Edward Teller was born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 15, 1908. At a young age, Teller was discovered to be a mathematical prodigy and was educated at many private schools. His early schooling was often interrupted by the turmoil of the nation. Teller left Budapest in 1926 and headed to Karlsruhe, Germany, to study chemical engineering.
Physics and the theory of quantum mechanics intrigued Teller and he moved to Munich to pursue his interests. While in Munich, Teller had an accident that cost him his right foot. After he recovered from this injury, he transferred to the University of Leipzig to study with Werner Heisenberg. Teller received his doctorate in physics in 1930 and took a job as research consultant at the University of Göttingen.
When Adolf Hitler came into power, Teller moved to Denmark and joined the Institute for Theoretical Physics. There he worked to unlock the secrets of the atom. In 1934, Teller married Augusta Harkanyi. The couple was married for almost half a century. Teller moved to the United States in 1935, and became a citizen in 1941.
When President Franklin Roosevelt was informed of Hitler’s work with nuclear fission, he approached the scientific community to join the fight. Teller joined the Manhattan Project. This project had one goal: create an atomic bomb before the Germans. After working in Chicago with Enrico Fermi and in Berkeley with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Teller joined Oppenheimer in an isolated laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Teller discovered intense heat generated from nuclear fission could cause an explosion. This plan was abandoned in the later stages of bomb creation.
Teller’s further calculations determined that the fallout from an atomic bomb would not spread forever (which was the fear of many scientists), but rather the fallout would be limited to one area. The first successful atomic bomb test took place in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945. The German scientists were not even close to a finished bomb when Germany surrendered.
After the war Edward Teller begged his superiors to try to create a fusion-based thermonuclear weapon. He suggested the bomb would be more powerful. They refused until the Russians detonated their own bomb. President Truman then ordered the lab to develop a fusion weapon. The first hydrogen bomb was successfully detonated in 1952.
Teller lobbied the government to open a separate lab for thermonuclear research. The government answered with the Livermore Laboratory on Northern California. Edward Teller served as a consult, associate director and director of the Livermore Lab.
During his later years, Teller always advocated a strong national defense. He authored dozens of books and was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institute for the Study of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Edward Teller died in September 9, 2003 at the age of 95.