Robert Brode

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Robert Brode
Robert B. Brode Los Alamos ID.png
Robert Brode's wartime Los Alamos security badge
Born (1900-06-12)June 12, 1900
Walla Walla, Washington, U.S.
Died February 19, 1986(1986-02-19) (aged 85)
Berkeley, California, U.S.
Citizenship United States
Fields Physics
Alma mater
Thesis The Absorption Coefficient for Slow Electrons in Gases (1924)
Known for

Robert Bigham Brode (June 12, 1900 – February 19, 1986) was an American physicist, who during World War II led the group at the Los Alamos laboratory that developed the fuses used in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Early life and education[edit]

Robert Bigham Brode was born in Walla Walla, Washington, on June 12, 1900, the son of Howard S. Brode, a professor of biology at Whitman College, and his wife Martha Catherine née Bigham. He was the second of a set of triplets, being born between his brothers Wallace and Malcolm. They also had an older brother, James Stanley. All four attended Whitman College, and went on to earn doctorates and have distinguished careers as scientists and academics.[1][2]

Brode graduated from Whitman College with his Bachelor of Science degree in 1921, and then entered the California Institute of Technology. He was awarded his Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in physics in 1924, the first year in which CalTech awarded this degree,[3][2] for his thesis on "the absorption coefficient for slow electrons in gases".[4] He showed that molecules with similar arrangements of their external electrons have similar cross sections for collisions with slow electrons. These results could not be readily explained with classical physics, and their importance would not be realised until 1966.[5]

On graduation, Brode became an Associate Physicist at the National Bureau of Standards. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford university in England in 1924 and 1925, and then a National Research Council Fellowship, which he used to study at the University of Göttingen in Germany in 1925 and 1926, and then at Princeton University from 1926 to 1927. On returning to the United States, he married Bernice Hedley Bidwell on September 16, 1926. They had two sons.[3][5]

Brode became an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1927. He became a full professor in 1932. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to return to England and study at Cambridge University and the University of London in 1934 and 1935. While there, he became friends with the British physicist P.M.S. Blackett.[3][5] He was impressed by Blackett's cloud chambers, and set his graduate students to work on projects using them, starting with Dale Corson.[6]

Manhattan Project[edit]

In 1941, after the start of World War II, Brode went to work at Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, where he helped develop the proximity fuse. In 1943, he joined the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory, where was appointed the leader of the E-3 Fusing Group. This group consisted of 14 civilians, 12 military officers and 37 enlisted men of the Special Engineer Detachment. Its task was to develop a fuse that would detonate an atomic bomb at a specified height above the ground.[7] [8]

Normally, bombs are cheap and fuses are relatively expensive, but an atomic bomb is extremely expensive, and any failure of a triggering device is unacceptable. On the other hand, for the same reason, fuses can be employed that would be prohibitively expensive in a conventional bomb. Brode's E-3 group were required to develop a fusing mechanism that would have less than one chance in 10,000 of failing to detonate within 200 feet (61 m) of the required height. What the required height was not initially known, as it depended on the yield, which was uncertain. The group investigated both radar proximity fuses and barometric altimeter fuses. Testing was carried out at the Naval Proving Ground in Dahlgren, Virginia in August 1943 and Muroc Army Air Field in March 1944. In the end, a modified APS-13 Monica tail warning radar known as "Archie" was employed, and the fuses performed flawlessly in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[7] [8]

Later life[edit]

After the war, Brode returned to teaching at Berkeley. In 1950 he was one of a dozen prominent scientists who petitioned President Harry S. Truman to declare that the United States would never be the first to use the hydrogen bomb.[9] In 1951 he returned to England for another year, this time at Manchester University as a Fulbright Scholar.[10]

In addition to his research and teaching, Brode occupied a number of other positions. Brode was chairman of the Advisory Board of the Naval Ordnance Test Station from 1948 to 1955, a member of the National Research Council Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) from 1951 to 1957, and chairman of the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Institute of Physics' Committee on Physics Faculties in Colleges from 1962 to 1965. At various times he was vice president of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics and the American Association of University Professors, a member of the Council of the American Physical Society, president of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, chairman of the Physics Division of the National Research Council, associate director for research of the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. delegate to the International Council of Scientific Unions. He was acting director of the Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory from 1964 to 1965 and director of its Education Abroad Program in the United Kingdom from 1965 to 1967.[10][3]

Brode became a professor emeritus in 1967.[3] He died at his home in Berkeley on February 19, 1986. He was survived by his wife Bernice and his son John.[9] His papers are in the University of California's Bancroft Library in Berkeley.[11]


  1. ^ "Guide to the Howard S. Brode Papers 1890–1958". Northwestern Digital Archives. Retrieved February 11, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Fretter & Judd 1992, p. 27.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Robert Brode". Array of Contemporary American Physicists. Retrieved February 11, 2014. 
  4. ^ "The Absorption Coefficient for Slow Electrons in Gases". California Institute of Technology. Retrieved February 11, 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c Fretter & Judd 1992, p. 28.
  6. ^ Fretter & Judd 1992, p. 29.
  7. ^ a b Fretter & Judd 1992, pp. 30–31.
  8. ^ a b Hawkins 1946, pp. 132–135.
  9. ^ a b "Robert B. Brode, a Physicist; Helped Develop Atom Bomb". The New York Times. February 27, 1986. Retrieved February 11, 2014. 
  10. ^ a b Fretter & Judd 1992, p. 32.
  11. ^ "Finding Aid to the Robert Bigham Brode papers, 1922–1975". Online Archive of California. Retrieved February 11, 2014.