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Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s

  • JOHN KRIGE (a1)

The ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of knowledge circulation is explored in a study of the encounter between American and British nuclear scientists and engineers who together developed a gas centrifuge to enrich uranium in the 1960s. A fine-grained analysis of the transnational encounter reveals that the ‘how’ engages a wide variety of sometimes mundane modes of exchange in a series of face-to-face interactions over several years. The ‘why’ is driven by the reciprocal wish to improve the performance of the centrifuge, though this motive is embedded in the asymmetric field of the ‘special relationship’ in nuclear matters between the United Kingdom and the United States. The result of the encounter is co-produced, hybrid knowledge in which the national provenance of the contributions from each side of the Atlantic is at once diluted and a contested site for the affirmation of national power.

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1 Rushdie Salman, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991, London: Granta Books/Viking, 1991, p. 394, original emphasis. For one use of this term in the history of science and technology see Hard Michåel and Jamison Andrew, Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science, New York: Routledge, 2005.

2 For some methodological analyses see Bayly C.A., Beckert Sven, Connelly Matthew, Hofmeyr Isabel, Kozol Wendy and Seed Patricia, ‘AHR conversation: on transnational history’, American Historical Review (2006) 111, pp. 14411464; Curthoys Ann and Lake Marilyn (eds.), Connected Worlds: History in a Transnational Perspective, Canberra: ANU Press, 2010; ‘Terminology: diplomatic history, international history, and transnationalism’, , April, May 2009; Iriya Akira and Saunier Pierre-Yves (eds.), The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History from the Mid-19th Century to the Present Day, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

3 Curthoys and Lake, op. cit. (2), pp. 4–5.

4 Bender Thomas (ed.), Rethinking American History in a Global Age, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; Tyrell Ian, ‘American exceptionalism in an age of international history’, American Historical Review (1991) 96, pp. 10311055, and the response by McGerr Michael, ‘The price of the “new transnational history”’, American Historical Review (1991) 96, pp. 10561067.

5 Akira Iriye, ‘Internationalizing international history’, in Bender, op. cit. (4), pp. 47–62, 62.

6 Secord James A., ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis (2004) 95, pp. 654672, 655.

7 Krige John, American Hegemony and the Postwar Reconstruction of Science in Europe, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006; idem, ‘Building the arsenal of knowledge’, Centaurus (2010) 52, pp. 282–296.

8 Cooper Frederick, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, pp. 91112, in his critique of analyses of globalization, introduces the term ‘lumpiness’ to allow us to speak both of containers and of flows (not being confined to one or the other).

9 Marilyn B. Young, ‘The age of global power’, in Bender, op. cit. (4), pp. 274–294, 291.

10 For a few examples, Arnold David, ‘Europe, technology and colonialism in the 20th Century’, History and Technology (2005) 21, pp. 85106; Bourguet Marie-Noëlle, Licoppe Christian and Otto Sibum H., Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, London: Routledge, 2002; Delbourgo James and Dew Nicholas (eds.), Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, New York: Routledge, 2008; Gavroglu Kostas et al. , ‘Science and technology in the European periphery: some historiographical reflections’, History of Science (2008) 46, pp. 153175; Livingstone David N., Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003; MacLeod Roy (ed.), Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise, Osiris (2000) 15; Raj Kapil, Relocating Modern Science, London: Routledge, 2008; Simon Josep and Herran Néstor (eds.), Beyond Borders: Fresh Perspectives in History of Science, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

11 Kroes Rob, ‘American empire and cultural imperialism: a view from the receiving end’, Diplomatic History (1999) 23, pp. 463477.

12 Raj argues in Relocating Modern Science, op. cit. (10), p. 223, for an approach that focuses on ‘the making of scientific knowledge through the co-constructive processes of negotiation between different skilled communities and individuals from both regions, resulting as much in the emergence of new knowledge forms as in a reconfiguration of existing knowledges and specialized practices on both sides of the encounter’.

13 Baylis John, ‘Exchanging nuclear secrets: laying the foundations of the Anglo-American nuclear relationship’, Diplomatic History (2001) 25, pp. 3361.

14 Cooper, op. cit. (8), p. 108.

15 Pierre Andrew, Nuclear Politics: The British Experience with an Independent Nuclear Force, 1939–1970, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 316.

