In Memoriam: John Coster-Mullen


Illustration of John Coster-Mullen and the Little Boy bomb

by Alex Wellerstein

I don’t know off-hand exactly when I started talking to John. A look through old e-mails suggests that in 2006 we had been talking, but that those e-mails reference earlier conversations. My guess is that we had been in touch in 2005, when I was working on my paper on how people draw atomic bombs…Around that time I probably bought John’s book and got in touch with him, and we began exchanging documents as well…

Over the next 15 years or so, we exchanged quite a bit of documents, I acquired three versions of his book, Atom Bombs, and we got to spend some time together in person at the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s conference for the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project. He was always generous and excited. He clearly really enjoyed that he, a truck driver (among other things), was producing research that academics from places like Harvard and Princeton thought was important and valuable

I enjoyed John as a friend, correspondent, and as a subject of study. John is what I call a “secret seeker” in my book, someone who — for whatever reason — is driven towards learning “nuclear secrets.”…With John, I never got the sense that he was strongly motivated by the politics of secrecy, though he sometimes could sound like that when he got irritated with the Department of Energy…Sometimes he would give the old Ted Taylor line, that the surprising thing about the atomic bombs is that they aren’t that hard to build (if you have the fuel, etc…

I think discovering “the secret” for him was more about proving himself as a researcher than probably any big statement about secrecy. Over the years I’ve gotten various documents from him trying to explain himself, and to my eye they come down to a sort of love for the work, the topic, and the people — one that only grew over time and he had more exposure to all three…

The Cold War mentality was premised in part on hiding science and technology from your competitors. The easiest part of that for American politicians was – and remains – casting all serious competitors as somehow inherently EVIL. That justified reliance on secrecy about absolutely everything…and still does. Including the banal which have already made it to the back pages of local, regional newspapers.

But, the tale, the personality of John Coster-Mullen grows through this dedication to the history of his work and achievements. I hope that recognition of his research will continue to grow, as well.