The fact that radium compounds are permanently at a higher temperature than their surroundings, and therefore that radium is constantly emitting heat, was first pointed out by Curie and Lourde [in 1903]. ...They found that radium emits heat at the rate of about 100 calories per hour per gram of radium. ...in its whole life radium emits a quantity of heat of the order of 1010 calories. When it is remembered that the union of hydrogen and oxygen to form 1 gramme of water causes an evolution of 3900 calories, the enormous store of energy within the atom in the case of the radioactive substances will be realised.
Electricity and Magnetism for Advanced Students, by Sydney G. Starling, 1929.
As seen from the quote above, the existence of "atomic energy" was known within a few years of the discovery of radioactivity in 1896. No chemical or physical process was found that could change the rate of release of that energy (by radioactive decay) until the discovery of uranium fission in1939. Here are some documents that survey that history and relate the basics of nuclear weapon physics.
Introduction (Nuclear Physics up to 1940)
This is Chapter I from Atomic Energy for Military Purposes by Henry DeWolf Smyth. It gives a good overview of the discoveries in nuclear physics up to the formation of the Manhattan Project. [Acrobat PDF version, 351KB]
Statement of the Problem (of building an Atomic Bomb)
This is Chapter II from Atomic Energy for Military Purposes by Henry DeWolf Smyth. It gives an introduction to the problems of creating a nuclear chain reaction that faced the scientists of the Manhattan Project. [Acrobat PDF version, 144KB]
The Los Alamos Primer,
LA-1, April 1943. [Adobe PDF, 3.1MB]
This first Los Alamos technical report is the lecture given at the establishment of the Los Alamos laboratory. It details what had been learned about atomic bomb physics in secret Manhattan Project work up to that time. See the bibliography for a new, expanded edition that has been published commercially.
Nuclear Age Timeline
This DOE site tells the story of the nuclear age from the pre-1940's through the 1990's. Highly recommended.
This document in progress gives a detailed technical discussion of how nuclear weapons work. You can find it at the High Energy Weapons Archive, sister site to this one.
The Swords of Armageddon CDROM
Chuck Hansen has spent over 25 years pushing the barriers of secrecy around nuclear weapons. He has updated and extended his 1988 book U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History in this CDROM. He tells the inside workings of nuclear weapons technology and presents an elaborate history of nuclear weapons tests, especially how those tests improved weapons design.
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Last updated: January 9, 2000.