Episode 53 – The Development of the Atomic Bomb versus the Code of Hammurabi

This episode, from the Events bracket, covers two times in human history that are about as far apart as any in this podcast. The Development of the Atomic Bomb came during the most significant conflict in human history, World War II, and has luckily for most of us, has only been used twice in warfare. The other represents the first known legal code from ancient times, the Code of Hammurabi.

My primary source of information on the Atomic Bomb development is the Manhattan Project edited by Cynthia Kelly. For the Code of Hammurabi, I’m using multiple online sources as I haven’t found a book, aside from those that reprint the code, that suits my purposes. I’ve also used the Great Courses for both contestants. 

The Trinity Explosion
The Trinity Explosion

The Development of the atomic bomb has often been called by another name, the Manhattan Project. I struggled with the idea of calling this battle’s event by the American development project, but I chose the more inclusive title as the U.S. was not the only country involved in the bomb’s creation although it is the only country to use it in warfare.

The idea of an atomic bomb as a weapon had been bantered about among physicists as early as 1938 with the discovery of nuclear fission by German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch described the finding which made the Development of an atomic bomb a theoretical possibility. But they were not the first to describe the potential of the weapon. That belongs to the science fiction writer H.G. Wells in 1914 with his story, The World Set Free.

Here is a brief excerpt, “’Given that knowledge,’ he said, ‘mark what we should be able to do! We should not only be able to use this uranium and thorium; not only should we have a source of power so potent that a man might carry in his hand the energy to light a city for a year, fight a fleet of battleships, or drive on of our ocean liners across the Atlantic; but we should also have a clue that would enable us to quicken the process of disintegration in all of the other elements, where decay is still so slow as to escape our finest measurements. Every scrap of solid matter in the world would become an available reservoir of concentrated force. Do you realize, ladies and gentlemen, what these things would mean for us?’

The scrub head nodded. ‘Oh! Go on. Go on.’

‘It would mean a change in human conditions that I can only compare to the discovery of fire, that first discovery that lifted man above the brute.’”

It seems from this passage that Wells viewed the splitting of the atom as strictly a beneficial development, but that is not so. He foresaw the moral and ethical concerns as well. In the book the Manhattan Project, there is a page of an excerpt from H.G. Well’s work. Here is a small paragraph that shows what he saw as the power of an atomic bomb. “Then that bomb had exploded also, and steersman, thrower, and aeroplane were just flying rags and splinters of metal and drops of moisture in the air, and a third column of fire rushed eddying down upon the doomed buildings below.”

Leo Szilard was inspired by Well’s and thought long and hard about a nuclear chain reaction that would power a bomb. The epiphany occurred to Leo when he stepped off the curb on a street in London, England when the light turned green. As he recounted by Richard Rhodes in his book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Leo Szilard said, “As the light changed to green and I crossed the street, it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.”

“I didn’t see at the moment just how one would go on about finding such an element, or what experiments would be needed, but the idea never left me. In certain circumstances, it might be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction, liberate energy on an industrial scale, and construct atomic bombs.”

The Development of such a destructive device wasn’t the work of one man or woman or even a small team of people. It was an enormous venture, combining the minds of some of the brightest people in world history. Names such as Edward Teller, George Gamov, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Paul Scherrer, Lise Meitner, and Otto Frisch were some of the early pioneers. To Ms. Meitner, it was especially important as she was a Jew who escaped the persecution of Jews by the Nazi’s in her home country of Austria. In fact, A number of the physicists involved in the Manhattan project were of Jewish heritage and forced to leave their European homes.

Luckily for many, even though the original work on the concept of nuclear fission began in Germany and was studied extensively in the Soviet Union, neither of those countries had Fermi, Scherrer, and Szilard. Some would argue that the U.S. was the only country ever to use the atomic bomb, so they are guilty of crimes against humanity, but imagine the bomb in the hands of someone like Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin during World War II. While this podcast is not about making moral judgments, I do like to throw a couple of what-ifs for all of you to contemplate.

