William Kenneth "Mac" MacReady Oral History

Dublin Core


William Kenneth "Mac" MacReady Oral History


Hanford Atomic Products Operation


An audio oral history interview with Gardner Clark "G.C." Blackburn conducted by Gene Weisskopf for the B Reactor Museum Association as part of an interview series focused on the T Plant and writing a Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) document for the T Plant. MacReady was a DuPont Chemist during WWII and was a T Plant "Checker"


B Reactor Museum Association


Hanford History Project at Washington State University Tri-Cities




Those interested in reproducing part or all of this oral history should contact the Hanford History Project.







Oral History Item Type Metadata


Gene Weisskopf


William Kenneth "Mac" MacReady


Weisskopf: This is the BRMA interview with Mac MacCready at his home in Kennewick, Washington, November 19, 1999.
MacCready: ...As a consequence, my recovery period, I still was bedridden for quite a while, and so books were something that my mother could give me. Little books in those days, of course. But that got me interested in it. And we had a library that had a children’s area for kids up to 12, and when I was up and around again I went down there and so on, and I continued to do that when I got beyond that in the library. And I got a book, interestingly enough, because it is significant, I don’t remember its name or the author’s name now. But I got a book which talked about the field of chemistry, and a major degree of its presentation of the thing short biographies of some significant people in chemistry, and particularly those in the 1800s, and it was quite fascinating.
Weisskopf: Was it written for kids?
MacCready: Hmm?
Weisskopf: It was sort of written for kids?
MacCready: No, it wasn’t. This was --- I was about 13 when I came across this, 13 or 14, so it was an upstairs book. But at any rate, it stimulated my interest. So I read some more stuff, and of course it was only a couple years later that I was able to take chemistry in high school. And it happened so that the teacher we had was a guy who had been a professional out working for some of the processors of lead and zinc. There were a lot of mines of that sort in southwest Missouri then. And this, see, was --- well, the mining and milling was moving away from Joplin as they started getting stuff farther away. So this guy had lost his job, and he had hooked on to the high school as a teacher. So, to my mind at least, as I look back on it, he was probably better fitted to teach me well and to keep my interest at a high level.
Weisskopf: Because he had real-world experience?
MacCready: Yeah. Yeah. So at any rate, I took the course, and had fun with it, and enjoyed it, and obviously talked with him about it beyond the class. And so as a consequence, then, in my senior year of high school, he let me use the high school laboratory when it was not actually being used for his classes. What I really did, he gave his books, and I did what was the normal lab work for beginning chemistry in college. I got that all done in high school. So it was that --- I had the interest, then I got an opportunity to do some of the things and to learn more and found it still very interesting. So that was it. When I went to the university, at the time, as far as I know, there were two universities in the United States that had specifically set aside chemistry departments with their own names and such like. One of them was Penn State and the other was the University of Alabama. And it happened so that in the normal events of my personal life that I wound up in Alabama’s area, went over and looked at the university in the summer and liked the looks, so that was where I entered school. I didn’t know this, but it was about the infrequency of having separate university entities that were significantly dedicated to chemistry, but I learned that later. So I had a good university and I had a good faculty. And it was, as you might imagine, it was not --- the university had a total population of about 5,000, 5500 then, and as you might imagine, our chemistry department was relatively small. Of course, it didn’t do chemistry work for a whole lot of other than its own people in the general chemistry field, but we had about 120 people that were in there.
Weisskopf: As chem majors?
MacCready: Well, yeah, we were enrolled in the School of Chemistry, Metallurgy and Ceramics.
Weisskopf: That was the formal name of it?
MacCready: Yes.
Weisskopf: School of Chemistry, Metallurgy...
MacCready: And Ceramics. And after the first two years, your focus split. One way, you went to more advanced chemistry the last two years, and if you went the other way, you went into more in-depth education in metallurgy and ceramics. Of course, I went the one way. But with those kinds of associations, see, we had our building, so we saw our professors at times other than just in class, around the halls and such like. In the libraries and so on. So we had a whole lot more attention than you would normally have and that people do now, and it was an excellent education. And it also happened so that it kind of was the avenue which gave me my job, my opportunity to have a job with DuPont.
Weisskopf: What year did you --- you graduated with a degree in chemistry, then?
MacCready: I graduated in 1934 with a BS. I stayed on another year and got a master’s degree. I was not feeling the essentiality of having another year at the university, but in the middle part of my senior year I came upon a lady. And since that was, what, four months perhaps until the semester was over and I was graduating, if I was going to eat I had to do something, but I would like to do something that would make it possible to continue to see her. So I talked with the dean about the fact that I would like to stay on and get a master’s degree, but money problems would be noticeable, was there anything he could do about it. And he came up with something. He put together a job for me that would give me about half of the necessary money to go through, and I had to fund. Then in the summertime before I really started on that job. I was there, and I started my master’s work immediately after the spring term was over. And so during that period I did all the business of cleaning up the labs, stocking up and ---
Weisskopf: That was the job they were paying you for?
MacCready: That was the job that I wound up doing, was being the guy in charge of all the equipment storage and the material storage and getting it around to the laboratories, and such like. The summer, the last three or four weeks, I did nothing for a 12- or 14-hour day except wash laboratory equipment. I cleaned everything up and got it stacked back where it had to be for the start of the season. I got the --- I think I got 35 cents an hour then, and I made quite a lot of money even at that. So, at any rate, that was what happened. And then because of that, in all honesty, I got the master’s degree.
Weisskopf: What was the thesis or the theme of your master’s?
MacCready: We had a professor who had developed an electrolytic method of analysis for iron, steel, and that sort. All of the businesses were trying to get quantitative analyses of things involving iron or steel. None of them --- there were three or four different ones. There were two others particularly that were the most commonly in use, and they depended upon the business of a color change when you got to the end point. And it was, both of them, it was a pretty delicate change, and if the light was just about so, that --- so, at any rate, he felt that there was significant use for this. But in order to have an opportunity to present it in what he felt would be a controlling fashion, he needed to have a lot of work done in terms of doing the kinds of tests to determine quantities and such like that would normally be used using his system and develop a whole cadre of information as to how efficient it was versus these others, time and all that sort of stuff and so on. So that’s what I did, I ran that and the other thing and fiddled around with it. And it turned out to be very effective in terms of the ultimate, when I did my last test and such like, I of course demonstrated to them. And when you can see what you’ve got in the way of results in terms of the color changes versus this thing, which when it hit the thing a needle went off scale. So it was not a tremendous thing in terms of basic chemistry, it was really fundamentally largely a matter of development of instrumentation that was more useful (inaudible), and I was happy to do it.
