We were asked a question at tonight’s pub quiz that struck me as a possible urban legend. However, I was unable to find anything online to disprove (or confirm) the question and answer.
The question was: During the time that the atomic bomb was first being tested in New Mexico, applicants for menial jobs such as janitor (at the Alamogordo facility) were disqualified if they possessed what skill?
Update: I have found several blurbs on “true facts” sites. They all read exactly the same:
“During the time that the atomic bomb was being hatched by the United States at Alamogordo, New Mexico, applicants for routine jobs like janitors, were disqualified if they could read. Illiteracy was a job requirement. The reason: the authorities did not want their trash or other papers read.”
One site cited* Issac Asimov’s Book Of Facts* (1981) as the source. It seems the book a) was not written by Asimov and b) contains lots of falsehoods. I can find no other cites to confirm this.
Not that I read the whole thing, but searching for terms like “literate” and “illiterate” and such yield zero results. Considering such agonizing detail it goes into as to the conditions of low-level civilian workers at the site, I have a feeling that “oh, and by the way, none of them could read” would be an unlikely omission. Considering that the literacy rate in the US in the early 40’s was in the 2% range, I’d think they’d have trouble staffing the place with exclusively illiterate employees (although maybe exclusively Spanish-speaking would have been more possible).
As an aside, when the pub quiz guy/gal comes up with some spurious whopper like this is one of the most annoying things in the world. There’s a couple of pub quizzes in town we no longer frequent because of nonsense like this.
Were there even any such ‘menial’ workers at the site?
I seem to remember reading a book by Richard Feynman about his time there, and he mentioned that they had to do things like emptying their office wastebaskets themself, because there weren’t any janitors.
At Los Alamos, they employed members of a local Indian tribe to do things like serve as housemaids and janitors in the living quarters - doing things like tending furnaces. Maid service for Los Alamos housewives was based on a priority system. No doubt many of the people hired for the work were illiterate, but I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere that this was an actual requirement.
As you can see minorities were still over 10% illiterate in the 40s
However schooling wasn’t as strict. I recall George Burns saying he could barely read. He said, he had his secretary read him his radio scripts and he’d memorize them. He said, he was always embarrassed about how poorly he read. He said, he read probably at at 3rd grade level.
So I would bet it wouldn’t be all that hard to find people who may not have been illiterate but read very poorly
I would have thought the menial labor at a top secret military program would have been done by enlisted servicemen. If this was the case, finding illiterates would have been a simple matter of locating those who were disqualified for other duties because of their illiteracy.
It’s entirely possible that all the janitors and housemaids were illiterate because that’s the kind of jobs that illiterate people got. If you were somewhat literate, you could get a better job as a file clerk.
How many janitors could read and understand Advanced Physics or Calculus?
Even if they could read, any notes would be complete gibberish to the average guy. I had basic physics and calculus in college. I’m sure any notes from those scientists would make my head spin. That stuff is way over the heads of most people.
There were all kinds of non-military people at Los Alamos doing all kinds of work, particularly some of the menial things. There was the local Indian tribe serving at the very least as maids and janitors for the living quarters; there were also civilian construction crews contracted by the military to build barracks, housing, laboratories, etc. I believe there’s some discussion in the book “109 East Palace” by Jennet Conant about the extensive amount of hiring Los Alamos did from the local labor pool. Heck, the person in complete charge of welcoming staff to The Hill and finding them housing, Dorothy McKibbin, wasn’t military in the least. This was also, at the time, a very rural and isolated area (which is why General Groves chose it for the lab).
There were also servicemen working there, too. But there was no absence of civilian staff.