MAUD Committee

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The first page of the MAUD Committee report, March 1941.

The MAUD Committee was founded by Winston Churchill, in response to Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch's memorandum, in June 1940. Their memorandum was a discussion of the potential relative ease of obtaining a nuclear bomb, compared to earlier projections. All the work in the Frisch-Peierls Memorandum was purely theoretical,[1]:41 so the purpose of the MAUD committee was to do the research required for what Frisch and Peierls called a super bomb. The MAUD Committee investigated if applying nuclear technology to make a bomb was, in reality, feasible.[2]:41 The chair of the committee was Thomson. Each university where research was being done had a commander as well. All the research finally culminated, after fifteen months,[3]:5 in two reports - 'Use of Uranium for a Bomb' and 'Use of Uranium as a source of power' - known collectively as the MAUD report. These reports discussed the necessity of a super-bomb for the war effort. In order to research this further, the British created their own nuclear program officially named Tube Alloys.


Frédéric Joliot-Curie and his colleagues in Paris in April 1939 raised the possibility of an explosive chain reaction in a paper published in Nature. The calculation of criticality was deposited at the Academy of sciences on May 1, 1939 and three patents were filed by two of the team, Hans von Halban and Lew Kowarski. The first two are for the production of nuclear energy, and the third was titled Development of Explosive Charges (Provisional No. 445686). In the same year Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi also independently discovered similar results and warned President Roosevelt in the Einstein–Szilárd letter. Despite almost universal skepticism that an atomic bomb was feasible, George Thomson and Marcus Oliphant then began separate work in their British laboratories.[4] Thompson was unsuccessful because he did not yet have the heavy water that the French has used. However in Oliphant's laboratory were two refugees: Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls who did some calculations on critical masses. Just before the invasion of France in June 1940, Hans Halban and Lew Kowarski and the records and papers of Joliot-Curie's team were smuggled out of France to England. Halban and Kowarksi continued their research at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge for the MAUD Committee and later as part of the Tube Alloys project.

Frisch-Peierls Memorandum[edit]

Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls produced their memorandum in March 1940. It was a three-page memorandum examining the theoretical possibility of a so-called 'super-bomb'. Its three pages were split up into two parts. The first part was a technical blueprint for a hypothetical atomic weapon. In Joliot-Curie's laboratory Francis Perrin had projected that it would take about 44 tonnes to produce the critical mass needed for an explosion.[5] Frisch and Peierls now reported a far less amount of uranium needed to produce a critical mass, at around five kilograms for an equivalent to several thousand tons of dynamite.[3]:4 However, even a one kilogram bomb would be impressive.[3]:143 The second portion of the memorandum dealt with possible strategies of using the atomic bomb. They were the first to realize that there could be an issue with fallout. Because of the potential fallout, they thought that the British would find it morally unacceptable. Shortly after, Winston Churchill formed the Maud Committee to research this problem in more detail.[3]:4

The Thomson Committee[edit]

A Committee was created as a response to the Peierls-Frisch's memorandum.[2]:41 The committee was first named after its chair, George Thomson. The Thomson Committee was quickly exchanged for a more unassuming name, the MAUD Committee.[2]:41 MAUD is assumed by many to be an acronym, however it is not. The name MAUD came to be in an unusual way. Shortly after Germany invaded Denmark, Niels Bohr had sent a telegram to Otto Frisch. The telegram ended with a strange line "Tell Cockcroft and Maud Ray Kent".[1]:45 At first it was thought to be code regarding radium or other vital atomic-weapons-related information, hidden in an anagram. One suggestion was to replace the y with an i, producing 'radium taken'. Regardless of how crazy it seemed it was enough to cause concern in Britain.{[3]:5 Years later, when Bohr returned to England in 1943, it was discovered that the message was addressed to Bohr's housekeeper Maud Ray and John Cockcroft. Maud Ray was from Kent. Thus the committee was named The M.A.U.D. Committee.[1]:45

Organization of the Committee[edit]

Originally constructed under the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Warfare,[1]:45 the MAUD Committee achieved independence in June 1940 with the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Because of the top secret aspect of the project, only British born scientist were considered. Even despite their early contributions, Peierls and Frisch were not allowed to participate in the MAUD committee because, at a time of war, it was considered a security threat to have 'enemy aliens' working on a sensitive project. However, because of the manpower needed to accomplish the project, the Ministry began to recruit ex-aliens or aliens. However, they did not have contracts directly with the individual scientist; their contracts were held with the universities and the universities could hire whomever they wanted. Even before they began to recruit ex-aliens, Peierls and Frisch had made great contributions to the project. After a letter to the Committee head Thomson, it was agreed that Peierls and Frisch would not be a part of the policy committee. A technical sub-committee was formed with Peierls and Frisch to deal with the separation of uranium.[1]:47 The MAUD Policy Committee members were:[1]:45