Weisskopf: Okay. And that took a year, then, at the college?
MacCready: Yeah. It meant that I went through and graduated at the normal time in spring or early summer in 1935. And at the time that I graduated, I and a boy that was graduating as a senior, we were the only two from the graduating classes that immediately got a job. The dean had an outfit over in Mississippi that would take us on. Of course, now, this was 1935. Jobs weren’t easy to come by. So I went over and worked there for about two months. Then I learned --- well, my job was pretty straightforward, it was just ordinary chemical testing, really, (inaudible) to process. It was a place that made various kinds of wallboard, and I got to know about the processes, and I got to know about the people and so on. And they had about four or five different segments, each one of which had a supervisor who was in charge of (inaudible) set of equipment, and operators, and so on. And then besides that, then he got the top stairs where you had the manager and assistant manager. So I’d been there about two months. I’d gathered enough information to know something that I thought was significant. They had one guy who was the supervisor of the most difficult of processes, and he was the guy that everybody talked about. He was the guy that just had a phenomenol career, and he was only 27 or 28 years old, and he was making $120 a month. And nobody in history has ever moved so fast or got so much money. So I said huh-uh, there’s no future here. So I did the unspeakable for 1935: I quit. And in the meanwhile, of course, early in the time when I’d got over there, I’d gotten the stupendous application form from DuPont, which had been arranged by the dean, and I filled that out and sent it in, and so on. I proceeded to drive back over to my fiancee’s home to inform her and her parents that I’d quit. And my father-in-law to be understood, because he had done similar things himself. Actually, he had a pretty good in with a local chemistry company there in Anniston, Alabama. And I went down there and got an interview and did get assurance that I could have a job there. I think it was a day or two later that I got this thing in the mail from DuPont to come up for an interview on thus and so day, two or three days later.
Weisskopf: How far? Were you going back to Wilmington?
MacCready: The letter came from I think Wilmington, perhaps, or maybe it came from New Jersey, because what I was told was to come up and have --- they gave me all the physical explanations of how to get there, that I was going to be going into Wilmington, and from Wilmington I would cross the river to the dye works plant where I would have my interview. So I did that. As a consequence of that, before I left, I had the job. And also two very positive elements of appreciation for the company. One was that at the close of the thing, when I was to go on, leave, the guy I was interviewing with said “Just a few minutes. I’m having a check made out for you to cover your expenses coming up here and going back home.” I hadn’t thought of that. It helped. The other thing was that, remembering now my experience over in Mississippi, he informed me that I would start at $135 a month.
Weisskopf: And what had you been making, do you think?
MacCready: The job that I had over in Mississippi I was making $75 a month. And that guy that was the genius was making $120 a month. Here I was going to start my job at $15 better than him.
Weisskopf: That’s great.
MacCready: So that was fine. That set the stage for some very considerable activity. I got home, I got to the soon-to-be parents home, a week later, on a Sunday, my fiancée and I stood in front of her parents’ fireplace, and a minister, and we got married. Thirty minutes later we were on the train to Wilmington.
Weisskopf: So you had a job and a wife and a new town?
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Both of you were new to Wilmington?
MacCready: Oh, yeah. Of course, Wilmington was simply where you got to on the train. Then we had to get over into New Jersey and find a place to live.
Weisskopf: Why New Jersey?
MacCready: Because we were going to work at this dye works where I had been interviewed, and they were in New Jersey.
Weisskopf: And how soon after did you start work? You got married on a Sunday, left on the train the next day?
MacCready: Yeah. The combination of circumstances, got there, and me and (inaudible) went to work in about two weeks. We had two weeks to find a place to live and get some furniture to put in it, a few other odds and ends. So that was part of the deal. They didn’t give us any extra money for that, but they said that you can have a couple of weeks to kind of get yourself settled in somewhere before you report to work.
Weisskopf: And that was then in 1935?
MacCready: Yes.
Weisskopf: About what time of year, do you think?
MacCready: That was in, well, October, the fall.
Weisskopf: Okay. Well, maybe we should fast forward a bit. How about this: At DuPont, did you spend more time in the lab or an office?
MacCready: No. DuPont, the system that they had, I went in and I went to work in the laboratory that served --- they had Jackson Laboratory there where they did research. And for the people in Jackson Lab, the normal just basic information in the way of running tests and all such in their research, the run-of-the-mill analyses were done in this laboratory that I went to work in. There were about --- there was room for, and it was always one way or another filled up, there were about 30 of us that worked in that laboratory. And one, by the time a year had gone by, one knew that fundamentally they were getting something done that they needed. But this was really a test area. You learned things about the people and determined what they might want to direct them towards, anywhere from going over to the laboratory, their research laboratory, or whatever, whatever, or out the door. And pretty much, at the time I was there, at least, usually you would make a move in not more than a year. I had my interview after I had been there about eight months. And the fellow who ran the lab was more this kind of a person, an analytical person with respect to people than he was a full-time runner of the lab, which was pretty automatic anyway. He says “Well, what do you want to do?” And I said “Well, I always kind of have ideas for research work.” And he said “Well, there’s not anything of that nature that you can get into too logically and too significantly. And,” he said, “there’s some other things that we think you would fit into in our pattern of activities better. So would you accept our belief on that, at least to the extent of trying the job that we propose to give you?” “Sure.” So that resulted in my being given the supervision of a field laboratory. Most all of the individual major elements at the dye works, made this, that and the other, most of them had a field labs to get, you know, routine laboratory work done right on the spot. So I had four guys so that we could --- because since the plant ran 24 hours a day, we needed to cover them 24 hours a day. Four people. I accomplished that with one guy on ....
