We are very excited to announce the release of our latest website, The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling: A Documentary History. The fifth in our documentary history series, the project took us nearly thirteen months to complete.
As with the previous four documentary histories, the war site is comprised of a Narrative, a Documents and Media repository (nearly 300 documents and audio clips were used), and a link to Linus Pauling Day-by-Day. One crucial difference between this project and its predecessors, however, is that our staff researched and wrote the Narrative in-house. (Past Narratives were written either by biographer Tom Hager or historian of science Dr. Melinda Gormley.) This was largely necessitated by the fact that no author had, to this point, rigorously delved into Pauling’s vast program of scientific war research, as conducted for the United States government during World War II.
The primary thrust of the war site narrative is a detailed review of the many specific projects that Pauling either directly investigated or oversaw as an administrator during the war years. Our research indicates that these were the main projects with which Pauling was involved:
- Improved rocket propellants and explosives
- A device to measure oxygen levels in aircraft and submarines
- Tests of the potential of hydrogen peroxide to absorb shock from explosives or rifle bullets
- An apparatus for testing carbon monoxide levels
- An instrument to measure the sizes of particles present in smokes and gases
- Artificial blood
- Mass-produced penicillin
- Invisible inks and coded writing
Amidst the project descriptions, the narrative also features an interlude that recounts the Pauling family’s experience of life during wartime, including Linus Pauling, Jr.’s stint in the United States Army. The project likewise details the elder Pauling’s early interactions with a host of the era’s pivotal figures, including Vannevar Bush and the National Defense Research Committee, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and W.W. Palmer’s committee, which was charged with charting the course of post-war scientific research funding in the United States.
One of the real pleasures of working on this project has been the discovery of several small details that have added flavor to the overall story of Pauling’s war experience. Users of the site will learn, for instance, of the following anecdote, as recorded in a 1967 letter written by Arne Haagen-Smit.
During the year 1944 Mrs. Ava Helen Pauling worked for several months in my laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Her task consisted in the separation by chromatography of various colored derivatives of plant products and the determination of their physical constants. I remember with a great deal of pleasure her participation in our research which she carried out to my full satisfaction. I have no hesitation in recommending her for an appointment which would enable her to return to the laboratory.
In a later interview, Linus Pauling would further reveal that his wife had “worked for a couple of years as a chemist on a war job making rubber out of plants that would grow in the Mojave.”
The website incorporates twenty-five audio clips extracted from interviews conducted by Tom Hager in the early 1990s for use in his standard-bearing biography of Linus Pauling, Force of Nature. Here too we find many amusing anecdotes, including this great bit from Nobel laureate William Lipscomb.
In a similar vein, included among the nearly three-hundred documents used to provide deeper context for the narrative are a series of drawings created by David Shoemaker, who was at that time a Caltech Ph. D. candidate working under Pauling’s direction. One of Shoemaker’s primary charges seems to have been the visual conceptualization of specific German instruments of war, as described in various internal documents. Our favorite of these conceptualizations has to be the incredible “Die Walze” rocket, which apparently was designed to operate not unlike a stone skipped across a pond.
At this point in time, most of Linus Pauling’s biography has been combed over pretty thoroughly and analyzed by any number of authors. It is a rare opportunity, then, to be able to present a large volume of new information on Pauling’s life and work. This is a project that should prove to be of interest to many different types of users.
Filed under: Scientific War Work Tagged: | A. J. Haagen-Smit, Ava Helen Pauling, David Shoemaker, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Linus Pauling, Linus Pauling Jr., Manhattan Project, Melinda Gormley, National Defense Research Committee, Thomas Hager, Vannevar Bush, W. W. Palmer, William Lipscomb