Making the invisible engineer visible: DuPont and the recognition of nuclear expertise

Technology and Culture 52 (3):548-573 (2011)

Sean F. Johnston
University of Glasgow
Between 1942 and the late 1950s, atomic piles (nuclear chain-reactors) were industrialized, initially to generate plutonium for the first atomic weapons and later to serve as copious sources of neutrons, radioisotopes and electrical power. These facilities entrained a new breed of engineering specialist adept at designing, operating and maintaining them. From the beginning, large companies supplied the engineering labor for this new technology, and played an important role in defining the nature of their nuclear expertise. In the USA, the most influential company of the period was DuPont, which assumed responsibility for the first plutonium production reactors at Oak Ridge TN and Hanford WA between 1942-6, and of the postwar production facilities at Savannah River SC 1950-87. This paper explores the transition of authority from so-called “atomic scientists” to nuclear engineers at these sites, and the role played by DuPont in consolidating this new technical profession.
Keywords sociology of professions  history of science  nuclear
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