Edward Teller

photo of Edward Teller in 1958

Edward Teller, 1958

You cannot write a history of the twentieth century and not mention the lifetime achievements of the Hungarian who is the subject of the third in this series: Edward Teller. He, along with the physicists Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and mathematician John von Neumann, unleashed the power of the atom in a way that changed the world for ever. Teller, widely regarded as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” was at the very epicentre of those early days of atomic, then hydrogen and finally nuclear weaponry. While all played their part, Teller was perhaps the most ardent of the proponents of this type of weaponry and indeed all things nuclear.

He was, like his Hungarian colleagues mentioned above, scientifically brilliant: but he was also a difficult person to get along with and in his dedication to his ideals broke many friendships. His legacy is in some ways ambivalent: Dr Isidor I. Rabi, a Nobel laureate who worked on the Manhattan Project in World War II, called Dr Teller ”a danger to all that’s important”, adding that ”it would have been a better world without Teller”. A harsh judgement to be sure, but one cannot discount the importance of his work in ensuring the West was the first to have atomic weapons and in ensuring their continued military and scientific leadership during the Cold War.

Edward (Ede) Teller was born into a prosperous Budapest family in January 1908. His family was not untypical of Budapest at that time: both parents were Jewish, and both were from “greater” Hungary: his father was from Érsekújvár (now Nové Zámkj in Slovakia) and his mother was from Lugos (now Lugoj in Romania). His childhood and early school years were, by all accounts, not that happy. He was, for example, teased at high school for being “too bright”.

He was close to his mother (who moved, along with his sister, to the United States in 1959, thanks to the efforts of Edward). But those were also turbulent times: the World War, the disintegration of Hungary, Béla Kun’s short-lived revolution and the violent reaction that followed. I doubt many Hungarian children growing up in that era had a particularly happy time.

As soon as he turned 18, Edward went to Germany to study for his doctorate. But by 1933 it became to clear to him that as a Jew, Germany, and indeed Europe was no place for him and like so many others, he emigrated to America. His childhood sweetheart, Augusta Mária Harkányi, affectionately called Mici, eventually joined him and they were married for sixty-six years.

Understandably these upheavals made a deep and lasting impression on him. He remained a bitter opponent of all totalitarian regimes, be they fascist or communist, and with his fierce independence and determination, he was not prepared to stand on the academic sidelines while the great ideological battles of his century unfolded and played out. His family suffered while in Hungary. His brother-in-law died in a concentration camp in 1945. His mother and sister were internally exiled in 1950 and returned to Budapest, having lost everything, in 1953. Edward never forgave the communist government for these actions against his family and it only served to strengthen his determination.

Leo Szilard

Leo Szilard

In 1938 Teller entered history, as he liked to joke, as Leo Szilárd’s chauffeur. He was referring to the occasion when Szilárd and Wigner were driven by Teller – the only one who owned a car – to see Albert Einstein and persuade him to write to President Roosevelt and advise him that not only was an atomic bomb possible, but it was imperative that America act quickly to develop one. The letter would lead to the eventual formation of the so-called Manhattan Project to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. Some have argued this letter was the most important of the twentieth century: perhaps somewhat of an exaggeration but the role these three Hungarians had in persuading the greatest scientist of his epoch to write to Roosevelt and thereby prod the United States government into action, is undeniable.

In 1943 Teller joined the Manhattan Project, led by Dr J. Robert Oppenheimer to develop the first atomic bomb. It should be added that it was Leo Szilárd who provided the intellectual and theoretical impetus to this project. The first successful test on 16 July 1945 in the Nevada Desert, at a place called, curiously, Trinity, did indeed signal a new world: the genie had been unleashed and could not be put back in the bottle. The world had undeniably changed forever.

Teller then embarked on a project to develop the hydrogen bomb, a device that would be hundreds of times more powerful than the Nagasaki and Hiroshima blasts. However, this set him firmly against Oppenheimer, who was just as intense and obsessive as Teller. Oppenheimer would have none of Teller’s ideas regarding them as unworkable and indeed unnecessary, and given the enormous destructive power that would be inevitably unleashed on civilian populations, immoral. He remarked, “God protect us from the enemy without and the Hungarian within!”.

photo of Edward Teller and President Reagan

Edward Teller and President Reagan

Their clash would reach its peak at the so-called Oppenheimer Hearings in 1954. This was the height of McCarthyism and the Cold War. Oppenheimer was anonymously accused of being a Soviet spy and his security clearance was called into question. Teller testified and while agreeing that Oppenheimer was not disloyal to the United States, he did suggest that he personally would feel “more secure” if such vital public matters were in other hands. The authorities agreed and Oppenheimer was denied his security clearance.

A great cleaving took place in Teller’s life at this junction. Many of his colleagues were dismayed at his actions, accusing him of putting personal power and ambition before the loyal and talented Oppenheimer. The rifts would slowly lessen over time but for many in the scientific community Teller had become persona non grata. This hurt him and Mici a great deal and her health suffered badly.

For the rest of his life Teller continued to be an ardent supporter of all things nuclear, being – among other things – the chief proponent of the anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as ”Star Wars”. He would become an easy target for the “mad scientist” stereotype with his accent and bushy eyebrows helping to reinforce this image. Indeed, he was also rumoured to be the inspiration for the character of Dr Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satirical film of the same name. He bristled at that suggestion!

After 1989 and the fall of communism, Teller often returned to Budapest, the city of his roots. He died in 2003, aged 95, having earlier that year been awarded America’s highest honour, the Medal of Freedom.

It is often said that two of the greatest gifts parents can give their children is roots and wings: roots to know where their home is and wings to take what has been taught them and exercise their imagination and talents. Szilárd, his colleague, long-time friend and fellow Hungarian once said “I would rather have roots, but if I can’t have roots, I shall have wings.” Teller certainly took all he learned in his beloved Budapest and soared above his century.

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