Edward Teller

Edward Teller in 1958 as Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Edward Teller (original Hungarian name Teller Ede) (January 15, 1908 – September 9, 2003) was a Hungarian-born American nuclear physicist of Jewish descent. He was known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb."

Early life and education

Teller was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. As a child, he was slow to speak, and his grandfather warned that he might be retarded. However, when he spoke, he did so in complete sentences. He left Hungary in 1926 (partly due to the Numerus clausus rule under Horthy's regime) and received his higher education in Germany. The political climate and revolutions in Hungary during his youth instilled a deep hatred for both Communism and Fascism in Teller. When he was a young student he was involved in a streetcar accident which severed his leg, requiring him to wear a prosthetic foot and leaving him with a life-long limp. Teller graduated in chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe and received his Ph.D. in physics under Werner Heisenberg in 1930 at the University of Leipzig. Teller's Ph.D. dissertation dealt with one of the first accurate quantum mechanical treatments of the hydrogen molecular ion. In 1930 he made friends with young Russian physicists George Gamow and Lev Landau who then visited Western Europe.

He spent two years at the University of Göttingen and left Germany in 1934 through the aid of the Jewish Rescue Committee. He went briefly to England and moved for a year to Copenhagen, where he worked under Niels Bohr. In February 1934, he married "Mici" (Augusta Maria) Harkanyi, the sister of a longtime friend.

In 1935, thanks to George Gamow's incentive, Teller was invited to the United States to become a Professor of Physics at the George Washington University, where he worked with Gamow until 1941. Prior to 1939, and the announcement to the scientific community of the discovery of fission, Teller was engaged as a theoretical physicist working in the fields of quantum physics, molecular physics, and nuclear physics. In 1941 after becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States, his interest turned to the use of nuclear energy, both fission and fusion.

Perhaps the most important contribution by Edward Teller was the elucidation of the Jahn-Teller Effect (1939) which describes the geometrical distortion that electron clouds undergo in certain situations; this plays prominently in the description of chemical reactions of metals, and in particular the coloration of certain metallic dyes. In collaboration with Brunauer and Emmet, Teller also made an important contribution to surface physics and chemistry; the so called Brunauer-Emmett-Teller (BET) isotherm.

When World War II began, Teller wanted to contribute to the war effort. On the advice of the well-known Caltech aerodynamicist and fellow Hungarian emigré Theodore von Kármán, Teller collaborated with his friend Hans Bethe in developing a theory of shock-wave propagation. In later years, their explanation of the behaviour of the gas behind such a wave proved valuable to scientists who were studying missile re-entry.

Work on the Manhattan Project

Teller's ID badge photo from Los Alamos.

In 1942, Teller was invited to be part of Robert Oppenheimer's summer planning seminar at UC Berkeley for the origins of the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to develop the first nuclear weapons. A few weeks earlier, Teller had been meeting with his friend and colleague Enrico Fermi about the prospects of atomic warfare, and Fermi had nonchalantly suggested that perhaps a weapon based on nuclear fission could be used to set off an even larger nuclear fusion reaction. Even though initially he quickly explained to Fermi why he thought the idea wouldn't work, Teller was fascinated by the possibility and was quickly bored with the idea of "just" an atomic bomb (which was not yet anywhere near completion). At the Berkeley session, Teller diverted discussion from the fission weapon to the possibility of a fusion weapon—what he called the "Super" (an early version of what was later known as a hydrogen bomb).

Teller became part of the Theoretical Physics division at the secret Los Alamos laboratory during the war, and continued to push his ideas for a fusion weapon even though it had been put on a low priority during the war (as the creation of a fission weapon was proving to be difficult enough by itself). Because of his interest on the H-bomb, and his frustration at having been passed up for director of the theoretical division (the job was instead given to Hans Bethe), Teller refused to engage in the calculations of the implosion of the fission bomb. This caused tensions with other researchers, as additional scientists had to be employed to do that work—including Klaus Fuchs, who later was revealed to be a Soviet spy. Apparently, Teller also managed to irk his neighbours by playing the piano late in the night. However, Teller made some valuable contributions to bomb research, especially in the elucidation of the implosion mechanism. In 1946, Teller left Los Alamos to return to the University of Chicago.

The hydrogen bomb and the Oppenheimer controversy

The Teller-Ulam design kept the fission and fusion fuel physically separated from one another, and used radiation from the primary device to compress the secondary.

