The Atomic Bomb Project
Americans live in the dark shadow of nuclear weapons; developed during World War II for fear that Nazi Germany might get atomic bombs first. The idea of unleashing subatomic forces came from famous nuclear physicists, including Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi.
When the U.S. decided to split uranium atoms and make bombs to win the war, there were thousands of people who worked within the top-secret Manhattan Project. Included were a number of North Dakotans, and two of those were from Fargo.
It was on this date, in 1945, that the Fargo Forum revealed the names of the two Fargoans who had participated. It was front-page news that George G. Maher (1919-2000) and Howard R. Kornberg (1918-1981) had been working at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the facility that produced uranium for the thermonuclear weapons.
George Maher, a 1941 chemistry graduate of NDSU, worked as a chemist at Oak Ridge laboratory. His career started at the Atlas Powder Company, then he worked at a U.S. government dynamite plant, before becoming chief chemist at a Kentucky T-N-T facility.
Maher’s father, Harry Maher, worked for the Fargo Veterans Bureau. When George began work at Oak Ridge, he could not tell his family what work he was doing. Only after the Hiroshima bomb exploded could he inform them fully of his whereabouts.
The other Fargoan was Howard Kornberg, a 1940 NDSU engineering graduate. Kornberg first worked for the American Bridge Company, and then went to Greenland to build an airbase. From 1943 to 1945, Kornberg helped construct the buildings at Oak Ridge.
Howard Kornberg never said anything about his work to his father, Howard G. Kornberg, who was general manager of the Fargo Foundry. The bomb project was a “hush-hush” affair, for the U.S. did not want the Russians or Germans to know about this closely-guarded secret.
After World War II ended, Kornberg worked in South Dakota and Mississippi. He died in 1981. Maher died in 2000. We have no record of what either man thought about the cruel and bitter legacies of atomic bombs – of a potentially unwinnable nuclear war that could kill two-billion people; or the proliferating “arms race” that brought perpetual anxiety. But, assuredly, each man knew that he had played a vital role in ending W.W. II – history’s worst-ever war.
Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.
Sources: “2 Fargoans Help Create Atom Bomb,” Fargo Forum, August 8, 1945, p. 1.
“Grads Work on ‘Bomb,’” Spectrum [NDSU], October 4, 1945, p. 2.
George Garrison Maher, death date: 16 March, 2000, Find A Grave Index, ancestry.com.
Harry Maher, George Maher, U.S. Census, 1930, Fargo, Cass County, ND.
“Kornbergs To Laurel,” Winston County Journal [Louisville, MS], June 19, 1953, p. 7.
Howard Kornberg, U.S. Census, 1930, Fargo, Cass County, ND.
Howard Kornberg, death date: 2 July 1981,Texas Death Certificates, 1903-1982, ancestry.com.
Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1986), p. 119, 141, 486-487, 780.