(Tape ran out)
MacCready: So I became a supervisor there. And after six months or so they had an idea, probably came out of the laboratory, that there was a way that they could maybe cut one stop out of the process by which they were making camphor. They needed to get some information about the possibilities of something that in effect was really using --- well, they didn’t know exactly what they would --- they thought that if they could get intimate association of a solvent and this stuff that was coming out of, let’s say, item B in their list of things, that it would permit them to go from B to D and X out C. So I had had a little experience in the university, and at their suggestion that I did know something about that, they got me the stuff that I put together one of these laboratory columns with little glass rings in it which gave you the opportunity to have the effect in a big plant, maybe a column 20 feet long, and I had a column this big around that was three feet along. At any rate, I ran through enough stuff there to get the indication that yes, there was a combination of times and exposures that ought to do the trick. I remember this particularly well, because as a consequence of that, they cobbled together the necessary equipment to, as best they knew how, translate my results into the plant results. And because I had done that, I had the information, you know, about some of the times and some of the indications that you can check on, and so on. So they were going to start a test run one afternoon at four o’clock, and they were going to run the thing 24 hours, and I was to be there all the 24 hours to check at critical points to see if what I thought should have happened in my lifetime was indeed happening, and so on and so on and so on. So we did it that way, and so we went through our 24 hours, and we came out with the fact that yes, it actually worked, did the trick. So that was kind of a nice thing. There was only one minor hitch about it. The four o’clock we started was four o’clock the day before Thanksgiving, so I got home Thanksgiving between four and five o’clock Thanksgiving evening.
Weisskopf: A memorable one, then, right?
MacCready: Yeah. But it worked beautifully. That was the only thing, other than the norm of running the system, thing that came along for me. After about a year, year and a half, they were getting on to --- they had started construction on another ethyl chloride plant. They had one. It happened so it was right next door to where my lab was, but I hadn’t spent any time over there. At any rate, I got transferred, along with an old veteran operator who was going to be the general foreman for the plant. And they sent us down there and said “Now, we want you to look after what’s going on in the construction, thinking always in terms of what you all will need best to serve you well in operating the thing.” So we of course learned our chemistry for this thing, and we learned what their plans were, and then we tried to visualize and help in this respect. And I don’t know how good a job we did, but it was the first time I was involved in that, and I certainly learned a lot out of it. A good bit of it, maybe, I learned that you don’t do it the way I had done it, you do it a different way next time. But it happened so that we had a little byproduct outfit we were going to build and run, and so we did the same thing for that. And then we had a --- we thought up and cobbled up a little affair so you can do some more recovery of what was otherwise waste. And then about then we put in a plant to process the sodium sulfate that we got as a byproduct. And if you fixed that up, got it down to sodium sulfate, you could sell that to the paper mill people. So we built that, and we followed that. And by that time, I’d been exposed pretty well to this business of looking at plants with the idea in mind that you’re going to have to operate them.
Weisskopf: It sounds familiar to me for what comes later, the idea of taking laboratory experience and blowing it up into a large factory.
MacCready: Right.
Weisskopf: Interesting.
MacCready: So, after that --- well, get a little quicker about it. The war period came along, and I got transferred up to the semiworks that they had put in place to learn some of the hows and whys of the processes to make the explosive that wound up ultimately, when it was made and put to use, being the one that they used so effectively in Europe to do --- well, literally, it was this stuff you could wrap a string of it around a railroad ---
Weisskopf: Oh. Sometimes called plastique, or something like that?
MacCready: Yeah, uh-huh.
Weisskopf: Was there a technical term for it?
MacCready: Oh, it had a technical name.
Weisskopf: What did you call it at work, other than “the stuff”?
MacCready: I don’t remember.
Weisskopf: Was it primarily an explosive, but also the way it could be handled?
MacCready: Yeah, that was it. It came out in about the consistency of dough. And one of the beautiful things was that literally you could cut a railroad piece in two now, just to cut the grill out a quarter of an inch wide. Well, that was one of the things that the French Underground folks used wonderfully well, tearing up railroads.
Weisskopf: Okay.
MacCready: They didn’t tear them up, they just fixed them up so that when the trains went over them, the track tore off.
Weisskopf: So it did double duty, then, yeah.
MacCready: Yeah. So I stayed there learning about that. And the way we learned, of course, we were running this little semiworks thing, and they were also starting work on the main plant. So the people were being transferred out, and I wound up being the guy who stayed there and finished shutting up the semiworks.
Weisskopf: Can you describe, then, the difference between what semiworks was compared to the lab and compared to the ultimate plant that was built?
MacCready: Okay.
Weisskopf: It was producing a usable product, or was it not ---
MacCready: Yes. Yes.
Weisskopf: It was just shipping out a product?
MacCready: Yeah. It was making the product, and it was, oh, it was putting out what I would say would be --- well, let’s say that if it operated a shift, it would put out about a tenth as much product as one line in the major plant.
Weisskopf: One line?
MacCready: One line, and in that plant I think we had six lines.
Weisskopf: But it was nonetheless ---
MacCready: Compared to what, you know, like what I was doing in the laboratory, that would have been maybe 1% of what it would have.
Weisskopf: How long do you think that semiworks operated?
MacCready: I think it operated just about a year. I was there about six or seven months.
Weisskopf: So they must have been building the factory ---
MacCready: They started, yeah.
Weisskopf: --- during that year.
MacCready: That’s right. When I got there, I was there in time to have some association with, say, the last quarter of the construction of the place. And I did some of the same kind of thing with them. And I stayed there for, well, let’s see...in total, I guess I stayed there about eight or ten months.
Weisskopf: At the semiworks?
MacCready: No. No, after I left the semiworks. I was at semiworks I think six or seven months, something like that. And then I was about eight months or so at the Wabash (inaudible) which was where this plant was, how this plant was named. And then I came what at the time was a major tragedy. It seems that there was a real significant shortage of supervisory help back at the dye works, and the guy who had that and had the ethyl chloride plant as part of his responsibility had sent out word that he wanted me back. So I came back, and I wasn’t happy.
Weisskopf: Did that involve a move, living in your house, or were you still living in New Jersey?
