scientists can operate more fully in society, impacting not only the direction of science, but also the world of politics and humanitarianism.”

The UC San Diego Library houses a substantial collection of materials on 20th century science and science policy, including the papers of some of the nation’s most renowned scientists, such as Jonas Salk, Stanley Miller, and Leslie Orgel, as well as Nobel Laureates Harold Urey, Hannes Alfven, and Maria Goeppert Mayer. The Library is also the sole U.S. repository for the papers of world-renowned neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate Francis Crick.

About the UC San Diego Library

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