Following the Soviet Union's first test detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949, President Truman announced a crash development program for a hydrogen bomb. Teller returned to Los Alamos in 1950 to work on the project. Teller quickly grew impatient with the progress of the program, insisted on involving more theorists, and accused his colleagues of lacking imagination. This worsened his relations with other researchers. None of his designs (or anyone else's), however, were yet workable. Hans Bethe thought that had Teller not pressed for an early H-bomb test, the Russians' own development might possibly have been slowed down, particularly in light of the fact that the information which Klaus Fuchs gave them contained many incorrect technical details which rendered a workable H-bomb unfeasible. Russian scientists who had worked on the Soviet hydrogen bomb have claimed that they could see that the early ideas were infeasible as well as anyone else who had looked at them did, and also claimed that they developed their H-bomb wholly independently.[1]

In 1950, calculations by the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and his collaborator Cornelius Everett, along with confirmations by Fermi, had showed that not only was Teller's earlier estimate of the quantity of Tritium needed for the H bomb a low one, but that even with a higher amount of Tritium, the energy losses in the fusion process would be too great to enable the fusion reaction to propagate. However, in 1951, after still many years of fruitless labor on the "Super," an innovative idea from Ulam was seized upon by Teller and developed into the first workable design for a megaton-range hydrogen bomb. The exact amount of contribution provided respectedly from Ulam and Teller to what became known as the Teller-Ulam design is not decidedly known in the public domain—the degree of credit assigned to Teller by his contemporaries is almost exactly commensurate with how well they thought of Teller in general. In an interview with Scientific American from 1999, Teller told the reporter:

"I contributed; Ulam did not. I'm sorry I had to answer it in this abrupt way. Ulam was rightly dissastified with an old approach. He came to me with a part of an idea which I already had worked out and difficulty getting people to listen to. He was willing to sign a paper. When it then came to defending that paper and really putting work into it, he refused. He said, 'I don't believe in it.'"

None of Teller's Los Alamos colleagues, though, agree with this assessment. Bethe gave Teller "51%" of the credit for the creation of the H-bomb, while other scientists (those more antagonistic to Teller, such as J. Carson Mark) have claimed that Teller would have never gotten any closer without the assistance of Ulam and others.[2][3]

The breakthrough—the details of which are still classified—was apparently the separation of the fission and fusion components of the weapons, and to use the radiation produced by the fission bomb to first compress the fusion fuel before igniting it. However, compression alone would not have been enough and the other crucial idea—staging the bomb by separating the primary and secondary—seems to have been exclusively contributed by Ulam. Also, Ulam's idea seems to have been to use mechanical shock from the primary to encourage fusion in the secondary, while Teller quickly realised that radiation from the primary would do the job much more early and more efficiently. Evidently, Teller pounced on this brainwave and used it to highlight his contribution. However, many members of the lab, including Carson Mark, think that the idea to use radiation would have occurred to anybody if he started to think about the physical processes involved. They also think that the obvious reason why Teller thought of radiation right away was because he was already working on the 'Greenhouse' tests for the spring of 1951, in which the effect of the energy from a fission bomb on a mixture of deuterium and tritium was going to be investigated. The elegance of the design impressed many scientists, to the point that some who had previously wondered if it was feasible at all suddenly believed that it was inevitable that it would be created by both the USA and USSR. Even Oppenheimer, who was originally opposed to the project, called the idea "technically sweet".

The 10.4 Mt "Ivy Mike" shot of 1952 appeared to vindicate Teller's long-time advocacy for the hydrogen bomb.

Though he had helped to come up with the design and had been a long-time proponent of the concept, Teller was not chosen to head the development project (his reputation as being a poor team player probably played a role in this). In 1952 he left Los Alamos and joined the newly established Livermore branch of the University of California Radiation Laboratory, which had been created largely through his urging. After the detonation of "Ivy Mike", the first thermonuclear weapon to utilize the Teller-Ulam configuration, on November 1, 1952, Teller became known in the press as the "father of the hydrogen bomb." Interestingly, Teller refrained from attending the test and instead saw its results on a seismograph in Berkeley. Ironically, by analysing the fallout from this test, the Russians (led in their H-bomb work by Andrei Sakharov) could have easily concluded that the new design had used compression as the key initiator, and this may have speeded up their own bomb effort. Because of official secrecy, little information about the bomb's development was released by the government, and press reports often attributed the entire weapon's design and development to Teller and his new Livermore Laboratory (when it was actually developed by Los Alamos).

