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The Bomb Babysitter

Donald Hornig

Donald Hornig was a year out of graduate school when he received a mysterious job offer.  No one would even tell him what or even where the job was, so he declined – until the President of Harvard University called and convinced him to take it.

Soon after, Hornig bought an old car and headed for Los Alamos, New Mexico.   He would become one of the youngest leaders of the team that developed the first atomic bomb and the last surviving witness of the detonation on July 16, 1945.

Albert Einstein & Julius Robert Oppenheimer

Born in Milwaukee, Hornig “was the first in his family to go to college,” said the Associated Press.  He studied physical chemistry at Harvard, earning his Doctorate in 1943.  In Los Alamos, the head of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, gave him the job of developing the firing unit that triggered the detonation.


The Trinity tower. “At 9 p.m., I climbed the 100-foot tower to the top, where I baby-sat the live bomb,” Dr. Hornig recalled in a 2005 NPR interview. Credit Los Alamos National Laboratory

On the eve of the blast, Hornig “was assigned another task,” said The Washington Post.  Oppenheimer decided that someone should be at the site to babysit the bomb, he later remembered.

As lighting and thundered raged outside, Hornig sat by the bomb reading a book of humorous essays.  In the morning, “he took his place beside Oppenheimer in a control room more than 5 miles away.”

When the bomb exploded, at 5:29:45 a.m., Hornig recalled, “My first reaction, having not slept for 48 hours, was, ‘Boy am I tired.’  My second was, We sure opened a can of worms.”  He later described the massive orange fireball as, “one of the most aesthetically beautiful things I have ever seen.”

Hornig went on to teach at Brown and Princeton universities, said the New York Times, before becoming science adviser to President Lyndon Johnson.  “Working for Johnson was reportedly not easy; the president disdained scientists because many of them opposed the Vietnam War.

Hornig was named president of Brown University in 1970, where his budget cuts restored the institution’s finances.  Upon his resignation in 1976, he described his tenure as “bittersweet.”    He returned to Harvard and to teaching to end his career.

Donald Hornig was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on 17 March 1920 and the world lost him on 21 January 2013 in Providence, Rhode Island.

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Farewell Salutes – 

Lawrence Brown – Yale, OK; US Navy, WWII & Korea, submarine service

Jesus Cepeda – Lawrenceville, GA; US Navy, WWII, Pearl Harbor

Adrian Dunt – Howard County, IA; US Army Air Corps, Japan Occupation, 11th Airborne Division

Robert Frear – Whangamata, NZ; NZEF # 76618, WWII

Robert Kost – Williamsport, PA; US Navy, WWII, boat mechanic

Maurice McCarthy – WV; US Merchant Marine, WWII, ETO / US Navy

Ethel Orr – VT & HI; US Army WAC, WWII, PTO, Operating nurse

James Slape – Morehead City, NC; US Army, Afghanistan, Sgt., KIA

Henry Suverkrup – Dubuque, IA; US Navy, WWII, USS Saratoga

Charlie Wolfers – Canon City, CO; US Army Air Corps, WWII, communications

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