16 Included among the classics are Baylis John, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1950–1964, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995; Botti Timothy J., The Long Wait: The Forging of the Anglo-American Nuclear Alliance, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987; Clark Ian, Nuclear Diplomacy and the Special Relationship: Britain's Deterrent and America, 1957–1962, Oxford: Clarendon, 1994; Melissen Jan, The Struggle for Nuclear Partnership: Britain, the United States and the Making of an Ambiguous Alliance, Groningen: Styx, 1993; Moore Richard, Nuclear Illusion, Nuclear Reality: Britain, the United States and Nuclear Weapons 1958–1964, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

17 This is central in Wang's work on the migration of Chinese scientists between the US and mainland China, as in Wang Zuoyue, ‘Transnational science during the Cold War: the case of Chinese/American Scientists’, Isis (June 2010) 101, pp. 367377.

18 My attention was first drawn to this issue by Schrafstetter Susanna and Twigge Stephen, ‘Spinning into Europe: Britain, West Germany and the Netherlands – uranium enrichment and the development of the gas centrifuge, 1964–1970’, Contemporary European History (2002) 11, pp. 253272; Twigge Stephen, ‘A baffling experience: technology transfer, Anglo-American nuclear relations, and the development of the gas centrifuge, 1964–1970’, History and Technology (2003) 19, pp. 151163. I have developed Twigge's argument in Krige John, ‘Maintaining America's competitive technological advantage: Cold War leadership and the transnational co-production of knowledge’, Humana_mente (2011) 16, pp. 3352,, accessed 15 September 2011.

19 Statement by the minister of technology to the House of Commons, 9 December 1965, PREM 13/2004, the National Archives, Kew, London (hereafter TNA).

20 Memo, Anthony Wedgwood Benn to Prime Minister, 8 March 1968, FCO55/111, TNA.

21 Schrafstetter and Twigge, op. cit. (18), describe this dimension in some detail. For Wilson's ambitions for British technology see Edgerton David, ‘The White Heat revisited: British government and technology in the 1960s’, Twentieth Century British History (1996) 7, pp. 5382.

22 For details of the American programme and Zippe's contribution to it see R. Scott Kemp, ‘Nonproliferation strategy in the centrifuge age’, PhD dissertation, Princeton University, June 2010; idem, ‘Gas centrifuge theory and development: a review of U.S. programs’, Science and Global Security (2009) 17, pp. 1–19.

23 PNO (C) (69) 22 (Final), 2 June, 1969, Cabinet Official Committee on Nuclear Policy, ‘Centrifuge Collaboration. Anglo/United States Relations in the Nuclear Field’, FCO 55/268, TNA.

24 For this paragraph see Franklin N.L., ‘Looking back to 1959’, Nuclear Engineer (1985) 26, pp. 312; Whitley S., ‘The uranium centrifuge’, Physics in Technology (1979) 10, pp. 2633.

25 Israel and others reportedly used a computer ‘worm’ to instruct Iranian centrifuges to spin so rapidly that they flew apart, destroying as much as 20 per cent of the enrichment installation. William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, ‘Worm was perfect for sabotaging centrifuges’, New York Times, 18 November 2010.

26 Myron Kratzer was the USAEC's assistant general manager for international activities. Paul Vanstrum was the technical director of production, Union Carbide Nuclear, Oak Ridge. He had extensive experience of the US gas centrifuge. See Scott Kemp, ‘Nonproliferation strategy in the centrifuge age’, op. cit. (22).

27 Record of United States/United Kingdom Talks Held at the Cabinet Office, Whitehall, 4, 5 March 1969, FCO55/265, TNA; Record of a Meeting on 3 May at the Office of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Washington D.C., PREM 13/2556, TNA.

28 Draft Memorandum. Interpretation of Article IX (c) of the 1955 Civil Bilateral Agreement, PNC(C)(68) 12, 19 December 1968, CAB 134/3125, TNA.

29 ‘Report Anglo/US Relations in the Nuclear Field’, PN (69)8, 19 May 1969, Cabinet Ministerial Committee on Nuclear Policy. Centrifuge Collaboration, CAB 134/3121, TNA.

30 ‘Centrifuge technology’, 4 March 1969.

31 Galison Peter, ‘Removing knowledge: the logic of modern censorship’, in Proctor Robert H. and Schiebinger Londa (eds.), Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008, pp. 3754, 49. See also Galison Peter, ‘Removing knowledge’, Critical Inquiry (2004) 31, pp. 229243.

32 ‘Centrifuge technology’, Record of US/UK talks held on 5 March 1959, FCO 55/265, TNA.

