The Mystery of the Trowel – Solved

Uncovering the real story of Joe Ball’s trowel required research at the Department of Energy’s archives, where I could get more information about the AEC’s move from Washington, D.C., to Germantown, Md., in 1957. The AEC’s move was precipitated by the Soviet Union development of thermonuclear weapons. To survive a 20 megaton blast over the capital mall, AEC offices needed to be at least 20 miles away. Germantown was selected over 50 other sites.

This Cold-War move coincided with new initiatives by the AEC to promote civilian nuclear power plant construction. Thus, the dedication ceremony became a chance to highlight the atom’s contribution to national defense and its potential peaceful applications.

The AEC created a ceremony heavy in symbolism. Electricity from batteries charged by eight military and civilian power reactors lifted a curtain on a commemorative plaque in the new building lobby. A time capsule was placed behind the cornerstone packed with military and civilian artifacts, such as pictures of the Nautilus and scraps of linen wrappings for the Dead Sea scrolls dated by radiocarbon techniques.

As I found out from the DOE archives, AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss wanted even more symbols for the dedication ceremony. He asked for a trowel with some historical significance and Argonne National Laboratory obliged, including, as mentioned in Part I, creating a blade made from uranium. AEC officials liked the trowel and planned on giving speeches about its symbolism to local groups.

But there was a problem.

The uranium metal had been reused for many years in other experimental reactors, most likely in the CP-2. The uranium was still radioactive, enough that an Argonne official told the AEC to use only the handle and not touch the blade. Hoping to preclude objections from the White House, the AEC medical staff reassured the Secret Service that the trowel was a “unique opportunity” for Eisenhower “to demonstrate under completely safe conditions the proper way to perform an operation involving radioactive material.”

AEC assurances didn’t work. Ike’s staff refused to allow the president to touch anything radioactive. Stymied, the AEC substituted three silver-plated trowels. The uranium trowel was dropped from the ceremony and the silver-plated trowels that history records were used instead. The fate of the symbolic trowels – of which there were either two or three – were mostly lost to history, with one spending decades in storage at Eisenhower College’s old campus.

Joe Ball’s unusual auction win find reminds us why we love artifacts—their stories are fun. They teach us about the society that made them. The CP-1 trowel was born out of an optimism in the possibilities of the atomic age, but even in the 1950s radiation concerns proved powerful. Today most people likely sympathize with the White House’s fear of radiation, and the trowel probably seems like a questionable use of radioactive material.

And so Argonne’s creation reminds us how the nation had changed in the last half century in shifting to a more sober attitude toward nuclear hazards.

Joe Ball has graciously agreed to loan the trowel to the NRC , where it is now displayed in our lobby.

Tom Wellock
NRC Historian

The Mystery of the Atomic Energy Commission Trowel — Part I

“Is it radioactive?” That’s not a typical question your spouse asks when you come home with your winnings from a silent auction. But Joe Ball, of West Caldwell, New Jersey, wasn’t holding a set of steak knives or a reservation for a time-share in Reno. The innocuous looking mason’s trowel he won had links back to the very beginning of the atomic age.

While attending his class-of-1972 reunion for the now defunct Eisenhower College in Seneca Falls, New York, old items from the college were sold to the alumni at a silent auction. Ball’s trowel sat inside a well-constructed Plexiglas display case appointed with fine velvet and a handsome wooden box. A plaque claimed that the trowel was one of three copies made for Dwight Eisenhower to use on November 8, 1957, to lay the cornerstone for the new Atomic Energy Commission building in Germantown, Md.

The trowel’s parts were full of symbolism, the plaque reported. The blade was made from uranium taken from the CP-1 reactor, which, under Fermi, achieved the world’s first sustained chain reaction at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942.

The handle was crafted from wood taken from Chicago’s Stagg Field under which the reactor was built. The zirconium ferrule and stem came from the first fuel assembly of the Navy’s revolutionary nuclear powered attack submarine, the Nautilus.

At some unspecified date, the AEC and Argonne National Laboratory donated the trowel to Eisenhower College, where it made its way to Ball – who won it with a $10 bid.

Many of his fellow alums were wary the trowel might be radioactive or doubted it was real. One quipped it would be hard to get the case through airport security. Ball eventually called the NRC’s Office of Public Affairs to check out its safety and authenticity. He was particularly concerned about mysterious black shavings scattered about inside the display case. OPA knew I’d be interested in the historic background of the trowel, and so I got involved. First, I directed him to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to have the case and shavings surveyed. They found the shavings were uranium, but detected no radiation coming from the display case.

I was intrigued. Given the trowel’s use and composition, this was an extraordinary, museum-worthy find. I drove up to Joe’s home, took photos, and went to work researching the trowel’s history. I located one of the other trowels on display at Argonne Lab’s small museum. Its plaque was virtually identical to Ball’s, except that it claimed there were only two copies. The Eisenhower Library in Kansas, however, reported that it too owned a trowel from the dedication ceremony. Having three trowels made sense since Eisenhower was assisted in the ceremony by AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss and Congressman Carl Durham of North Carolina.

But not all of the details about the trowel were so easily reconciled. Uranium metal was at a premium in 1942. Why was this uranium not reused in later reactors? Why did the detailed news accounts of the ceremony make no mention of the unique features of the trowels? Eisenhower’s itinerary for the ceremony reported that the president would use a “silver-plated trowel” to lay the cornerstone. Neither Ball’s nor Argonne’s trowel was plated. Were they fakes? If so, why did the New Jersey radiation office confirm that the shavings were uranium? I realized there was a hidden story behind the one written on the plaques. . . . Wednesday, we’ll have the rest of the story for you!

Thomas Wellock
NRC Historian