MacCready: No, no, we had left and were living in a house in --- well, actually in Illinois, right across the border. This plant was in Indiana. So, yeah, we --- we had not moved all of our stuff in, because it was that sort a time. At any rate, I came back, and I wasn’t happy. And that was about the first thing I told the man when I got back, that I was not happy, that I didn’t want to --- because what he wanted me to do was to supervise the old ethyl chloride plant, and that I was no longer in the position of feeling my particular interest in or benefit from another turn of supervising the ethyl chloride plant. He said well, we were really at a critical stage, we needed somebody that we know was familiar with that kind of process. But he said “I promise in a year we’ll get you someplace else.” And so far as I know, he was as good as his word, because a year later was when I was transferred to the Manhattan District. And from then, of course, you know, went through the business of going to Oak Ridge, and ---
Weisskopf: Well, let me ask you this: First of all, what year was it that DuPont asked you to do that? That was in ‘43 still?
MacCready: To go where?
Weisskopf: To join that project.
MacCready: Which one?
Weisskopf: The Manhattan Project.
MacCready: That would have been January the 2nd of 1944.
Weisskopf: Yes, okay. Because you didn’t come out until April of ‘44.
MacCready: That’s right.
Weisskopf: Okay. Do you remember how they presented it to you, since it was still kind of top secret and you might have said no?
MacCready: Yeah, I think there were several of us that reported in at that time, and as I recall we got sat down and got about an hour’s worth of lecture to get the big picture, and then were given documents to get more detail. And I spent a month there reading and attending some meetings when we would get together and talk about things in general.
Weisskopf: Was this in Wilmington?
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Okay. So I guess this was when things were rolling right along at Hanford, and you were sort of jumping in in the middle of the process as opposed to the very beginning stages of it.
MacCready: Well, it’s hard to say, because everything really, in terms of everything except the preparatory work and the whole digging underground, underneath concrete work, only those things had actually occurred by the time I got out here in April.
Weisskopf: The walls weren’t up?
MacCready: No. They were just getting above ground level on T when I got out here. So in terms of the business of building of the thing, association with building of the thing, the only thing that had occurred was this basic business of the concrete footings for T. And, of course, similarly for other (inaudible). So what we did in the way of the construction checking, starting then that it really came into detail work about late May. We were getting the place then where we really had to pay attention to what was going on.
Weisskopf: In your history, you mentioned that there were really only two people sent out from Wilmington to act as construction checkers?
MacCready: Insofar as the 200 area was concerned, yeah. Ken Millan (phonetic) was sent out in January, I think it was, and then I came in April. This was about the time that things were really getting to the serious part. Ken moved in town to do some things there, and I was --- I was the only one ever beyond that. Ken and me, we were the only ones ever that had the actual situation where we were officially denominated as such and presented to the construction supervision and management as the official consultant.
Weisskopf: I guess there were similar people in the 100 area?
MacCready: I assume so, but I do not know.
Weisskopf: You weren’t supposed to know, right?
MacCready: Well, there was no reason why I should know, and I had no reason to go there. I didn’t go over there during any of their construction. One of the things that, as I look back, that made what I did easier was because it did officially get presented and accepted by the construction management before they or we were getting to any of this more complicated stuff, so by the time we did, I had been around, and I had been talking with, and we had gotten well acquainted, and I had done enough things that were helpful that I had a platform to work from when I had to get more and more of my nose into things that would otherwise have been the case. And we never had trouble of that sort. I don’t know, another thing maybe that had something to do with it, just as was true of myself and the guys who were ultimately coming out to go through with me and on, become supervisors, we were all young, and so were the supervisors and managers for construction. Let’s see, at the time that I came out, I was 31, and I recall a guy who was in charge for construction of T Plant was 27.
Weisskopf: And how did that affect your relationship?
MacCready: Well, I think it was easier for us. We had not, either one, got into any different patterns, so that what we were proposing to have as a pattern here was being asked to do something strange compared to what we had done before. This, I’m sure, was the first job of anything approaching this magnitude that this guy had had. The same thing was true for me.
Weisskopf: Because you mention in your history that it was an important relationship between the designers and the people who were supervising construction and the crafts people who were actually doing it.
MacCready: Right.
Weisskopf: And it was a delicate balance ---
MacCready: That’s right.
Weisskopf: --- that you had to interact with.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: And would you talk to all of them, or would you have a chain of command that you would try to work with?
MacCready: With respect to the supervision of construction --- well, it sounds a little silly now, in a sense, but it was true, and it’s the way it worked. There were interchanges of information in between my field guys, as we were, you know, things like finishing off all the piping, and so on, in T, and so on. But as they were working on the jobs, they would talk of course with the construction people that were working there at the same time, but there was never any exchange of official knowledge, or orders, or requests or anything that went from us to construction or design or anybody else except through me. That was one thing that I knew when I started.
Weisskopf: So people who were working for you and with you, they filtered their information or requests through you.
MacCready: That’s right, yeah. If they thought they saw something that was wrong, they said it to me, and I said it out there. I was sure in my own mind, as things were developing, that that was something that I must set up, that we could have nothing except chaos if I left all of my guys ---
Weisskopf: Saying it in their own way, their own emphasis, style.
MacCready: Just God knows who, yeah. So that was a hard and fast rule.
Weisskopf: And this allowed you to keep track of everything in one place and present it in the same way you presented it the previous time.
MacCready: Yeah. And it worked fine.
Weisskopf: And it took the responsibility off the guys working under you ---
MacCready: Sure.
Weisskopf: --- not to have to be the bad guy.
MacCready: That’s right, yeah. They simply could do their looking, and there were some --- as we got into some of the fine stuff, you know, like I think I mentioned all of those multiple lines coming into the cells, actually my counterpart in T early on --- well, not early on, when we got to that, said that we I think better decide to have you send your people in to work with mine on every damn one of these, because they know more about where it has to be, and so on and so on, than our people do, and why they have to be there, because we don’t know that. And I said yes. So we did. In those kind of jobs, the people would work together, and it didn’t matter which they were, they were working together doing it, but there was nothing under --- nothing like any “No, that’s wrong,” or that sort. They were doing it. In that respect, we all depended on our guys and their guys on each one of those jobs doing it right, in other words.
Weisskopf: Interesting. The tape is almost finished. Should we take a short break, maybe?
