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“For Slow Neutrons, Slow Pay”: Enrico Fermi’s Patent and the U.S. Atomic Energy Program, 1938–1953

Simone Turchetti
Isis
Vol. 97, No. 1 (March 2006), pp. 1-27
DOI: 10.1086/501097
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/501097
Page Count: 27
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
“For Slow Neutrons, Slow Pay”
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Abstract

ABSTRACT This essay focuses on the history of one of the “atomic patents.” The patent, which described a process to slow down neutrons in nuclear reactions, was the result of experimental research conducted in the 1930s by Enrico Fermi and his group at the Institute of Physics, University of Rome. The value of the patented process became clear during World War II, as it was involved in most of the military and industrial applications of atomic energy. This ignited a controversy between Fermi and U.S. government representatives over royalties to be paid for use of the process during and after the war. The controversy sheds new light on the role that the management of patents played in the context of the Manhattan Project and in the postwar U.S. nuclear program, encompassing issues of power and economic influence in the relationship between scientists, the military, and public administrators. The invention covered by Patent No. 2,206,634 covers the basic process used in the research and development leading up the production of atomic energy and the production of the atomic bomb. Such invention is of continuing importance in the production of fissionable materials and atomic weapons. The Chairman: So Jones might make the greatest invention in the field and be deprived of any award for it? Captain Lavender: If he did not want to accept the award that was offered to him.

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