William Shurcliff

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William Asahel Shurcliff (March 27, 1909 – June 20, 2006) was an American physicist.


He received his BA cum laude in 1930, a PhD in Physics in 1934, and a degree in Business Administration in 1935, all from Harvard University. In the 1930s he was Spectrophotometric Laboratory at the Calco Chemical Division of the American Cyanamid Company.

Atomic bomb[edit]

In 1942 he joined the staff of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, where he worked in the Liaison Office, processing technical information obtained from overseas and routing it to divisions within US government research where it could be useful. In May 1942 he was chosen by his boss, Vannevar Bush, to be part of S-1 Section, which would become the Manhattan Project to make the atomic bomb. Shurcliff's role was specifically to be a censor of patents: he would review patent applications from the private sector which appeared to impinge on topics being developed in secret by the government, and put them under temporary secrecy orders. As he put it, his job was to "locate, examine, and make secret all non-gov’t-controlled U.S. patent applications related to S-1 (the atomic bomb)." Through October 1944, he "put to sleep" (as he put it) at least 131 patent applications from 95 separate inventors.[1]

He later served as an assistant to Richard Tolman, another physicist working on the Manhattan Project, helping to copyedit the Smyth Report, the first official history of the Manhattan Project. In 1946, he serve as the official historian to Operation Crossroads, the first postwar nuclear test series.

In the late 1940s, he worked for Polaroid Corporation, where "he worked extensively in optics, held more than 20 patents and refined the automatic-focus slide projector."[2]

Opposition to supersonic passenger planes[edit]

He "went on to play an outspoken role in defeating plans for a supersonic passenger plane in the 1960s, while working as a senior research associate at the Cambridge Electron Accelerator. He co-founded the Citizens' League Against the Sonic Boom, and was a member of the advisory committee to the Anti-Concorde Project.[3]

Passive solar building design[edit]

In the 1970s and 1980s, he became an advocate for passive solar building design and superinsulation.[4]


He opposed the Strategic Defense Initiative.


  • 1947: Bombs at Bikini: the official report of Operation Crossroads, W. H. Wise.
  • 1944: Polarised Light, Van Nostrand Momentum Book (for the Commission on College Physics) with Stanley S Ballard
  • 1966: Polarized Light: Production and Use, Harvard University Press.
  • 1970: SST and Sonic Boom Handbook, Ballantine Books.
  • 1978: Solar Heated Buildings of North America: 120 Outstanding Examples, Brick House Publishing.
  • 1979: New Inventions in Low Cost Solar Heating: 100 Daring Schemes Tried and Untried, Brick House Publishing.
  • 1981: Super Insulated Houses and Double Envelope Houses: A Survey of Principles and Practice, Brick House Publishing.


  1. ^ Alex Wellerstein, "Patenting the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Intellectual Property, and Technological Control" _Isis_ 99 (2008): 57–87.
  2. ^ Bernstein, Adam (June 28, 2006). "Physicist William Shurcliff; Advocated for Public Interest". Washington Post.
  3. ^ Wald, Matthew L. (June 28, 2006). "William A. Shurcliff, Who Helped Develop Atomic Bomb, Dies at 97". New York Times.
  4. ^ Denzer, Anthony (2013). The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design. Rizzoli. ISBN 978-0847840052.

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