Harold Agnew, key figure in birth of nuclear age, dies
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
The New York Times | October 02,2013
Harold M. Agnew, the last surviving major figure to have been present at the birth of the nuclear age — who helped build the world’s first reactor and atomic bombs, flew on the first atomic strike against Japan, filmed the mushroom cloud, helped perfect the hydrogen bomb and led the Los Alamos National Laboratory at the height of the Cold War — died Sunday at his home in Solana Beach, Calif. He was 92.
He had recently been given a diagnosis of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, his family said.
In a statement, Charlie McMillan, the current director of Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb in the mountains of New Mexico, called Agnew “a national treasure,” saying the United States “will be forever in Harold’s debt.”
Harold Melvin Agnew was born in Denver on March 28, 1921, the only child of a stonecutter of Scotch-Irish heritage. A natural athlete, he pitched his softball team to a Denver championship. He majored in chemistry at Denver University, graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1942 and won a scholarship to Yale.
But the secret wartime effort to build an atomic bomb intruded on his studies. Early in 1942 he was assigned to Enrico Fermi, the Italian Nobel laureate who was helping to lead the project at the University of Chicago. Agnew did what he called “grunt work,” making scientific measurements and getting a hefty dose of radiation.
Redirected because of the health danger, he helped stack tons of graphite bricks and uranium into a neat pile at a university squash court.
On a blustery Chicago day, Dec. 2, 1942, Agnew and a few dozen other people gathered to see if the pile could sustain a chain reaction. Recording pens jumped as atoms split in two. The success meant that, in theory, the human race now had the means to illuminate cities or level them. He was 21.
Agnew arrived at Los Alamos in March 1943 with his wife, Beverly. Amid the tall pines and deep canyons, Agnew helped build and run a particle accelerator whose data helped demonstrate the merits of various bomb designs.
When the world’s first nuclear blast lit up the New Mexico desert before dawn on July 16, 1945, Agnew was already far away, preparing for the bombing of Hiroshima.
On Aug. 6, he boarded a B-29 bomber that accompanied the Enola Gay, which was carrying the bomb code-named “Little Boy.” Agnew and two other scientists measured the size of the shock wave and thus the bomb’s power.
Afterward, he and his colleagues took turns peering out a small window at the mushroom cloud and the ground damage. Agnew filmed the devastation with a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera he had taken along. He was the only person to witness the whole undertaking, from reactor to weapon to Hiroshima.