This Day in Jewish History

1908: Difficult Genius Behind H-bomb Is Born

Edward Teller reportedly implored Israeli officials to promise him they'd never sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They still haven't.

Fastfission / Wikimedia Commons

January 15, 1908, is the birthdate of Edward Teller, the Hungarian-born nuclear physicist who helped create the atomic bomb, and led the effort to create the far more powerful American thermonuclear hydrogen bomb - and whose abrasiveness and volatility made him a figure of controversial reputation.

Ede Teller, as he was called in Hungarian, was born in Budapest to a prosperous Jewish family. His father, Max Teller, was an attorney; his mother, the former Ilona Deutsch, a pianist.

The first decades of the 20th century were a time of political upheaval in Hungary, particularly after World War I, when the monarchy of the empire was replaced, first by a communist regime and then by the fascist, anti-Semitic government of Miklos Horthy.

In 1926, Teller left for Germany, where he stayed for the next seven years. He studied chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe, and then earned his Ph.D., in 1930, at the University of Leipzig, under the mentorship of Werner Heisenberg, the founder of quantum mechanics.

During a brief period of studies in Munich, in 1928, Teller’s right foot was crushed under a streetcar, and for the rest of his life he walked with the help of a prosthetic foot.

Teller spent two years as a research fellow at the University of Gottingen, but left Germany as soon as Hitler came to power, in early 1933. The International Rescue Committee helped him leave, first for Copenhagen, where he spent a year working with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, and then to England. In February of 1934, he married Augusta Maria Harkanyi, who remained his wife until her death, in 2000.

By 1935, Teller had relocated to the United States, spending his first few years working at George Washington University, in the District of Columbia.

In a biographical sketch of Teller, the physicist Freeman Dyson stressed how happy a period this was for Teller, who “looked back on those years with nostalgia as a time when he could do science with everyone and be friends with everyone, before the bitter struggles over nuclear politics took him away from science and tore apart his friendships.”

Even before the outbreak of World War II, Teller had moved to Columbia University, where he worked with Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard on building a nuclear reactor. In 1941, Teller became a U.S. citizen, and was involved from early on in the development of the bomb.

Feeling betrayed by Oppenheimer

Teller, however, was always more interested in nuclear fusion (the process that drives the thermonuclear bomb) than in the fission that powers the A-bomb. This was a cause of some conflict with J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s director, which was only exacerbated when Teller learned that Oppenheimer had misled him about his own role in the U.S. decision to drop the first bombs on populated areas in Japan.

In 1954, Teller became the only scientist colleague to testify against Oppenheimer during the hearing that led to the removal of the latter’s security clearance, which effectively ended Oppenheimer’s leadership role at the national level.

From then on, Teller was ostracized by many of his scientific peers, though this did not end his influential role as an advisor to the president and defense officials. When President Harry Truman gave the green light to development of an H-bomb, in 1949, it was Teller who led the effort, at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory he helped establish and run, outside San Francisco.

Teller also served as an advisor to Israel during the 15-year period leading up to the Six-Day War, when it was reportedly working on developing its own nuclear military capacity. He is said to have implored Israeli officials to promise him they would never sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – something Israel has not done to this day.

Teller remained outspoken on public issues and involved until the end of his life: He proposed using nuclear explosions for non-military purposes, such as digging canals; was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan’s U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), and as early as 1957 warned of the dangers of global warming.

Edward Teller died on September 9, 2003, in Stanford, California. He was 95.