Many of Teller's colleagues were irritated that he seemed to enjoy taking full credit for something he had only a part in, and in response, with encouragement from Enrico Fermi, Teller authored an article titled "The Work of Many People," which appeared in Science magazine in February, 1955, emphasizing that he was not alone in the weapon's development (he would later write in his memoirs that he had told a "white lie" in the 1955 article, and would imply that he should receive full credit for the weapon's invention).[4] Hans Bethe, who also participated in the hydrogen bomb project, once drolly said, "For the sake of history, I think it is more precise to say that Ulam is the father, because he provided the seed, and Teller is the mother, because he remained with the child. As for me, I guess I am the midwife."

Teller's testimony against Robert Oppenheimer in 1954 furthered his process of alienation from many of his former Los Alamos colleagues.

The rift between Teller and many of his colleagues was widened in 1954 when he testified against Robert Oppenheimer, former head of Los Alamos and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, at Oppenheimer's security clearance hearing—he was the only member of the scientific community to label Oppenheimer a security risk. After Oppenheimer's security clearance was stripped, Teller was repudiated by many of his former colleagues. In response, Teller began to run with a more military and governmental crowd, becoming the scientific darling of conservative politicians and thinkers for his advocacy of American scientific and technological supremacy.

Teller was often known for getting engrossed in projects which were theoretically interesting but practically infeasible (the classical "Super" was one such project). About his work on the hydrogen bomb, Hans Bethe said:

"Nobody blamed Teller because the calculations of 1946 were wrong, especially because adequate computing machines were not available at Los Alamos. But he was blamed at Los Alamos for leading the laboratory, and indeed the whole country, into an adventurous programme on the basis of calculations, which he himself must have known to have been very incomplete."

During the Manhattan Project, Teller also advocated for the development of a bomb using uranium hydride, which many of his fellow theorists said would be unlikely to work. At Livermore, Teller continued work on the hydride bomb, and the result was a dud. Ulam once wrote to a colleague about an idea he had shared with Teller: "Edward is full of enthusiasm about these possibilities; this is perhaps an indication they will not work". Fermi once said that Teller was the only monomaniac he knew who had several manias.

Star Wars, Plowshares, and Three Mile Island

Teller was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (1958-1960) and then an Associate Director. He also served concurrently as a Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley. He was a tireless advocate of a strong nuclear program and argued for continued testing and development (in fact, he stepped down from the directorship of Livermore so that he could better lobby against the proposed test ban). In 1975 he retired and was named Director Emeritus of the Livermore Laboratory and appointed Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

In the 1980s, Teller began a strong campaign for what was later called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), derided by critics as "Star Wars", the concept of using lasers or satellites to destroy incoming Russian ICBMs. Teller lobbied with government agencies—and got the sanction of President Ronald Reagan—for his plan to develop a system using elaborate satellites which used atomic weapons to fire X-ray lasers at incoming missiles. However scandal erupted when it later became apparent that the scheme was technically infeasible and that Teller (and his associate Lowell Wood) had deliberately oversold the program and perhaps had encouraged the dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who had attempted to correct the error. The futility of the system was pointed out by many scientists. Hans Bethe, along with IBM physicist Richard Garwin, coauthored an article in Scientific American which analysed the system and concluded that any putative enemy could disable such a system by the use of suitable decoys. The project was eventually scaled back many times over. Teller was later encouraged, however, by the Bush administration's revitalization of the missile defense program in the early 21st century (known to its critics as "Son of Star Wars").

Despite (or perhaps because of) his hawkish reputation, Teller made a public point of noting that he regretted the use of the first atomic bombs on civilian cities during World War II, and before the bombing of Hiroshima he had indeed lobbied Oppenheimer to use the weapons first in a "demonstration" which could be witnessed by the Japanese high-command and citizenry before using them to incur thousands of deaths. The "father of the hydrogen bomb" would use this quasi-anti-nuclear stance (he would say that he believed nuclear weapons to be unfortunate, but that the arms race was unavoidable due to intractable nature of Communism), to promote technologies such as SDI, arguing that they were needed to make sure that nuclear weapons could never be used again (Better a shield than a sword was the title of one of his books on the subject).