(Short break)
MacCready: Something that I think is significant in what I did and how I did it. As you know by now, the things, particularly with respect to the Hanford situation in those early days that I was involved with, had great emphasis, or attention to, awareness of, an understanding of, not the processes but the equipment. And very early on, when I got out into the plant at the dye works, more of the things you had to pay attention to, work with to see that they behaved properly, were equipment problems rather than process problems. In other words, let us say this was more chemical engineering than chemistry. I was educated as a chemist. I was not educated as an engineer. But I had a rare opportunity there. The dye works had been in existence for about 20 years, and they had large central shops, and they also had small groups of maintenance, mechanics, in most all of the individual plants. So I had the opportunity, necessarily, to work on those kinds of things in association with these veteran craftsmen who had been through, by then, most of them, 15, 20 years or more of handling the equipment. So I learned my engineering from the craftsmen. And I think it was doubly important. It was important because I learned it at a fundamental level, but it was also important then, and really I think became more important in later years, because as a consequence of that, I think I always had a greater understanding of the interests and attitudes and approaches of the working stiffs.
Weisskopf: Who actually had to use the equipment, and monitor it, and maintain it.
MacCready: Right, yeah.
Weisskopf: Would you say that the chemistry side of things, that you were trained in, was always done in the purely mathematical sense ahead of time, on paper, and then you would try and make it happen in the lab, right?
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: And the closer you got to your mathematical calculations, the more accurate you assumed was your equipment and process.
MacCready: Yeah. Yeah. And the other thing, too, that certainly was true and certainly grew in my mind, was that in the long run, and all of it, the most important thing was getting it done, and the full cooperation of the people was the only way that could happen.
Weisskopf: You couldn’t be a snooty chemist back in the lab telling them how to get things done, right?
MacCready: Yeah. It was easy for me to --- I think that old boy back in Jacksonville lab had taken --- he’d taken his readings, and basically what he was saying and the way he sent me out and told the people out there about me was that he can get things done with people. And as I look back on it, that’s been about it.
Weisskopf: Just cooperating with the rest of the people involved in the project, and making it happen?
MacCready: Well, and more particularly the fact that the people in the work force could understand me better than they could an awful lot of their supervisors and managers, and I could watch some of the guys working as supervisors and managers and understand that. They didn’t know how to get along with people. They didn’t know how to make an opportunity for those people to be happy and satisfied.
Weisskopf: Isn’t it the nature of a chemist, though, to do the elegant work in the lab, have papers that show how it’s all going to work ---
MacCready: Sure.
Weisskopf: --- and then get frustrated when they can’t build a factory that actually makes it happen?
MacCready: I don’t know about that, how they feel about that. They do, though, you know, they have a hard time, getting away from the --- if they are working with other people, highly trained chemists, they probably can get along much better. But the bulk of the people who are doing the job in any field of activity are not --- it’s not at that level. Once you get out of being in a research atmosphere, it’s one of the classic things. Security, of course, was always tight. And after the bomb was --- even before that. And one of the great stories was one evening --- you know, you couldn’t take anything out that wasn’t examined by the guy when you’re leaving the area. And if you had your lunch bucket, or something, you had to show him. And if you had any kind of package, you had to show him. And one of the guys who was in essence in research, working process-wise, was out there, and he had, in addition to his lunch bucket, he had a sack. One of the guys stopped him. He opened up his lunch bucket and showed him, and that was fine, and then started to go, and “No, what’s in the sack?” And I guess that was just enough to irritate him. “Well, look for yourself.” The only trouble was, the window wasn’t open.
Weisskopf: He threw it through the window?
MacCready: No. I don’t know, I think he had a jar or something in there, and he broke it and probably spilled some juice or something.
Weisskopf: And how did security affect your construction checking, when theoretically you were checking all sorts of different processes that maybe some people only knew parts of?
MacCready: Security didn’t have any --- theirs was strictly a matter of physical situation. Security people didn’t run around anywhere in the ---
Weisskopf: No. But you still had to follow certain rules and ways of doing things as far as what you could talk about with other workers?
MacCready: Well, that was something that came from the top early on, when you reported in. Long since, you just didn’t do that.
Weisskopf: You had to look at plans, right, during this checking process? Blueprints?
MacCready: Oh, sure.
Weisskopf: And yet a lot of the people you worked with might not have seen those blueprints, might not know the entire process of the building?
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: But you could just work with them on their one area of concern?
MacCready: You mean the checkers?
Weisskopf: Yeah.
MacCready: The people working for me on the ---
Weisskopf: Sure.
MacCready: --- checks? Yeah. Well, see, once we got sizeable activities and really were getting into all of the multitudinous details, that was when I had always the Monday morning get-together, and people were assigned their particular area to look after for that week or until it was finished, and they could report that in. And things were moving so fast that I had those meetings weekly, and people would finish up on one thing and they’d be doing another, and so on. So on that basis, see, they took with them, or they looked at the prints that had to do with that particular area that they were involved with to be --- that was just the way it worked. Of course, all along we had, in the earlier stages, we had lots of time for the people reporting in then to keep burying their nose in the prints. Well, by the same token, the people who were coming in from Oak Ridge had probably spent the last month that they were there with their nose in the prints. So they had a pretty general understanding of things, and you could assign segments to them and they knew how to find the right stuff to look at.
Weisskopf: Okay. Did the people who worked under you, how much understanding did they have of what, say, one of the canyon buildings was supposed to do?
MacCready: You mean my ---
Weisskopf: The actual checkers.
MacCready: My construction?
Weisskopf: Yeah.
MacCready: My construction checkers were people who were going to be supervisors, and they knew the project. They knew the whole process. They did not work in the dark, no.
Weisskopf: Okay. And one of the critical checking jobs, as I understood it, was checking the piping that would go to all the cells before it got filled up with concrete.
MacCready: (inaudible).
Weisskopf: Number one, they couldn’t have blueprints out on the job, could they? How did they check the actual piping against the plan that was needed?
MacCready: There would be one out there that the construction people were using.
Weisskopf: Well, the stories I keep hearing is all the plans were locked up and a foreman would have to go in, look at it, take notes, and come back out again. Maybe that was in general.
MacCready: That was in general, yeah. But for something specific, highly detailed thing like that in a small area, yeah, they would only need one blueprint to do it.
Weisskopf: Right. Okay. What sort of things would they check? When they’re getting ready to pour concrete, what would be the things they would want to check? Specifically concerning the in-wall piping that went to the cells.
MacCready: They would want to check each one of those multitudinous lines from where it started to where it went, because they had had to start in the right place and go to the right place.
