Kansan Lewis Worth Seagondollar worked on the famed Manhattan Project during World War II.
The nuclear physicist, who was among the few to watch the first atomic bomb explode, would later say that the air glowed during the test.
Seagondollar was born in Hoisington in 1920 and grew up in Emporia. He was a 1941 graduate of the Kansas State Teachers College, now Emporia State University, according to an Emporia Gazette article published on Oct. 5, 2013, not long after Seagondollar’s death.
He received his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
In the spring of 1944, Seagondollar was hired to work on the Manhattan Project. He was one of the nation’s brightest physicists and performed experiments at Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory. He was in the W Group, named because Los Alamos was using two Van de Graaff generators from the University of Wisconsin. He helped build the first Van de Graaff particle accelerator.
“The purpose of the laboratory there was to ultimately take the uranium-235 that was going to come from Oakridge, Tennessee, and the plutonium-239 that was going to come from Hanford, Washington, and devise and develop these into an explosive device which would be used against the Japanese in World War II,” Seagondollar told the American Center for Physics in a speech dated July 24, 2007.
As one of the youngest people on the project, he was assigned to work the night shift – under armed guards who made sure the plutonium stayed in the laboratory.
One night, Seagondollar had an accident, and two hemispheres that encased the plutonium were knocked over. He was by himself. He caught one in his hand, but the other fell onto a steel table and was dented. Without fixing the dented hemisphere, the two halves wouldn’t fit together, and he couldn’t continue the experiment. And, if he had damaged the hemisphere, Seagondollar said, the plutonium “stuff would oxidize in the air. I checked very quickly, and there were no alpha particles coming out of this damaged hemisphere.”
So, like a true Kansan, he set out to repair the hemisphere.
Seagondollar went next door to the laboratory and found a gas mask and a ball peen hammer. Then, according to the Gazette article, he went back to the lab and began gently hammering the hemisphere back into shape.
On July 16, 1945, Seagondollar watched as the first atomic bomb was detonated, known as the Trinity Test.
He watched from nine miles away with his back toward the blast, using five pieces of blue glass that he had taped to a welder’s hood.
“I’m looking in the opposite direction,” Seagondollar said. “The amount of light that I saw there was the most intense light I have ever seen in my life, and I hope to God I never see anything like that. There were mountains in the distance, and they actually seemed to mechanically jump forward. Like looking into a photographer’s light bulb, except this is absolutely everywhere.”
A month after the explosion, Seagondollar said, he went with a friend to the blast site and saw a hole in the ground. The desert sand around the blast site had melted into radioactive green glass.
A few weeks later, on Aug. 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, killing approximately 80,000 people. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, where 40,000 died. Each exposed thousands more people to radiation.
After the war, Seagondollar was a physics professor at the University of Kansas and then was head of the physics department at North Carolina State University. He also was a physicist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and worked for General Electric’s Hanford Laboratory.
Seagondollar died on Sept. 20, 2013, at age 92.
This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.
To watch a video of Worth Seagondollar explaining his account of watching the first nuclear bomb explosion, visit Kansas.com