The Atomic Cloister: Secrecy and the Shaping of Technical Identity, 1940-60

Johnston, S. F. (2010) The Atomic Cloister: Secrecy and the Shaping of Technical Identity, 1940-60. British Society for the History of Science Annual Meeting, Aberdeen, UK, 22-25 Jul 2010. (Unpublished)

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During five wartime years and the following post-war decade, atomic energy was a subject shrouded in secrecy. Identified as a crucial element in military strategy, national status and export aspirations, the research and development of atomic piles (nuclear chain-reactors) were nurtured at isolated installations. Like monastic orders, new national laboratories provided occupational environments that were simultaneously cosseted and constrained, defining regional variants of a new State-managed discipline: reactor engineering. This paper discusses the significance of secrecy in defining the new subject in the USA, UK and Canada – the first three countries to dedicate sustained government funding to the field. The borders and content of the subject developed differently in each country, shaped under the umbrella of security by disparate clusters of expertise, industrial traditions and national goals. The emerging academic discipline was constricted by classified publications and State-sponsored specialist courses. The new experts were categorised largely according to existing occupational niches and union affiliations. And, the context of high security filtered their members and capped their professional aspirations. But these amply-funded and secluded environments traded intellectual segregation for unbounded opportunities. Like children in a toy factory (paraphrasing Alvin Weinberg), reactor engineers explored a new domain, sometimes with scarcely a sideways glance at social, economic or even strategic factors. The ambiguous and capricious goals of the new sites and their specialists gradually were tamed, though, as security measures diminished during the mid 1950s and commercial nuclear power was identified as the primary goal.

Item Type:Conference or Workshop Item
Glasgow Author(s) Enlighten ID:Johnston, Professor Sean
Authors: Johnston, S. F.
Subjects:D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
E History America > E11 America (General)
F History United States, Canada, Latin America > F1001 Canada (General)
Q Science > Q Science (General)
Q Science > QD Chemistry
T Technology > TK Electrical engineering. Electronics Nuclear engineering
College/School:College of Social Sciences > School of Interdisciplinary Studies

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Project CodeAward NoProject NamePrincipal InvestigatorFunder's NameFunder RefLead Dept
445351The nuclear engineer - shaping a professionSean JohnstonEconomic & Social Research Council (ESRC)ES/E018483/1IS - INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES