The 1940s – The Manhattan Project Years and After

Frank Spedding
• Ames Laboratory’s beginnings take root with the Manhattan Project, the nation’s effort to develop atomic power during World War II. A scientist with uranium expertise is needed. Frank Spedding, head of Iowa State College’s physical chemistry department and an expert in rare-earth metals, fills that role.
• Spedding and metallurgist Harley Wilhelm develop the bomb-reduction process for producing pure uranium, making it possible to cast large ingots of the metal at dramatically reduced costs. The Ames Project on the Iowa State campus produces more than 2 million pounds of high-purity uranium metal between 1942 and 1945, when industry takes over the process.
Harley Wilhelm

Uranium Production (1942-45)

(Left) Reduction bomb #99 is pulled from the furnace. The first reduction bomb was made by Harley Wilhelm from a small pressed block of uranium tetrafluoride. Wilhelm crushed the material into a fine powder, added calcium as a reducing agent and induction heated the mixture in an iron pipe capped at one end and welded shut at the other end (the bomb, so named for its potential to explode). When the apparatus had cooled to room temperature and was dismantled, Wilhelm recovered a 35-gram ingot of pure uranium metal, which was code-named a “biscuit.”

(right) Fritz Hemness uses a bomb hoist to place uranium reduction bomb #99 in a gas-fired furnace.


(left) Irwin Jensen (left) and Dick Griffith inspect a thorium reduction bomb.

(right) The interior of a bomb after a reduction is complete shows slag built up on the wall sides.


• The Ames Project develops a method for recovering scrap uranium from all Manhattan District sites and converting it into good metal ingots.

Workers use a rolling mill to recover uranium turnings and scrap and a hydrolic press to compact the material into small briquettes to be cast into larger ingots.

The uranium bomb reduction process yields uranium biscuits that can be cast into ingots.

The Ames Project’s method for recovering uranium turnings and scrap results in good metal ingots, such as this 30-inch uranium ingot.

A worker loads pressed briquettes made from recovered uranium turnings and scrap into a graphite crucible to be cast into ingots


From the beginning of the Manhattan Project, there is a constant demand for samples of rare earths of exceptional purity in gram amounts or greater. This demand is primarily due to the fact that some of the rare earths are found among the fission products from chain-reacting piles. It is desirable to have a means of preparing pure rare earths so scientists can study their nuclear properties and learn more about their chemical behavior. In 1944, Ames researchers develop an ion exchange process to separate rare-earth elements from each other in gram quantities – something that was not possible with other methods.

Workers use ion exchange columns to separate rare earths from each other. The Ames process made it possible to separate rare earths in gram quantities for the first time.



A pilot plant is set up for large-scale separations of rare-earth elements.
Wilhelm and his research group develop a large-scale production process for thorium using a bomb-reduction method. They produce 130,000 pounds of thorium metal for the Atomic Energy Commission.
Following World War II, Spedding urges the U. S. Atomic Energy Commission to create a research facility, to be known as the Ames Laboratory, on the Iowa State campus.


The Ames Project receives the Army/Navy E Flag for Excellence in Production on Oct. 12, 1945, for its effort in producing 130,000 of metallic uranium as a vital war material.


On May 17, 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission establishes the Ames Laboratory on the foundation of people, space, and equipment that Frank Spedding had assembled from 1942-1943 to produce high-purity uranium for the Manhattan Project. The purpose of the Laboratory is to build up and maintain a strong group of scientists working in the fundamental sciences.
The AEC awards the contract to manage Ames Laboratory to Iowa State and appoints Frank Spedding as the Laboratory’s first director. Spedding now directs both the Ames Laboratory and Iowa State’s Institute for Atomic Research, or IAR, giving him extensive authority and autonomy in setting the direction of the Laboratory and defining the research agenda.

The AEC provides funds to construct the first of the Laboratory’s research buildings, the Metallurgy Building (right), which will eventually be named Wilhelm Hall in recognition of Harley A. Wilhelm. At about the same time, Iowa State begins construction of a building between physics and chemistry, the Office and Laboratory Building (Link), to house the Institute for Atomic Research (below).


Ames Laboratory adds a second building known as the Research Building. It will eventually be named Spedding Hall in honor of Frank H. Spedding, the Laboratory’s first director.

Spedding’s control over both the IAR and Ames Laboratory is unquestionable. His authority extends beyond the physical sciences to include atomic research throughout the campus, including programs in the departments of engineering, agriculture, and veterinary medicine in addition to those in the physical sciences. The IAR’s programs cross Iowa State College department boundaries, leading to confusion regarding long-established departmental independence.

The Ames Laboratory and the college departments associated with it become closely intertwined. The departments become the research divisions of the Laboratory, with their heads serving as division chiefs. Areas of research at the Ames Laboratory tend to promote the development of sound programs in those areas in the associated academic departments, in particular chemistry and physics. The departments provide the personnel for the Laboratory’s research efforts, and the Laboratory responds with appealing research opportunities and financial support.

Government funding increases the appeal of Iowa State to those scientists whose research interests coincide with those of Spedding and the federal government. Federal resources help the university develop its standing as a center for materials research.

What will become a close, enduring and productive relationship between Ames Laboratory and Iowa State is set firmly in place with the sharing of personnel, space and equipment – a practice that began during the war years and a tradition that will continue in the years that follow, binding the university and the Laboratory together.