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Lawrence H. Johnston

Lawrence Harding "Larry" Johnston (February 11, 1918 – December 4, 2011) was an American physicist, a young contributor to the Manhattan Project. He was the only man to witness all three atomic explosions in 1945: the Trinity nuclear test and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[1][2]

Lawrence Johnston
Born (1918-02-11)February 11, 1918
Shandong, China
Died December 4, 2011(2011-12-04) (aged 93)
Moscow, Idaho
Residence Moscow, Idaho
Nationality American
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley,
B.S. 1940, Ph.D. 1950
Spouse(s) Mildred (Millie) Hillis Johnston
Children 1 son, 4 daughters
Scientific career
Fields Physics
Institutions Los Alamos Laboratory
University of Minnesota
The Aerospace Corporation
Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
University of Idaho
Doctoral advisor Luis Walter Alvarez

During World War II, he worked at the MIT Radiation Laboratory where he invented ground-controlled approach radar. In 1944, he went to the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory, where he invented the exploding-bridgewire detonator.

After the war he completed his Ph.D. thesis in 1950, and became an associate professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. He later worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center as head of the electronics department, and was a professor at the University of Idaho in Moscow,[3][4] where he taught until his retirement.


Early lifeEdit

Born in Shandong, China, on February 11, 1918,[5] Johnston's parents were American Presbyterian missionaries.[6] The family returned to the United States in 1923, and his father became a Presbyterian pastor in Santa Maria, California.[5]

After graduation from Hollywood High School in 1936, Johnston earned an associate degree at Los Angeles City College. He transferred to the University of California in Berkeley, where Luis Walter Alvarez was a graduate student. Johnston received his bachelor's degree in physics in 1940.[7][8]

World War IIEdit

MIT Radiation LaboratoryEdit

Johnston intended to study for his doctorate under Alvarez, but instead followed him east to the MIT Radiation Laboratory near Boston in February 1941. Alvarez and Johnston worked together on ground-controlled approach radar. This allowed aircraft to be guided a safe landing in adverse weather conditions, based on radar images,[5] and would later prove crucial during the Berlin Airlift.[5][9] They were awarded US Patents 2,555,101 and 2,585,855 for it.[6]

While a graduate student at Berkeley, Johnston met Mildred (Millie) Hillis, a girl who shared his strong Christian faith. When Alvarez discovered how much Johnston missed Hillis, he arranged for Johnston to be flown back to Berkeley. Johnston and Hillis married, and returned to Boston together. She sometimes accompanied them on field trips to test the ground-controlled approach radar system. They had five children: Mary Virginia (Ginger), Margy, Dan, Lois, and Karen.[9]

Manhattan ProjectEdit

Johnston with the Fat Man plutonium core on Tinian in 1945

In 1944, Johnston followed Alvarez to the Manhattan Project's Los Alamos Laboratory, where Robert Oppenheimer, who was also from the University of California, was the director. Johnston became involved in the development of the Fat Man plutonium bomb. Because of the high level of spontaneous fission in reactor plutonium, it was decided to use a nearly critical sphere of the metal and compress it quickly into a much smaller and denser core using explosives, a technical challenge at the time.[10]

To create the symmetrical implosion required to compress the plutonium to the required density, thirty-two explosive charges were simultaneously detonated around the spherical core. Using conventional explosive techniques with blasting caps, progress towards achieving simultaneity to within a small fraction of a microsecond was discouraging. Alvarez directed Johnston to use a large capacitor to deliver a high voltage charge directly to each explosive lens, replacing blasting caps with exploding-bridgewire detonators. This detonated all thirty-two charges within a few tenths of a microsecond. The invention was critical to the success of the implosion-type nuclear weapon.[11] Johnston was awarded US Patent 3,040,660 for the exploding-bridgewire detonator.[6]

Johnston and Alvarez's next task for the Manhattan Project was to develop a set of calibrated microphone/transmitters to be parachuted from an aircraft to measure the strength of the blast wave from the atomic explosion, so as to allow the scientists to calculate the bomb's energy. He observed the Trinity nuclear test from a B-29 Superfortress that also carried fellow Project Alberta members Harold Agnew and Deak Parsons.[12]