The Policy was kept small and included only certain representatives from each University Lab. The members of the technical committee were the only scientists who worked in the laboratories, including the 'enemy aliens'.[1]:48

The MAUD Committee's research was split among four different laboratories. Before the fall of 1940, all work was lab research performed at universities, due to strict government regulations. These universities included the University of Liverpool, the University of Birmingham, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge. Each of these laboratories functioned as separate entities of a single system.[2]:42 At first the research was paid for mainly out of the universities own pockets. In the fall of 1940 this changed, the Ministry of Aircraft production signed contracts that promised additional funding for each university. The Ministry gave 3,000 pounds to the laboratory at Cambridge, 1,000 pounds to the laboratory at Oxford, 1,500 pounds to the laboratory at Birmingham, and 2,000 pounds to the laboratory at Liverpool. They also began to pay some university staff's salary. Chadwick, Peierls, and other professors were still paid from university funds. The university provided materials and extra scientists for each of the participating university laboratories.[1]:52

Liverpool University[edit]

The division of the MAUD Committee at Liverpool was led by James Chadwick. At Liverpool they focused on the separation of isotopes through thermal diffusion as was suggested in the Frish/Peierls memorandum. This process is based on the ability of uranium 235 to disperse to a hot surface, while uranium 238 would disperse to a cold surface. Another area of research at Liverpool was to find the probability of actually making a nuclear bomb through cross-sections.[2]:42

The University of Oxford[edit]

The division of the MAUD Committee at Oxford was led by Franz Simon, a German émigré. Simon, who was at risk of exclusion because he was a German émigré, was only able to get involved because of Rudolf Peierls. Peierls pointed out that Simon had already begun research on isotope separation, so the project would get a head start by his participation. The Oxford team was composed mostly non-British scientists, including Nicholas Kurti, Kurt Mendlssohn, and Heinz London. The Oxford team concentrated on isotope separation with a method known as gaseous diffusion.[2]:45

The University of Cambridge[edit]

The division of the MAUD Committee at Cambridge was led by Professor Rideal. They theorized that another element, plutonium, could be used for a bomb. Even though it would have no impact on the program at the time.[2]:43 Halban and Kowarski had also brought the world's entire supply of heavy water from Paris. This would have no impact on the bomb but would later be used in a nuclear reactor.[2]:44

The University of Birmingham[edit]

The division of the MAUD Committee at Birmingham was led by Rudolf Peierls. Peierls and his crew continued worked on the theoretical problems of a nuclear bomb. In essence they were in charge of finding out the technical features of the bomb. They worked on the specifics of a bomb. Also, along with Klaus Fuchs, Peierls interpreted all the experimental data from the other laboratories: Liverpool, Oxford and Cambridge. Peierls also examined the different processes by which they were obtaining isotopes. By the end of the summer in 1940, Peierls preferred gaseous diffusion to thermal diffusion.[2]:44

First meetings[edit]

At Tizard's behest, the Maud Committee first met on 10 April 1940 to consider Britain's actions regarding the "uranium problem". A research programme on isotope separation and fast fission was agreed upon. In June 1940 Franz Simon was commissioned to research on isotope separation through gaseous diffusion. Ralph H. Fowler was also asked to send the progress reports to Lyman Briggs in America from that date.

Parallel work in the USA[edit]

Following the Einstein-Szilard Letter, Lyman Briggs has set up the Advisory Committee on Uranium in October 1939. However many scientists became discontented at the slow, reactive pace and so in June 1940 Franklin Roosevelt set up the National Defence Research Committee headed by Vannevar Bush to mobilise scientific resources. The renamed Uranium Committee reported to Bush. Several scientists were added: Jesse Beams, Ross Gunn, George Pegram, Merle Tuve and Harold Urey. Research continued for another year, primarily concentrating on slow fission for power production, but with a growing interest in isotope separation. The neglected part was fission with fast neutrons. After months of growing pressure from scientists in Britain and in the US (particularly Berkeley's Ernest Lawrence), Vannevar Bush decided to review the prospects of nuclear energy further. Bush was aware the shortcomings and created the Office of Scientific Research and Development which gave Bush and Conant direct access to the President. The Uranium Committee became part of the OSRD and was renamed 'The S-1 Committee'.[4]

Bush engaged Arthur Compton and the National Academy of Sciences. Their report was issued 17 May 1941 but did not address the design or manufacture of a bomb in any detail. Frustration grew again with information emerging from the Maud Committee though several channels from British scientists travelling to the USA, notably the Tizard Mission and from American observers in April and July 1941 at the Maud Committee meetings. A report by the National Academy of Sciences reported again in July 1941 but did not mention a bomb. All the reports sent to the Uranium Committee by contacts with the British had been merely locked by Briggs in his safe. [4]

The MAUD Reports[edit]

The MAUD reports of 15 July 1941 were a consolidation of all the research and experiments the MAUD Committee had completed. After approving its two final reports , the committee. One report was on 'Use of Uranium for a Bomb' and the other was on 'Use of Uranium as a Source of Power'. While some of the report was still theoretical, the reports did answer big questions like, why the uranium 235 was the only possible isotope for a chain reaction, or why it would be a super bomb. In July 1941, Charles Lauritsen, a United States physicist, visited a MAUD committee meeting in July 1941 where the report was being discussed.[4] He reported back to Vannevar Bush.

The first MAUD report concluded that a bomb was feasible, described it in technical detail, and provided specific proposals for developing a bomb, including cost estimates. The bomb would contain about 12 kg of active material which would be equivalent to 1,800 tons of TNT, and release large quantities of radioactive substances which would make places near the explosion site dangerous to humans for a long period. A plant to produce 1 kg of U-235 per day would cost £5 million and would require a large skilled labour force that was also needed for other parts of the war effort. Germany could also be working on the bomb (though German efforts seemed concentrated on the future use of uranium for power and naval propulsion), and so work on the bomb should be continued with high priority in cooperation with the U.S. The Committee recommended that Hans von Halban and Lew Kowarski should move to the U.S. where there were plans to make heavy water on a large scale. Plutonium might be more suitable than U-235, and plutonium research should be continued in Britain.

The second MAUD Report concluded that the controlled fission of uranium could be used to generate heat energy for use in machines, and provide large quantities of radioisotopes which could be used as substitutes for radium. Heavy water or possibly graphite might serve as moderator for the fast neutrons. The 'uranium boiler' (i.e., a nuclear reactor) had considerable promise for future peaceful uses, but was not worth considering during the present war.

Telling the USA[edit]

Britain was at war and felt an atomic bomb was urgent, but the US was not at war. It was Marcus Oliphant who pushed the American programme into action. Oliphant flew to the United States in late August 1941 in an unheated bomber, ostensibly to discuss the radar programme, but actually to find out why the United States was ignoring the MAUD Committee's findings. Oliphant reported: "The minutes and reports had been sent to Lyman Briggs, who was the Director of the Uranium Committee, and we were puzzled to receive virtually no comment. I called on Briggs in Washington, only to find out that this inarticulate and unimpressive man had put the reports in his safe and had not shown them to members of his committee. I was amazed and distressed."

Oliphant then met with the S-1 Section. Samuel K. Allison was a new committee member, a talented experimentalist and a protégé of Arthur Compton at the University of Chicago. Oliphant "came to a meeting," Allison recalls, "and said 'bomb' in no uncertain terms. He told us we must concentrate every effort on the bomb and said we had no right to work on power plants or anything but the bomb. The bomb would cost 25 million dollars, he said, and Britain did not have the money or the manpower, so it was up to us." Allison was surprised that Briggs had kept the committee in the dark.

Oliphant then visited his friend Ernest Lawrence and Enrico Fermi to explain the urgency. Lawrence then contacted Compton and James Conant. Conant finally received the final Maud Report on 3 October 1941. On 9 October Vannevar Bush met the President, who ordered Bush to obtain the blessing for a third report from the National Academy of Sciences. Urey and Pegram were sent to the UK to obtain more information. In December, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) was empowered to engage in large engineering projects in addition to research, and became its director, leading to the creation of the Manhattan Project. Meanwhile, in Britain a separate nuclear bomb programme continued under the code name Tube Alloys. Eventually the British programme was merged into the much larger US programme, see British contribution to the Manhattan Project.

Soviet Union interest[edit]

By the end of 1941, spies within the British government had communicated the conclusions of the MAUD report to the Soviet KGB. In 1943 the NKVD obtained a copy of the final report by the MAUD Committee. This led Joseph Stalin to order the start of a Soviet programme, but with very limited resources. Igor Kurchatov was appointed director of the nascent programme later that year.[6][6]:224


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Gowing, Margaret (1964). Britain and Atomic Energy 1939 - 1945 (1 ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Laucht, Christoph (2012). Elemental Germans: Klaus Fuchs, Rudolf Peierls and the making of British nuclear culture 1939-59. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Szasz, Ferenc Morton (1992). British Scientists and the Manhattan Project. New York: St. Martin's Press. 
  4. ^ a b c d McRae, Kenneth D. Nuclear Dawn: F. E. Simon and the Race for Atomic Weapons in World War II. 
  5. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1986). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Simon & Shuster. ISBN 0671441337. 
  6. ^ a b Gannon, James (2001). Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies: How Spies and Codebreakers Helped Shape the Twentieth Century. Potomac Books. ISBN 1574883674. 

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