Time when atomic bombs were assembled by hands

When the US, UK and Canada were trying to develop and tinker with radioactive materials in order to perfect an atomic bomb, scientists from all the three nations were hard at work and the process of developing the atomic bomb was codenamed, ‘The Manhattan Project.’ In order to check the reactions and get readings and data for the nuclear reaction experiments, scientists used to handle the dangerous plutonium radioactive core with their bare hands. They used various other elements in order to see how they reacted with plutonium core and then worked on perfecting the atomic bomb.


The whole thing was later known as tickling the dragon’s tail and after the plutonium core took the lives of two eminent scientists, it was locked away forever. Here is a recollection of the most famous criticality accident which took the life of Louis Slotin.

1 Louis Slotin: the scientist who tickled the dragon’s tail

Louis Slotin was a Canadian physicist and a chemist who worked on the coveted Manhattan project. The Manhattan project was a research project that resulted in the production of the first nuclear weapon during the World War II. It involved scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Slotin used to work with the cores of uranium and plutonium in order to find out their critical mass values. He worked in the Los Alamos laboratory and unfortunately became the second person to be killed in a criticality accident.

Louis Slotin

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2 Procedure of assembling the bombs

Slotin’s procedure to develop atomic bombs was based on an experiment he designed himself along the lines of the theory of another scientist. He used a plutonium core which was later dubbed as the demon core for its involvement in killing two people, including Slotin. Slotin used to lower a half shell of beryllium, which was known as the tamper over the core, stopping just before the two fit together nicely. The tamper would then reflect the neutrons emitted from the plutonium core, back and this would start a nuclear reaction, albeit a weak one that was short lived. This would help the scientists collect data and readings. Slotin held the tamper with his left hand and he held a long screwdriver that he used to keep the two things separated.

Procedure of assembling the bombs

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3 The Demon Core accident

On May 21st in 1946, Slotin was performing the same experiment using the beryllium half shell and the 13.7 lb plutonium core. The core had caused a death previously, that of Harry Daghlian Jr., who had accidently dropped a tungsten brick on the plutonium core. He was irradiated severely and died of radiation poisoning 25 days after the incident.


Slotin on the other hand was performing the experiment with extreme care. The screwdriver which he used, to keep the core and the shell apart slipped out and the shell fell upon the plutonium core, causing a critical reaction and a burst of hard radiation. Scientists in the room saw a blue glow of air ionization and felt extremely hot.

The Demon Core accident

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Slotin and seven other people immediately felt a burning feeling in their bodies. Slotin vomited just as he left the building and was later admitted to the hospital due to radiation poisoning. After suffering from the effects of it, like severe diarrhea, intestinal paralysis, gangrene and massive blisters on his hands and body, he fell into a coma on May 30 and died the same day.


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