In the 1930s when the Development of nuclear fission was in its infancy, graduate student Philip Abelson said this about the field, “Nuclear physics is now a mature science with an associated complex technology. But in the 1930s, it was an amateur sport played by a few score graduate students. I was one of them.” At this time, the U.S. government wasn’t entirely sold on the usefulness of this new technology. It was the work of two men, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner that would bring it to the attention of the one man who could muster the resources needed to put together the team that would make the atomic bomb a reality and that was Franklin D. Roosevelt who we met in episode 19. But first, they had to convince another member of our competition, someone we met in episode 9, Albert Einstein.

Szilard and Wigner went to Einstein’s home to talk about the theoretical and practical discoveries made on nuclear fission and how this could be made into a bomb. Einstein replied in his native German, “Daran habe ich gar nicht gedacht.” Translated, it meant, “I haven’t thought of that at all.” 

The three men decided to write a letter to the Belgian consulate in Washington DC to warn them that their uranium mines in the Belgian Congo could be used by the Nazi’s to make a bomb of indescribable destructive capability. Instead, at the behest of Dr. Alexander Sachs, the vice-president of Lehman Brothers and adviser to the FDR and his New Deal, the letter would have to go to the president. It would have to be signed by Einstein to have the necessary impact. 


Some recent work by E.Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations:

In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America – that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.

This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.

The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.

In view of the situation you may think it desirable to have more permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust with this task a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an official capacity. His task might comprise the following:

      a) to approach Government Departments, keep them informed of the further development, and put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States;

      b) to speed up the experimental work,which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of University laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds be required, through his contacts with private persons who are willing to make contributions for this cause, and perhaps also by obtaining the co-operation of industrial laboratories which have the necessary equipment.

      I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

                                            Yours very truly,

                                            Albert Einstein

Another pair of letters from Einstein was sent to FDR and another from Szilard himself. Roosevelt convened a committee to look into things and begin the development of an atomic bomb. It would be called the Manhattan Project. Interestingly enough, Albert Einstein was not part of the project as his pacifistic ideas were considered a threat to the security of the mission.

The reason it was called the Manhattan Project was because of the location of its temporary headquarters on the 18th floor of 270 Broadway in New York City. It was 1942, and the development mission was somewhat floundering until Major General Leslie Groves was named to head the operation in September. He was in charge of deciding the sites where the research and development of the bomb would take place, Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Los Alamos, New Mexico; and Hanford, Washington. There was a total of approximately 30 sites that were involved.

The undertaking of the development of the atomic bomb was incredibly extensive and very expensive. Initially, the U.S. wanted Britain to join with them in the project but were rebuffed on numerous occasions. It wasn’t until late 1942 when Great Britain realized that they didn’t have the resources to continue with their project, codenamed Tube Alloys, that they joined.

Let’s put the Manhattan Project into perspective. At its peak, it employed around 130,000 people and cost nearly 2 billion dollars, equivalent to about $23 billion in today’s dollars. The thought that this was also kept a secret, for the most part, is quite staggering. The problem was, it was a secret to many Americans, but certainly not to the Soviet Union.

As one worker at Los Alamos put it, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing besides looking into a ——— and turning a ——— alongside a ———. I don’t know anything about it, and there’s nothing to say”. When news of the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were made public, many of the workers were stunned to learn that they had worked on those weapons. Many were appalled, but many viewed their work as essential in ending World War II and saving countless lives that might have been lost on both sides in case of an invasion of the Japanese mainland. 

The coming years of espionage by the Soviet Union and the development of thousands of atomic and then hydrogen bombs were thought to be harbingers of the end of the world. The idea of MAD, mutually assured destruction, came about which said that the mere presence of all of these weapons of mass destruction prevented them from being used. So far, over 70 years later, we are still faced with a vast stockpile of nuclear bombs, sitting on the top of missiles, or missing, waiting for some radical group to steal and use them.

Now to move on to our second contestant, the Code of Hammurabi.