Flying in the B-29 Superfortress The Great Artiste in formation with the Enola Gay, Alvarez and Johnston measured the blast effect of the Little Boy bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima.[13] A few days later, again flying in The Great Artiste, Johnston used the same equipment to measure the strength of the Nagasaki explosion.[14] He was the only person to witness the Trinity test and the bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[9]

Johnston never regretted the part he had played in the bombings. Years later, Johnston recalled:

Back at Los Alamos there was lots of rejoicing. "We won the War!" But several important people were having pangs of conscience, most notably Oppenheimer. Yes we had stopped the wartime killing, but we had killed a lot of people with our bombs, and worst of all we had let the genie out of the bottle, and now nuclear war would be a specter for the world to face. … Oppie felt especially responsible for this nuclear worry, and he made public statements of remorse. I think it was because of this that Oppie was forgiven by the 1945 Peace Activists in the Physics community. Instead he became their hero. But Alvarez was not forgiven, and he suffered public insults as a warmonger. The same for Ernest Lawrence. The Peace activists sounded like they wished we had lost the war, or at least that it had ended in a bloody stalemate.[15]

After the warEdit

After the war, Johnston returned to graduate school at Berkeley. Under Alvarez's supervision, he wrote his PhD thesis at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory on the "Development of the Alvarez-type proton linear accelerator". After he graduated in 1950, he became an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. There, he built a 68 MeV proton linear accelerator, which he used to perform proton-proton scattering experiments. In 1964, he joined the Physics Laboratory of The Aerospace Corporation, where he learned techniques for investigating far infrared radiation.[6]

In 1964, Johnston moved to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center as head of the Electronics Department. He worked there on the construction of a 2-mile-long (3.2 km), 20 GeV electron linear accelerator. He became a professor of physics at the University of Idaho in 1967, and focused on nuclear physics, far infrared lasers, and molecular spectroscopy.[7] Johnston retired in 1988 at age 70, and continued to reside in Moscow as professor emeritus until his death.[6]

In retirement, Johnston made a number of trips to Israel to work on biblical archaeology projects. He was a strong supporter of Christian ministries, and believed in intelligent design.[6][9] Johnston died of lung cancer at age 93 in his home in Moscow on December 4, 2011. Married for 69 years, he was survived by his wife Millie and their five children.[9]




  1. ^ Lee, Sandra L. Lee (November 19, 2011). "Idaho man witness to 3 atomic blasts". Missoulian. Montana. (Lewiston Tribune). Retrieved October 18, 2011. 
  2. ^ Hensley, Nicole (December 6, 2011). "Former colleagues remember Manhattan Project scientist". Pullman-Moscow News. (KXLY Spokane). 
  3. ^ "UI professors change rank". Spokane Daily Chronicle. July 7, 1971. p. b3. 
  4. ^ "Idaho's lifeblood: research". Gem of the Mountains. (University of Idaho yearbook). 1983. p. 106. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Inventor, Atomic Bomb Witness, and University Professor Larry Johnston". South Fork Companion. February 11, 2013. Retrieved October 18, 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Johnston, Lawrence. "Bio: Lawrence Johnston". American Scientific Affiliation. Retrieved August 31, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b c "Vita for Lawrence Johnston". University of Idaho. October 28, 2010. Retrieved October 18, 2014. 
  8. ^ Nebeker, Frederik (June 13, 1991). "Oral-History: Lawrence Johnston". IEEE Global History Network. (interview). Retrieved October 18, 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c d e "Obituary:Lawrence H. 'Larry' Johnston, 93, Moscow". Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Retrieved August 31, 2013. 
  10. ^ Alvarez 1987, pp. 123–128.
  11. ^ Alvarez 1987, pp. 131–136.
  12. ^ Alvarez 1987, pp. 137–142.
  13. ^ Alvarez 1987, pp. 6–8.
  14. ^ Alvarez 1987, pp. 144–146.
  15. ^ "R.I.P.: Paul Doty and Lawrence H. Johnston". Retrieved August 31, 2013. 


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