Weisskopf: How would they do that, by the way? How do you check and see if the end of the pipe that’s 60 feet over there matches this pipe here? Do you blow through it, or run something through it?
MacCready: There’s ways of that nature, yeah. I think you would say it would vary. Some of the things would be where you could literally follow them. It may be 60 feet, but it’s 60 feet where you can keep your eyeball on it without too much trouble. And then there would be others, particularly some of the (inaudible) rascals where you would have a hell of a time, but you would pretty much have to follow it physically to be sure. There’s nothing on the print that would assure you about that, it will simply assure you that it’s going from there to there, but they are not going to show, of course, the thing, as you say, if it’s many feet long. So you literally did have to follow them. I suspect, I don’t know all that the kids used, I suspect some of them, they may have run things through, but mostly I think they just physically followed them.
Weisskopf: And were there fittings and joints that would be imbedded in concrete? Did you pressure check the lines before you poured concrete? Was that part of it?
MacCready: Yeah. Yeah. They would --- I think they would probably have used a final stage, when they had followed all of them, of having a water run and see to it. Then they could tell when they started there, they were supposed to come out there, and they could see. If it did, then that was ---
Weisskopf: That would be visual proof.
MacCready: That was the final check. And, as you say, I think they probably used some pressure testing, shutting them up and loading in 20, 30 pounds of air to get a check.
Weisskopf: Let me ask you this: You also ran tests just before startup. Do you remember anybody having to tear in the concrete to fix a pipe?
MacCready: No.
Weisskopf: Really?
MacCready: No.
Weisskopf: Out of all those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ---
MacCready: No. See, they had been checked so many times before then, that no. No, there was never any of that.
Weisskopf: That surprises me, because, what, each cell had, what, 40-some-odd pipes coming into it?
MacCready: Yeah, 42 I think it was.
Weisskopf: And there were 40 cells.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: And there was pipe also doing the same thing in the pipe trench, there were all the connectors coming into there?
MacCready: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Weisskopf: Boy. Did you find out when the building was done that there were two pipes that had been switched by accident? Did that occur?
MacCready: Not that late, no. There were some occasions of that sort ---
Weisskopf: Which construction check ---
MacCready: --- during the earlier stages of the thing, when construction check found them. Probably the most embarrassing one to the draftsman was one that occurred in T Plant towards the head end. I remember the geography all that closely. But at any rate, there was a pipe up there that was supposed to carry acid from one of the tanks out there operating for --- into something in the head end, and it was an acid of some kind, probably sulfuric acid, at a guess. At any rate, acid of some sort. And the check that was done with respect to that came upon the fact that this line had somehow got itself hooked in so that it was in the line that fed the tank on the stool in the bathroom that was on the front end of the plant. That kind of tore the thing.
Weisskopf: What would the result have been had it been left? Would the toilet have come out of the pipe or would the acid have headed towards the toilet?
MacCready: The acid would have headed towards the toilet.
Weisskopf: That would have been embarrassing.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Okay. But the construction checkers discovered that and it was then fixed.
MacCready: Oh, yes.
Weisskopf: Which was the whole point of doing the construction checks.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: So it sounds like the construction checking did its job, found a few problems, ensured that everything was where it was supposed to be. When the plant was ready to start up, you went through a series of testing not just the joints, but flushing and ---
MacCready: The first thing you did was you had what’s called a water run. In other words, you went through all of the steps that you would go through in processing, but just using water so that you could check for whether it was going where it was supposed to go and when it was supposed to.
Weisskopf: And was that done under pressure and heat and all the normal things?
MacCready: No, it was just done --- the only thing was to see that it --- that there were no leaks, and that it was starting from the right place and going to the right place according to what your instrumentation said should be happening.
Weisskopf: Any idea, off the top of your head, how many individual pipes there might have been in that entire building that would have done individual jobs during the process?
MacCready: Gee.
Weisskopf: It would be an astronomical number, I presume.
MacCready: Yes.
Weisskopf: Whether it was feeding acid, or moving material, or bringing in steam, electricity.
MacCready: Or being hitched up to instruments.
Weisskopf: It might be an impossible question, without really sitting down and counting.
MacCready: Well, about the only thing I --- I don’t know --- nominally, there of course was as many connections to something or other as there were outputs in the cell. And I don’t know, I’m sure we had some spares in there.
Weisskopf: Right.
MacCready: But probably at least half, and I expect maybe closer to three-quarters of them were in service each time that there was a batch going through that particular place.
Weisskopf: Let me jump ahead to the idea of --- the T Plant worked on the batch process.
MacCready: Yep.
Weisskopf: Where you’d start a batch at one end and move it through the process and it came out at the other end, and it would take a day or so to complete.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Would you also, I understood, have multiple batches moving down the line at the same time?
MacCready: Yeah. Yeah.
Weisskopf: About how many batches might be pushed through in any one day, or might be in the plant at any given moment?
MacCready: Oh, let’s see.
Weisskopf: Rough idea?
MacCready: Yeah. I guess there probably could be half a dozen maybe moving through.
Weisskopf: Okay. Now, my next question is, what’s the big deal, then, about moving from batch processing to a steady flow process like they use, what, in REDOX?
MacCready: In REDOX?
Weisskopf: Yeah. If you’re moving six batches along at a time in T Plant, that sounds pretty efficient to me.
MacCready: In that respect, yeah. The truth of the matter is that if you get away from the business of the degree of snazzy complexity of chemistry, that you have available the later ones. There wasn’t any real advantage. And, looking back on it and thinking of some of the things that you can do and can’t do in each one of them, it probably would have been smarter all the way around to never have gone away from just running T and B and U if you needed to, actually. But everybody --- those towers and all, and the exchange opportunities to get stuff for going from the one zone into the other, and suchlike, was very heady chemistry indeed, and very snazzy equipment. Like I think I said before, that was pretty much old-fashioned nuts and bolts kind of work that was going on in T, but it worked. And there is a great advantage always in processing when you expect, you know, you want to keep putting out product all the time, there’s an awful lot of solace if you’ve got steps so that you can do some switching around. For instance, you could run, say, in T Plant, and you got to the process in some cell halfway down the line, and there’s a leak or there’s something or other, and you’re stuck there. But, see, T was built, all of them were, so that you had --- each kind of processing you had three or four duplicate cells. You know, they didn’t --- it only went through about a quarter of those cells. So if you had something of that sort, you could certainly, and we did a few times, you could stop at that stage and haul the stuff out of there and transfer it over to a similar cell someplace else where whatever was troubling you there wouldn’t trouble you again. If you have that kind of equipment problem comes up with the columns, when that happens, she’s all down.
