Inventions and Official Secrecy: A History of Secret Patents in the United Kingdom

By T. O'Dell H. | Go to book overview

9
Making Wartime Procedure Permanent

9.1 The Atomic Bomb

The war with Japan ended in August 1945, a few days after atomic bombs had been dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unexpectedness of this latter event was without precedent. The explosions were over 2,000 times the intensity of any previous explosion caused by a bomb dropped from an aircraft.

The secrecy associated with the development of this new weapon may have been the cause of the public surprise when it came to be used in the war. This secrecy has not been satisfactorily analysed, and the case is a difficult one. That there was such a thing as 'atomic energy' had been well known for many years: the thirteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1926, had an article entitled "Atomic Energy", written by F. W. Aston, Nobel prizewinner and author of the seminal text Isotopes. Aston's article explained that the sun's energy came from the fusion reaction of hydrogen into helium, and that it might be possible for mankind to use this source of energy in the distant future, but he was not very optimistic on this point. The possibility of releasing atomic energy by means of fission of the heavy elements was not, of course, mentioned in the article because the discovery of uranium fission by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann was not published until January 1939. Jungk, however, has pointed out that Ida Noddack suggested the possibility of fission as early as 1934 ( Jungk ( 1958), 69). It should also be noted that the secret patent Leo Szilard wrote in 1934 (see Section 7.6) mentioned the possibility of a chain reaction in uranium, but said nothing about fission.

The release of atomic energy was not then, in the 1940s, an idea that was unfamiliar, but it was something most people would have expected to lie far in the future. It was the kind of development put forward in the science fiction of the time. When this atomic energy literally burst upon the scene in August 1945, the surprise was more a case of suddenly finding oneself in the future than of

-113-

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Inventions and Official Secrecy: A History of Secret Patents in the United Kingdom
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Figures viii
  • Abbreviations ix
  • Acknowledgements x
  • 1 - Introduction 1
  • 2 - The First Secret Patent 4
  • 3 - The Secret Patents Act of 1859 19
  • 4 - Towards an Official Secrets Act 35
  • 5 - The Secrets of Two Technical Revolutions 49
  • 6 - Introducing the Examiners 62
  • 7 - Between the Wars 79
  • 2 - The Second World War 95
  • 9 - Making Wartime Procedure Permanent 113
  • 10 - The Last Secret Patent 129
  • List of References 140
  • Index 145
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