Edward Teller: The Actual Dr. Strangelove

By | August 3, 2022

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Dr. Edward Teller, "father of the H-Bomb," pauses, as he neared the conclusion of his morning appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the nuclear test bomb treaty. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Born in Budapest, Hungary on January 15, 1908 to Jewish parents, Edward Teller went on to become one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the 20th century. In 1926, he graduated from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany with a degree in chemical engineering before going on to the University of Munich to study physics. While in Munich, the young Teller fell while trying to hop off a moving streetcar, and his leg was crushed so badly that his right foot was nearly severed. He survived but had to use prosthetics and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

He quickly weaned himself off painkillers, however, as he needed a crystal-clear mind for his work on the hydrogen molecular ion, on which he wrote his doctoral thesis under the instruction of Werner Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig. At that time, Germany was the center of theoretical physics, and Teller spent a few years among some of the most cutting-edge work being done in the field, but as Hitler grew in power, he and other notable Jewish scientists felt forced to flee for their own safety. Eventually, Teller moved to the United States, where he gained citizenship.

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The first nuclear weapons were gravity bombs, such as this "Fat Man" weapon dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. They were large and could only be delivered by heavy bomber aircraft. (U.S. Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons)

Teller made his greatest impacts on the world during World War II, when his expertise moved him to work in the development of atomic weapons. In fact, it was Teller who drove Leo Szilard to Albert Einstein's house for the famous signing of the letter urging President Roosevelt to make the bomb in the first place, as its theoretical existence had not become widely known outside the scientific community. Teller then worked alongside Enrico Fermi to produce the first ever chain reaction and then joined the Manhattan Project, directed by fellow physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. During the Project, however, Teller seemed more fixated on the idea of a more powerful hydrogen fusion bomb, despite the fact that the still-undeveloped atomic bomb was needed to set it off.