Weisskopf: That’s it?
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Everything at the front of the process has to wait until the part at the end of the process gets out.
MacCready: That’s right, yeah. Because it’s all going through the same.....
[tape ran out]
MacCready: That’s not to say that you couldn’t build a plant of that nature and do that and have that duplication.
Weisskopf: Right.
MacCready: But the doing of it would mean that the duplication would be something that would cost you many times as much as it would have in the relatively simple T Plant approach.
Weisskopf: Yeah. What’s the opposite of batch processing? What was it called, that REDOX and PUREX, their word for it? I can’t remember what it is. But it’s continuous.
MacCready: Continuous processing, yes. And there’s things you can do on continuous processing that of course are not possible with the kind of plants that they have. When I was running the ethyl chloride plant, that, the one that I started with, the new one, it was a continuous process plant. And there are lots of things that you can do in a continuous process plant to coggle (phonetic) up problems without shutting down.
Weisskopf: Right. You learn real fast probably.
MacCready: Yeah. See, your hands on, you can do things to the equipment. You can’t do that with the radioactive stuff.
Weisskopf: Okay.
MacCready: Now, I can remember, we had two-story-long glass separation systems in the ethyl chloride plant, and once in a while there would be a problem with something. One of the things that most happened would be one of the damn rubber washers would start leaking. We ran the thing in a fashion where the ethyl chloride went through, after it was made, it went through as a gas. We had a pump system, a big pump system that pulled it out and compressed enough then to make it a liquid, and we would keep that liquid in the storage tanks. But because of that, because we had that system, we could kick the compressor up a little bit and we could actually jack one of those segments up an inch or so and snatch out that messed up gasket, put a new one in, and set the thing back down, or put it up. Now, that didn’t work perfectly, because some of the ethyl chloride would come out in the process while we were there, but it was not a problem. You tended to be a little bit drunk when it was over, but that was all. Well, things of that sort we could do. One time we had multiple generators of gas, two of them, and we had pumps there that were moving the stuff. And since what we were moving was hydrochloric acid gas, which is very corrosive, it was always held with pumps that picked it up and pumped it over to go through the rest of the process. So we were forever having this kind of leak here, there and yonder. And to make it doubly troublesome, because of the kind of thing that it was, we used a type of pump that used sulfuric acid as the thing that moved the stuff. So we had to feed it with sulfuric acid. And that was one of the things that was always bitched about, is that you maybe get a leak in that damn sulfuric acid line. Everything else would be running nice, and there this thing would mess you up. Well, we had an acid resistant putty, and you could usually wrap up the piece of pipe, it almost always happened in a joint, you know, pipe was going into a fixture, and you could usually put some of that stuff around there and some tape over it, and then go on, and you wouldn’t have to shut down. I remember one time we got to a place where we had some basic problem and we had to shut down, and we had had a leak on one of those sulfuric acid lines, had puttied it up to see to it that it didn’t leak. While we were down, we were going to take that stuff off and put in their pipe. And when we took it over, we had a wound up place where we had a putty thing, it was about this big all the way around. When we opened it up, there was two inches in there, but there wasn’t anything but putty that was running through. All the metal was gone.
Weisskopf: Wow. And this was the kind of thing you couldn’t do in one of the cells.
MacCready: No. You can’t do anything in that.
Weisskopf: Instead of a 10-minute job, it would be a day and a half to take equipment out, and get new equipment and put it in.
MacCready: That’s right. So the business, really, of getting through and getting plutonium out, at any time, certainly the business of getting the simplest and the most simplest approach and one that you could put in lots of duplication to go from a piece of equipment that’s not working and so on, that is by all --- and using as simple chemistry that you possibly could, all of those things were in mine, all of those things were superbly met by what they did. So I think that it was not only good in that respect, I think that after the experience that we had had with the later plants, in all honesty, if I were having to make the damn stuff to make a living, I’d use the T Plant.
Weisskopf: Simple, basic batch process.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Duplicatible. Flexible.
MacCready: So that you could be very damn sure, really, that you were going to get at the end of the month what you needed to get, because if one didn’t work, you could use a duplicate, and so on and so on. And you can’t beat that kind of backup.
Weisskopf: Right. Right. It worked well. So in other words, if one batch took a day to get through, but you could have six batches going at the same time at different phases of the process ---
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: --- so in any given day you might have processed six tons, or whatever a batch was, of uranium.
MacCready: Now, let’s see...
Weisskopf: Was it that simple?
MacCready: No, it can’t quite be. Because you have to start off with a batch, see, by dissolving the slugs. And dissolving a batch of those things, it took at least nine hours, maybe more than that.
Weisskopf: So that was one limiting factor to how many batches you could run.
MacCready: Yes.
Weisskopf: The other processes might go quickly, but ---
MacCready: Yeah, many of those others would go rather quickly.
Weisskopf: So in any 24-hour period, you might be able to dissolve three batches at the most.
MacCready: At the most, I would say, yeah.
Weisskopf: Okay.
MacCready: And I don’t think that we routinely ever tried to do that. I think we probably did do it on occasion, but generally speaking our capacity in T was such that at the time, just the first three reactors, that whatever we wanted to do, we could do it faster than they could. We would have time when there wasn’t any uranium there to ---
Weisskopf: That was using two of the plants, though, U and B Plant, T and B.
MacCready: That certainly is true. No question about it, yeah. I’m not sure whether we could have get ahead of them with one.
Weisskopf: But with two, it was no problem.
MacCready: Two, it was no problem. We were, as you say, frequently without materials to dissolve.
Weisskopf: In the early phases, or even later on, as you got more efficient?
MacCready: Let’s see, I’m trying to...
Weisskopf: But you guys weren’t the bottleneck.
MacCready: No. No, because, see, we never used more than T and B for this, and that went through handling everything except maybe the last reactor that they had.
Weisskopf: Oh, that included DR Reactor, and then H? That was in the late forties, wasn’t it?
