Science fiction writers implicated in vast A-bomb conspiracy, 1944: the Cleve Cartmill affair

In a two-part column in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Robert Silverberg tells the incredible story of the Cleve Cartmill affair: in 1944, John W Campbell published a story by the writer Cleve Cartmill that laid out an eeriy accurate depiction of how the atom bomb would work, prompting a panicked -- and sometimes comical -- intelligence investigation into a putative conspiracy of science fiction writers:
Campbell provided the Military Intelligence man with Cartmill’s address–in Manhattan Beach, California. The link to the top-secret Manhattan Project based in Los Alamos was too obvious to overlook. Riley sent word to the California branch office of Intelligence that Cartmill should be placed under immediate surveillance; plainly he knew too much about our hush-hush A-bomb research. Who had tipped him off ? Both Cartmill and Campbell would need further watching.

And before long it began to seem as though a whole network of science fiction writers might be involved–a chain of conspirators. For example, the report continues, "It is established that Cartmill is very friendly with [ ], Retired U.S.N.R., who is associated with [ ] at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. This [ ] formerly was doing research work at Columbia University, and he is said to have accepted some material thought to be atomic copper from [ ] in order to measure it in the mass spectroscope at Columbia University. [ ] was advised by [ ] that the device was broken. He never received the material back from [ ]. One [ ] who has written for [ ] Magazine is said to be working with [ ] also. The possibility of the transmittal through [ ] to Cartmill has not so far been resolved. . . ."

Well, now it can be told, and you are quite familiar with the names of these sinister people. The retired naval man was Robert A. Heinlein. His Philadelphia Navy Yard associate, the former Columbia man, was Isaac Asimov. The one who sent the copper to Asimov and never got it back was Will F. Jenkins, who wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of Murray Leinster. The blanked-out magazine was Astounding, and the other writer working at the Navy Yard with Heinlein and Asimov was L. Sprague de Camp.

Link to part one, Link to part two (via Making Light)

See also: Pulp SF magazine's role in atom bomb


  1. I think it’s worth noting that, when they say “copper”, they mean plutonium. Codenames an’ all that. Apparently the Manhattan project people called the real stuff “honest-to-God copper”.

  2. A delightful story. But the response seems like an reasonable one by the feds: they saw something suspicious about the single biggest war time secret, investigated the situation, determined there was nothing to it, and then eased off. Easy for us to see now that Robert Heinlein would rather be put to the sword than betray his country — but the folks in charge of Manhattan Project security couldn’t have known that at the time.

    Recall that the Allies investigated the author of the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle who’d used “Mulberry” “Utah” “Omaha” and “Overlord” as clues a month ahead of Normandy. And were entirely right to do so.

  3. Cartmill didn’t help himself by using transparent names like “Sixa” and “Seilla” for his aliens.

  4. As they say, you’re not crazy if they’re really out to get you. By 1944, Klaus Fuchs (among others, but most notably) had already been furnishing the Soviets with information about our atomic research program for two years. In the end, the Soviets gained 2-3 years lead on atomic bombs as a result of their espionage in the U.S. and Britain.

  5. kinda like when they investigated Dr. Strangelove to find out where they got the “secret B-52 cockpit details”.

  6. There is still a coverup going on here: The infamous Philadelphia Experiment was at the same place and time. Do you think that a U.S. Navy project during WWII at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to make a warship invisible would not use the services of renowned futurists Heinlein, Asimov, etc.? :-)

  7. Jack Chalker used this incident in the early chapters of his THE DEVIL’S VOYAGE, about the fate of the USS INDIANAPOLIS, the ship that carried the Bomb to the Pacific for use against Japan.

    (Good book, by the way. His SF books tended to recycle memes and themes — identity and transformation — from his first few books, but THE DEVIL’S VOYAGE stood out, not just because it wasn’t SF, and he took particular pride in it.)

  8. Of course most of the ‘details’ about the ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ have been shown to be fictitious, but it does make for a fun casual connection to Asimov and friends at the time. Hmm, might be a fun tongue in cheek or even semi serious book that could be made from that idea. Asimov and buddies each involved in different ultra secret projects and all becoming suspected by the Feds because of the initial link to the guy who wrote the story about the bomb. There could be all kinds of hijinks with various hyper secret agencies both investigating others and hiding their own stuff from everyone else, while the authors sit back, wryly amused at all the gummint shennanigans.

  9. Wow. I guess they WERE great science fiction writers!

    I wonder what they think of some of the things Greg Bear has thrown out there.

  10. Cool story. Very interesting bit of history.
    An uncle of mine, Bob Deily, appeared in a Major’s uniform on VJ Day surprising all who knew him. Everyone had been told that he was 4-F and had been a traveling textile salesman for the duration of WWII. In fact he had been a courier commuting by rail from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos and back with a briefcase filled with documents handcuffed to his wrist, taking his meals in his room on the train, armed. He became a librarian for the State University of New York. I can find one reference: Ehrsam, Theodore G. and Robert H. Deily. */Bibliographies of Twelve Victorian Authors./* New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1968.

  11. The other thing worth pointing out is that, while the story about the story is fun, “Deadline” itself is a really bad story. Ever read it? If not, don’t bother. Except for the FBI investigation, it’s completely forgettable.

  12. The idea of Heinlein and Asimov (along with computer pioneer Grace Hopper) being involved in the Philadelphia Experiment has been the basis of at least one story, “Green Fire”, by Eileen Gunn, Andy Duncan, Pat Murphy, and Michael Swanwick (Asimov’s April 2000).

  13. Interesting to see that the gorillas (as in planet of the apes) who are incharge of the security apparatus are as ingorant of the reality of science now as they were then. For more of this kind of evidence one should read Richard Feynmans autobiographical story of his working on the Manhattan project.
    And don’t forget to put your fluids in little bottle smaller than 3 ounces so there is no way it could be harmfull. Y’see…the bullying rather than reasoning…it never ends.

  14. always be thankful for who is attracted to the work of guarding other people.

    Can you imagine the hell we would all be living in if truly intelligent people ran all security?

  15. @ Bruce Arthurs:

    I’ll have to look that story up in Eileen Gunn’s short fiction collection.

    I always thought that it was interesting that those three authors all worked together in the Philadelphia Naval Yard, and all three focused on fictional Universes that don’t contain external Alien races (I believe that Asimov & Heinlein each wrote one story with external Alien races and de Camp didn’t write any?). Not that I believe they have special esoteric knowledge based on their time at the Naval Yard, but that could be the kernel of a storyline…

    L. Sprague De Camp’s Wikipedia entry has a picture of the three of them working at the Naval Yard:

    (odd to see Dr. Asimov without the Muttonchops)

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