Teller also proposed various non-military uses of nuclear explosives, including a project to carve out a harbor in Alaska by detonating a hydrogen bomb on the sea floor as a part of Operation Plowshare. While working for the Atomic Energy Commission in the late 1950s and 1960s, he proposed "Project Chariot", in which hydrogen bombs would be used to dig a harbor more than a mile long and half a mile wide to provide a deep-water harbor for coal fields near Point Hope. Various factors, including opposition from the Inupiat people living near Point Hope and the fact that the harbor would be ice-bound nine months of the year, doomed the project.

Teller suffered a heart attack in 1979, which he blamed on Jane Fonda: after the Three Mile Island accident, the actress had outspokenly lobbied against nuclear power while promoting her latest movie, The China Syndrome (a movie depicting a nuclear accident which had coincidentally been released only a little over a week before the actual incident). In response, Teller acted quickly to lobby in favor of nuclear energy, testifying to its safety and reliability, and after such a flurry of activity suffered the attack. Teller authored a two-page spread in the Wall Street Journal which appeared on July 31, 1979, under the headline "I was the only victim of Three-Mile Island", which opened with:

"On May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island, I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind are spewing to the news media in their attempt to frighten people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much. The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous."

An editorial criticizing the ad ran the next day in The New York Times, noting that it was sponsored by Dresser Industries -- the company which had manufactured one of the defective valves which contributed to the accident at Three Mile Island.

Edward Teller in 1958 as director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.


In his early career, Teller made many important contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy (the Jahn-Teller and Renner-Teller effects), and surface physics. His extension of Fermi's theory of beta decay (in the form of the so-called Gamow-Teller transitions) provided an important stepping stone in the applications of this theory. The Jahn-Teller effect and the BET theory have retained their original formulation and are still mainstays in physics and chemistry. Teller also made contributions to Thomas-Fermi theory, the precursor of Density Functional Theory, a standard modern tool in the quantum mechanical treatment of complex molecules. In 1953, along with Nicholas Metropolis and Marshal Rosenbluth, Teller co-authored a paper which is a standard starting point for the applications of the Monte-Carlo method to statistical mechanics

Teller's vigorous and unashamed advocacy for strength through nuclear weapons, especially when so many of his wartime colleages later expressed regret about the arms race, made him an easy target for the "mad scientist" stereotype (his accent and imposing eyebrows certainly did not help shake the image). In 1991 he was awarded one of the first Ig Nobel Prizes for Peace in recognition of his "lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it". He was also rumored to be one of the inspirations for the character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 satirical film of the same name (other inspirations have been speculated to be RAND theorist Herman Kahn, rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, and the political scientist and statesman Henry Kissinger). In the aforementioned Scientific American interview from 1999, he was reported as having bristled at the question: "My name is not Strangelove. I don't know about Strangelove. I'm not interested in Strangelove. What else can I say?... Look. Say it three times more, and I throw you out of this office." Nobel Prize winning physicist, and fellow Hungarian, Isidor I. Rabi once suggested that "It would have been a better world without Teller."

Teller died in Stanford, California on September 9, 2003. He was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Nuclear Society. Among the honors he received were the Albert Einstein Award, the Enrico Fermi Award and the National Medal of Science. He was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush less than two months before his death.


"When you fight for a desperate cause and have good reasons to fight, you usually win." (cited by Robert C. Martin in the September 2005 issue of Software Development magazine, page 60)

Edward Teller and Ronald Reagan, photograph from when Reagan awarded Teller the National Medal of Science in 1983.


Gary Stix, "Infamy and honor at the Atomic Café: Edward Teller has no regrets about his contentious career," Scientific American (October 1999): 42-43.

Richard Rhodes, Dark sun: the making of the hydrogen bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).

Further reading

Written by Teller

  • Our Nuclear Future; Facts, Dangers, and Opportunities (1958)
  • Basic Concepts of Physics (1960)
  • The Legacy of Hiroshima (1975)
  • Energy from Heaven and Earth (1979)
  • The Pursuit of Simplicity (1980)
  • Better a Shield Than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense and Technology (1987)
  • Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991)
  • Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001)

Books about Teller

  • William J. Broad, Teller’s war: the top-secret story behind the Star Wars deception (Simon & Schuster, 1992).
  • Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the bomb: the tangled lives and loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence (Henry Holt, 2002).
  • Peter Goodchild, Edward Teller: the real Dr. Strangelove (Harvard University Press, 2005).


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