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi

According to CHW Johns, an academic who helped translated the code along with Father Vincent Scheil, and published his work in 1903, “The Code of Hammurabi is one of the most important monuments in the history of the human race. Containing as it does the laws which were enacted by a king of Babylonia in the third millennium B.C., whose rule extended over the whole of Mesopotamia from the mouths of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to the Mediterranean coast, we must regard it with interest.”

A partial copy exists on a 2.25-meter 7.5 ft stone stele. It consists of 282 laws with different punishments based on a person’s class status. It is written in the Akkadian language and was produced between 1792 BCE and 1750 BCE the year that King Hammurabi died. 

While not the oldest set of laws from ancient Babylonia and Mesopotamia, it is the most extensive collection of laws that are still intact. In its preface it reads, “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.”

Many of the laws set down by the document were about contracts or deeds. When an agreement was produced, they needed to have witnesses sign the document. This was an important issue and had rules accompanying who could be a witness. Older people were rarely used in this position as the life expectancy was far less than today. 

One of the most used punishments for breaking the laws set in the Code of Hammurabi is unsurprisingly, death. Over thirty of the penalties call for killing the guilty party. Here are a few examples:

“If anyone is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.”

“If a man has borne false witness in a trial, or has not established the statement that he has made if that case is a capital trial, that man shall be put to death.”

Here is one that shows how the wealthy were treated differently a poor person, “If a man has stolen ox, or sheep or ass, or pig, or ship whether from the temple or the palace, he shall pay thirtyfold. If he be a poor man, he shall render tenfold. If the thief has nought to pay, he shall be put to death.”

Life in the ancient world was tough, and some of the laws sought to deal with things like natural disasters to help people avoid financial ruin. “If a man has a debt upon him and a thunderstorm ravaged his field or carried away the produce, or the corn has not grown through lack of water, in that year he shall not return corn to the creditor, he shall alter his tablet and he shall not give interest for that year.”

Another critical part of the laws was behavioral and in particular, protecting the family. Much of the code protects the rights of the father of the family yet also has provisions that the sons and daughters, as well as the wife, had to be treated fairly. In particular, property rights of sons, especially, they could not be denied their inheritance. That is unless they behaved poorly, but even then, if they cleaned up their act, they could not be denied their inheritance.

The Code of Hammurabi is the basis of many laws that we have like the U.S. Constitution, the Magna Carta many Hebrew laws, and others are part of its legacy. It also laid down the new idea that people were innocent until proven guilty a fundamental change from older laws. While the Code was only found in its complete form in 1901, its influence permeated throughout ancient history to our time today.

Now is the time to begin doling out the scores for each event.

The first 15 points are for the number of people involved. This is a tough one to judge as we can’t truly count the number of people the Code of Hammurabi affected, but the number that were involved in the Manhattan Project was around 130,000. I’m going to give both events the full 15 points as I feel the population of Babylon at the time would be about the same.

Next up is how it affected the rest of the world at the time. This one is a big win for the Development of the atomic bomb. The use of the weapon against Japan and the race for other countries to develop the bomb was global. The Code only affected the people under Hammurabi during his reign. For these reasons, I will give the Manhattan Project 20 points and the Code of Hammurabi 5.

Next up is the long-term effects of each event. Even though the Code was only discovered in its complete form in 1901, there is lots of evidence that it influenced laws around the world for millennium, reaching us to this day. The Development of the atomic bomb has had an effect on our world for the past 70+ years. The Code gets 25 points, the bomb 15.

Last up is the big point award for the immediate effect on the country or countries involved. The Manhattan Project had, and continues to have a significant impact on policies and behavior of the U.S., Soviet Union, China, India, Pakistan, England, France, and now North Korea. The Code of Hammurabi had a tremendous effect on the life, policies, and behavior of the entire region of Mesopotamia. Because of this, I am yet again giving both events the full number of points, forty.

In a tight battle, the Development of the Atomic Bomb scores 90 points versus the Code of Hammurabi received 85. The Manhattan Project moves on to the second round to face off against either the Mongol Invasion or the Magna Carta.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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