33 Record of a Meeting on 3 May in Washington, DC.

34 Telegram 1367 Washington to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 4 May 1969, PREM 13/2556, TNA.

35 PNO(69) 4th Meeting, Cabinet Official Committee on Nuclear Policy, Minutes of a Meeting held in the Cabinet Office on 20 May 1969, FCO 66/79, TNA.

36 Memo, Zuckerman to Prime Minister, Centrifuge Collaboration, 21 May 1969, PREM 13/2556, TNA.

37 Memo, Hill, Centrifuge, 21 May 1969, attached to Memo, Dunnett to Zuckerman, Centrifuge, 21 May 1969, PREM 13/2556, TNA.

38 ‘Report of enquiry relating to restricted data on centrifuge design and construction …’, 30 May 1969, FCO55/268, TNA.

39 Letter, Zuckerman to Prime Minister, 2 June 1969.

40 British Aide Memoire, 3 July 1969, CAB 134/3121, TNA.

41 ‘Centrifuge technology’, record of US/UK talks held on 4 March 1969.

42 Record of a Meeting on 6 June 1969, at USAEC Office, PREM 13/2556, TNA.

43 British aide memoire, 3 July 1969.

44 Record of meeting on 6 June 1969.

45 The fourth member seems to have been either Ed Babely or Ernest Evans from Oak Ridge or Ralph Lowry from the centrifuge team at the University of Virginia. Record Group 39, Entry A1(5618) Lot 74D11, Box 2, Folder S.23, Gas Centrifuge Technology 1969, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).

46 Zuckerman to Prime Minister, ‘Centrifuge. The Problem of Article IXC of the US/UK Civil Agreement’, PREM 13/2556, TNA.

47 US Department of State, Aide Memoire, 1 October 1969, FCO 55/271, TNA.

48 Kehoe R.B., The Enriching Troika: A History of Urenco to the Year 2000, Marlow: Urenco, 2002.

49 Zuckerman to Prime Minister, 4 March 1970, PREM 13/3128, TNA.

50 Revised United Kingdom Statement on Article IX (c), Annex A to Anglo/U.S. Relations in the Nuclear Field, attached to Cabinet Ministerial Committee on Nuclear Policy, Centrifuge Collaboration, PN(69)8, 19 May 1969, CAB134/3121, TNA.

51 Latour Bruno, Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

52 Shapin Steven, ‘Rarely pure and never simple: talking about truth’, Configurations (1999) 7, pp. 114, 67.

53 This resonates, of course, with Shapin's analysis of the importance of expert knowledge as a warrant for the trustworthiness of truth claims: Shapin Steven, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Epilogue.

54 Scott Kemp, ‘Nonproliferation strategy in the centrifuge age’, op. cit. (22), p. 41. Scott Kemp does not give the provenance of his material.

55 Unsigned memo on Gas Centrifuge Collaboration to be submitted to the Cabinet by the Minister of Technology and the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 29 November 1968, FCO66/78, TNA.

56 Record of the meeting on 3 May.

57 ‘The UK/US Agreement for Co-operation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes’, signed on 3 July 1958, was one of the ‘most remarkable agreements ever reached between two sovereign states’. Baylis, op. cit. (13), p. 33. Latour Bruno, Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 178, has inspired the metaphor of a net.

58 Maier Charles S., Among Empires: American Ascendancy and Its Predecessors, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006, pp. 106, 107; Coetzee J.M., Waiting for the Barbarians, London: Vintage Books, 2004.

59 ‘Centrifuge Technology’, Record of US/UK talks held on 4 March 1969 in London, FCO 55/265, TNA.

60 Zuckerman Solly, Monkey, Men and Missiles: An Autobiography, 1964–88, London: Collins, 1988, p. 445.

61 Zuckerman to Prime Minister, Centrifuge Collaboration, 21 May 1969, PREM 13/2556, TNA.

62 Glenn Seaborg to Walt Rostow, 10 March 1967, National Security Files, Files of Charles E. Johnson, Box Number 33, Folder Nuclear – Gas Centrifuge Technology, Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, Austin, TX.

63 Herken Gregg, ‘“A most deadly illusion”: the atomic secret and American nuclear weapons policy, 1945–1950’, Pacific Historical Review (1980) 19, pp. 5176, 69. See also Baylis, op. cit. (16).

64 Botti, op. cit. (16), p. 239.

65 Nelson Sievering to Theos Thompson, 31 July 1969, Record Group 39, Entry A1(5618) Lot 74D11, Box 2, Folder S.23, Gas Centrifuge Technology 1969, NARA.

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