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Edward Teller—A Life Dedicated to Science

Teller, later in life, at home seated with a book in front of his fireplaceIn the first decades of the 20th century there was a revolution in man's understanding of the universe. Breakthroughs in physics were associated with the extraordinary minds of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and one who knew and worked with each of them, Edward Teller. Under Heisenberg at Leipzig, Teller helped lay the foundation of nuclear physics. His research with Enrico Fermi at Chicago led to the first controlled nuclear reaction. At Los Alamos with Oppenheimer, Teller helped develop the first atomic bomb. His efforts were instrumental in establishing what is now known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Teller was born into a middle-class lawyer's family in Budapest, Hungary in 1908, and took his degree in chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. With the rise of the Nazis, he left Germany, and from 1933–34 he participated in developing the new quantum physics in Copenhagen as a postdoctoral fellow, in the celebrated school of Niels Bohr. In February 1934, he married "Mici" (Augusta Maria) Harkanyi, the sister of a longtime friend.

After a period teaching at London City College in 1934, he was appointed Professor of Physics at George Washington University in Washington, DC in 1935, where he continued to work until 1941.

Teller with a molecule model in front of the periodic table giving a lecture. Prior to the announcement to the scientific community of the discovery of fission in 1939, Teller's research was entirely theoretical and had a wholly basic-science character. President Franklin Roosevelt's call-to-arms to the American scientific community as war broke out in Europe profoundly affected Teller, and he become involved in the applied nuclear physics studies then centered at Columbia University. It was Teller who drove Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner to Albert Einstein's summer home on Long Island in 1939, where Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to pursue atomic weapons research before the Nazis could preempt the field.

In recollections, Teller quipped that he suspected that the only reason he became a part of the trio urging Einstein to advise Roosevelt urgently to take action was "because I was the only one who knew how to drive and had a car to get us there." A half-year later, Teller personally pleaded successfully with the government for an initial grant of $6,000 in support of Fermi's nuclear reactor-directed studies at Columbia, which action served to launch what grew into the Manhattan Project.

In 1943, Teller went to work on the Manhattan Project at the fledgling Los Alamos National Laboratory and eventually became assistant director. From 1949–50 he concentrated on the hydrogen bomb and contributing to the decision to make the thermonuclear reaction a major part of the U.S. defense program.

Teller seated behind his office desk at Lawrence LivermoreHis advocacy of competition in the national interest to ensure excellence in nuclear developments led to creation of the Livermore site of what was then called the University of California Radiation Laboratory in 1952, now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It was Teller who strongly advocated maximally vigorous development of thermonuclear weaponry, epitomized by his famous, then-seemingly absurd promise to realize a warhead that could be launched on a long-range missile carried by a submarine. In later years, Teller loved to relate how his outraged Livermore subordinates initially insisted that he retract the promise, but then went on to swiftly develop a warhead of far more outstanding specifications than he has promised. Teller served as Laboratory director at Livermore for two years in the late '50s and thereafter as associate director for physics until his retirement in 1975.

He taught physics at the University of California, then created and chaired the Department of Applied Science at UC Davis' Livermore site. In 1975 he was named director emeritus of the Lab by the University of California, and was appointed senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, positions that he held until his death. In the 1980s Teller served as a determined advocate for the development of a ballistic missile defense system to protect the nation from nuclear attack. These efforts contributed to the end of the Cold War.

Teller has received numerous awards for his contributions to physics, his dedication to education, and his public life. He has published more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from energy policy and defense issues, to his own memoirs.


Key Dates in Edward Teller's Life
Edward Teller was born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 15, 1908. Graduation photo from the Minta Model School in Budapest, Hungary.
Graduation photo from the Minta Model School in Budapest, Hungary.
Enters the Minta school in 1918, and graduates in 1924 at the top of his class in physics and math.
Enters Karlsruhe Technical Institute, Germany, in 1926. Graduates in chemical engineering.
He received his Ph.D. in physics in 1930 at the University of Leipzig in Germany, where he helped Werner Heisenberg lay the foundation of nuclear physics. His first published paper: "Hydrogen Molecular Ion," was one of the earliest statements of what is still the most widely held view of the molecule.
From 1931–32, he worked in association with James Franck at the University of Göttingen in Germany.
With the rise of the Nazis, he left Germany, and from 1933–34 he worked in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr. Teller with briefcase and in long overcoat as a research associate at the University of Goettingen, Germany.
As a research associate at the University of Goettingen, Germany.
In February 1934, he married "Mici" (Augusta Maria) Harkanyi, the sister of a longtime friend.
After a period teaching at London City College in 1934, he was appointed Professor of Physics at George Washington University in Washington, DC in 1935, where he continued to work 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, his interest turned to the use of nuclear energy, both fission and fusion. He began work on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University and the University of Chicago with Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard.
In 1943, he joined Los Alamos National Laboratory and continued his work on both fission explosions and early plans on thermonuclear explosives. He served for a period as assistant director of Los Alamos.
In 1946, he returned to the University of Chicago for two years as a professor, again as a close associate of Enrico Fermi and Maria Mayer.
From 1949–50, he was again at Los Alamos, concentrating on the hydrogen bomb and contributing to the decision to make the thermonuclear reaction a major part of the U.S. defense program. Teller, holding a document, meets with E. O. Lawrence and Herb York at the Livermore Lab.
Teller (center) meets with E. O. Lawrence and Herb York at the Livermore Lab.
In 1952, at the time of the first hydrogen bomb test, Teller and Ernest O. Lawrence of the University of California at Berkeley became the driving forces behind the foundation of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, then called the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory. In 1953, he was named professor of physics at UC Berkeley, as well as an associate director at the new Laboratory.
From 1958–60, Teller served as the Laboratory's second director. The Lab was well along in development of the U.S. Navy's Polaris missile warhead, which Teller had advanced. Polaris was the Lab's first military design project and a major success in miniaturizing nuclear devices. The design was validated in an Operation Hardtack nuclear test in 1958, only a few months before the international nuclear test moratorium. Keeping the Lab viable during the test moratorium was perhaps Teller's greatest challenge as director. During this time, plans were laid for a program exploring the peaceful uses of nuclear explosives—Project Plowshare.
In 1960, Teller resigned as director to become professor of physics at large for the University of California. He later served as chairman for the UC Davis Department of Applied Sciences at Livermore.
In 1975, he was named director emeritus of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and was also appointed senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Teller was best known to the public for his work on the development of nuclear explosives and for his advocacy of a strong defense for the country. He received numerous awards for his contributions to physics and public life, and published more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from energy policy to defense issues. President Ronald Reagan awarding Teller the National Medal of Science and shaking his hand in 1983 at the White House.
President Ronald Reagan awarded Teller the National Medal of Science in 1983.
Among his many honors, Teller was awarded the National Medal of Science for 1982 by President Ronald Reagan, the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1989, the U.S. Dept. of Energy's Gold Award in 2002, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 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. In July 2003 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

"I believe in excellence. It is a basic need of every human soul. All of us can be excellent because, fortunately, we are exceedingly diverse in our ambitions and talents."

– Edward Teller, Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and a Laboratory founder

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UCRL-AR-108618 | Wednesday, January 7, 2004