MacCready: Yeah. Everything ---
Weisskopf: And then C Reactor came in the early fifties.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: And that’s about when REDOX started, was early ‘51 or ‘2?
MacCready: Yeah. Yeah.
Weisskopf: So two plants were handling not just three reactors, but four, and then five, and then possibly six reactors.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Because you were getting more efficient and better at it, too.
MacCready: Well, or maybe we just had that much basic capacity. It wasn’t, you know, when you stop and think about it, not too much as long as you could --- as long as you could handle the stuff dissolving, there was very little likelihood you would get hung up for any significant time, because if you got a hang-up, you’d just switch to a sister cell of the same type. Maybe lose an hour or two, but that’s about all. It was an awfully flexible system, really.
Weisskopf: And you said for one given process you only used maybe 25% of the cells?
MacCready: I would say so, yes.
Weisskopf: Less than half.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Let me ask you this, just to kind of change gears. If this had not been radioactive --- that had been my earlier question. It was basic chemistry. If the material hadn’t been radioactive, it would have been just another ethyl chloride factory, in a sense ---
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: --- as far as the equipment and ---
MacCready: As a matter of fact, it would have been a simpler plant.
Weisskopf: Okay. You were only using a quarter of the cells, which means if the equipment had not been in cells, it would have taken up maybe a hundred feet of factory floor, something like that?
MacCready: Oh, be generous, give them two hundred feet.
Weisskopf: Okay. A quarter of the length of the building.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: And that’s with plenty of room for getting in and working on it and everything else.
MacCready: Yeah, if you could get in --- in the first place, if you could get in and work on it, it wasn’t that kind of thing, you wouldn’t have all these walls in between.
Weisskopf: Right. Right. It would just be on one long factory floor.
MacCready: That’s right.
Weisskopf: And with workmen going around with oil cans, and turning valves, and everything else.
MacCready: Yeah. It would have been an awful lot like that old ethyl chloride plant, which was basically a batch process. It had a whole bunch of tanks that it used.
Weisskopf: And if you had been designing this factory, or working with DuPont to design it not radioactive, that would have been one line.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: You would have had --- one line was equivalent to the entire T Plant, how many lines might you have built? You could have built as many as you wanted, right?
MacCready: Yeah, you could have. But if you had an ordinary plant of the kind that I’m familiar with, like the ethyl chloride plants, or the camphor plants, or the TL Plants, or we had a plant that made sulfuric acid. Generally speaking, if you built a plant that had the capacity to take care of the indicated market that they foresaw, you would just build the one plant.
Weisskopf: And maybe make the building a little bit bigger so in the future you could throw in another line.
MacCready: That’s right.
Weisskopf: Okay. And, as you were saying, two lines would have been kind of enough. U and B Plant with like two lines would have been enough to handle the reactors ---
MacCready: Would have handled it.
Weisskopf: --- for the first five, six, eight years.
MacCready: Yeah, it would have.
Weisskopf: And you could have done away with all the duplication and flexibility.
MacCready: That’s right.
Weisskopf: It would have been a lot simpler.
MacCready: It would have been, yeah. Because you can be --- there were more things to hold you up timewise in that first ethyl chloride plant that I ran than you would have in this kind of a process if it weren’t for the radioactivity. And after the first year, when we got all of the bugs out, and such like, that one plant ran 94.6% of the time for the year.
Weisskopf: Which plant was this you’re referring to?
MacCready: This ethyl chloride plant.
Weisskopf: The first one? The batch one?
MacCready: No.
Weisskopf: The newer one.
MacCready: The newer one. Which had many more ways to have trouble, the major thing being that it was handling very corrosive materials all the time, which always gives you problems.
Weisskopf: How did that compare with T Plant and B Plant as far as their operation time the first year?
MacCready: Well, fundamentally they ran 100% of the time, because they had the wherewithal. And when you got these spreaders around, you don’t have to stop.
Weisskopf: The process could keep going while you would go about fixing the problem earlier on.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Okay. Maybe you could help me with one --- I’d like to ask you about the equipment that was used. But maybe before we finish, because you’re probably getting tired, too ---
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: The precipitator, the big tank, had a column on top, that was part of the process. Not the dissolver, but when you would put in the bismuth phosphate, and you’d agitate it in a big tank, and it a column, 2-foot by 12-foot column on top.
MacCready: I don’t remember, really.
Weisskopf: I can bring you a picture next time, maybe it will ring a bell.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: I’m not enough of a chemist by any means to understand when you precipitate out something, physically what kind of equipment --- I’ve seen it done in a lab, just by stirring up a beaker, right?
MacCready: Yeah. Well, I don’t remember what it might be. The basic means of separating the solid from the liquid ---
Weisskopf: I think I was wrong, too. What I was talking about was the dissolver. It had a column?
MacCready: Oh, yeah.
Weisskopf: It did.
MacCready: Yes.
Weisskopf: For some reason or other, it’s still not in my mind why --- who cares if the dissolver has a column in it, if all you’re doing is dissolving stuff in acid. So it had a 12-foot tall column.
MacCready: Yeah.
Weisskopf: Okay. Please explain that to me.
MacCready: Well, that, of course, is the dissolution business leads to a certain amount of gas, acid, acidic gas being emitted, and that had to be caught and controlled, and that was what the column was for.
Weisskopf: Was it like a still, where it would liquefy and drip back down again?
MacCready: Well, it would --- I’ve forgotten the details. But I would guess, yeah, we probably had the means of, as the stuff’s coming up there, showering it a little bit and hitting it back down.
Weisskopf: Why didn’t you just pressure cook it? Why didn’t you just crank the valves shut and let the acid dissolve it under pressure? Where would the gas have gone then?
MacCready: Well, it would have gone down, along with the material.
Weisskopf: Oh. Yeah. Okay.
MacCready: And that you would prefer not to have happen. See, it takes pretty strong acid to dissolve that stuff up. I’m sure that this was simply a matter of seeing to it that they did not let that get away.
Weisskopf: Okay. I didn’t understand that. Are you about out of words at this point?
MacCready: I think about.
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Bit Rate/Frequency




B Reactor Museum Association, “William Kenneth "Mac" MacReady Oral History,” Hanford History Project, accessed May 28, 2024, http://www.hanfordhistory.com/items/show/4641.