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Lord William Penney


Sir William Penney was the first Director of British nuclear weapon research. He was born in 1909 in Gibraltar where his father served as a Sergeant in the Army Ordnance Corps. His academic studies began at the Sheerness Technical School and continued as a student at Imperial College, London. He then went to the University of Wisconsin for his Masters (1931-33) and Trinity College Cambridge for his PhD (1933-36) He returned to Imperial College as Assistant Professor of Mathematics in 1936.

Sir William became well known for his research work on atomic physics and as author of several articles on the theory of molecular structure. He was one of about 20 British scientists who went to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in 1944. A mathematician and explosives expert, he made measurements of the first nuclear test explosion on July 16, 1945.

he also served on the Target Committee, which met during April and May 1945 to select the Japanese cities upon which to drop the atomic bombs, and flew in the accompanying B-29 bomber that photographed the explosion of the Fat Man bomb on Nagasaki. Afterwards he went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to survey the damage.

In January 1947, Clement Attlee appointed him Chief Superintendent of Armament Research at the Ministry of Supply and placed him in charge of designing, producing, and testing the British atomic bomb. The first atomic weapon test occurred on October 3, 1952, in the Monte Bello Islands off the northwest coast of Australia. From 1953 to 1959, he directed the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, where British weapons are designed. He also supervised development of Britain's hydrogen bomb. He personally led the scientific team for the first British A-bomb drops at Maralinga.

In the period 1959 to 1961, he was the Atomic Energy Authority's Member for Research and it was in that role that he had the task of defining a strategy for computation within the Authority. He was Deputy Chairman of the Authority in the period 1961 to 1964, and became its Chairman in 1964 at which stage he gave up his role as Chairman of the Atlas Computer Committee.

He was created a Baron in 1967 when he became Rector of Imperial College, a post he held until his retirement in 1973.

He dies on March 3, 1991 at the age of 81.