“Ranger in Your Pocket: Hans Bethe House” Program Launches

“Ranger in Your Pocket: Hans Bethe House” Program Launches

The Hans Bethe House today

The Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF) and the Los Alamos Historical Society (LAHS) have launched an online “Ranger in Your Pocket” program on the Hans Bethe House on Bathtub Row at Los Alamos, NM. AHF President Cindy Kelly explained, “During the Manhattan Project, two famous scientists lived in the Hans Bethe House. This program gives a unique glimpse into life at Los Alamos with first-hand accounts.”

The Hans Bethe House is now the Harold Agnew Cold War Gallery of the Los Alamos History Museum. Formerly called Master Cottage Number One, it was the first residence built by the Los Alamos Ranch School. The director of the school, A. J. Connell, lived there briefly before it became home for the school’s masters (teachers). But, as LAHS Executive Director Heather McClenahan explains in one of the vignettes, “The building caught on fire. When A. J. rebuilt the building, he built it out of stone.” Today, tourists can visit what was originally just a little stone rectangle but was expanded over the decades.Edwin McMillan, 1958. Photo courtesy of LBNL.

The quaint cottage has been home to eminent scientists. During the Manhattan Project, Edwin (right) and Elsie McMillan moved into the house with their young daughter, Ann. When they moved out, Hans and Rose Bethe moved in. Both Edwin and Hans would go on to win Nobel Prizes for their scientific contributions.

After the war’s end, the home was assigned to chemist Max Roy, who lived there for almost 50 years and served as director of the Weapons Division at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, now Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In 2013-14, philanthropists Clay and Dorothy Perkins purchased the Hans Bethe House and donated the property to LAHS, which has transformed it into a gallery with exhibits on Los Alamos during the Cold War. At Clay’s request, the gallery was named in honor of his good friend and former LANL director Harold Agnew. “Dr. Agnew directed the laboratory at a critical time in the Cold War, and we are pleased to honor his efforts,” McClenahan said.

The “Ranger” program covers the history of Master Cottage Number One from its Ranch School days through today, along with other memories of life at Los Alamos. After the Manhattan Engineer District acquired the school in early 1943, the buildings were turned into homes for top-echelon scientists and military leaders. Master Cottage Number One went to Edwin and Elsie. They lived right next door to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was given Master Cottage Number Two.

The vignettes include a recording of Elsie McMillan giving an imaginary tour of the Bethe House: “Now we’re on Bathtub Row. This is our home. Isn’t it attractive? Ed, isn’t this a gorgeous living room? Oh, my goodness, what a big fireplace.” Her vivid stories provide a lively perspective of life at Los Alamos.

Elsie knew that her husband was working on developing an atomic bomb, and that Edwin and the other scientists would be testing the weapon. Edwin warned her that the test could be dangerous for the scientists. “We ourselves are not absolutely certain what will happen. In spite of calculations, we are going into the unknown.” She recalled the moving moment when Edwin returned home safely after the test. “The door opened about 6:00 o’clock in the evening. We were in each other’s arms. Then, and only then, did the tears come streaming down my face.”

Hans Bethe's ID badge at Los AlamosHans (left) and Rose Bethe lived in Master Cottage Number One after the McMillans. McClenhan explains, “Because of his greatness as a scientist, his greatness as a teacher, his greatness as the conscience of Los Alamos, we have called this the Hans Bethe House to honor him.” Rose remembers having Victor and Ellen Weisskopf, Enrico Fermi, and other friends over at the home. She also recounts her young son Henry’s battle over spinach with Genia Peierls, wife of physicist Sir Rudolf Peierls.

Because the gallery is named in honor of Harold Agnew, the third director of LANL, several of the vignettes cover Agnew’s long career and many contributions. As a physicist on the Manhattan Project, he witnessed the Chicago Pile-1 going critical and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. As current LANL director Charlie McMillan explains, “Agnew has personally been part of the history of this laboratory almost since its inception, not only a witness to history, but also someone who has helped to shape that history.” With the Harold Agnew Cold War Gallery in the Hans Bethe House, LAHS and AHF honor both these men who shaped much of what Los Alamos is today.

AHF plans to develop a full suite of Manhattan Project tours on the responsive “Ranger in Your Pocket” website. Visitors to the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park can use their smartphones and tablets to access these self-guided tours. AHF plans to launch a tour of the Manhattan Project at Chicago, IL, in May, and “Ranger in Your Pocket” programs on innovations at Los Alamos later this year.

For the Hans Bethe House “Ranger” program, AHF is very grateful for a generous donation from Clay and Dorothy Perkins. Thanks to Craig Martin for his help with supplying historic photos for the production, and to Ann Chaikin, Stephen McMillan, David McMillan, and James Bradbury for providing family photographs.