Metal Hydrides Incorporated, once located on Congress Street in Beverly, played a major role in the refinery of uranium-238 for the Manhattan Project. In doing so, many laborers from Beverly and its surrounding towns and cities helped the country build nuclear weapons. These nuclear explosive devices were the same dropped on Japan. It is evident that Beverly played a minor, but significant role in the development of the atomic weapons used in World War II.
The Metal Hydrides Incorporated, located in Beverly, was once the site of nuclear experimentation. The motivation of this study is perhaps to shed some light on uninvestigated events surrounding the company. Up until now, not much information has been published on the subject, and it is the right of the citizens of Beverly to have at least a bit of knowledge as to what transpired those fifty years ago.
On December 8, 1941, the United States declared war on Japan, thus entering into World War II. In August of 1942, the U.S. government commissioned the Manhattan Project, a massive affair established for the production of the Atom bomb. The Metal Hydrides Incorporated, then located in Marblehead, was asked to become part of the Manhattan Project. They consented, and built a factory on Congress Street, in Beverly MA. People from Beverly and neighboring towns held jobs there, and for about six years, worked in complete secrecy.
Their role was made public only after the first bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945. The material available for the research presented in this paper is fairly small due to the past secrecy surrounding the events. Only recently has new information been made available, due to the Ventron Project. The Ventron Project was the cleanup of the Metal Hydrides factory site, which has also been occupied by other companies dealing with radiation and nuclear waste products.
This paper will provide information concerning the ownership of Metal Hydrides, its purpose, and a glimpse into the lives and deaths of some of its employees. With this knowledge perhaps further investigations can be made, and a clearer picture of Beverly history can be obtained. Unfortunately, much of the information concerning MHI has been kept confidential, and that which is available is rather obscure. However, there is enough information to put together a picture of what transpired during its years of business in Beverly.
|AEC||Atomic Energy Commission|
|MHI||Metal Hydrides Incorporated|
|NBS||National Bureau of Standards|
|OSRD||Office of Scientific Research and Development|
How Metal Hydrides Incorporated Became Part of the Manhattan Project
In 1937, Dr. Peter Alexander founded Metal Hydrides Incorporated, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. MHI manufactured pure metal powders by reduction with calcium hydride. Dr. Alexander, who was also a chemist, later with other staff from MHI developed a method for converting uranium oxide to uranium metal powder using the calcium hydride.
In October of 1939, MHI bought the parcel of land located at 12-14 Congress Street in Beverly from the Charlestown Five Cents Savings Bank. This tract of land bordered Congress Street to the north, an owned lot to the east (at the time), the Bass River to the west, and the Danvers River to the south. It is likely that the move to that area in Beverly was made due to the existence of natural uranium there, which would most likely further the company’s advances in the manufacture of the uranium metal powders. The land had been previously owned by FW Stuart Company, who had used the premises to run a shoe last factory, until October 15, 1937. MHI arranged with Charlestown FC Savings Bank to have the cottage, woodshed, and boathouse, located there, demolished. They also requested that the heating system boiler and steam engine be replaced with new adequate models, as part of the realty cost. MHI also planned to include into the realty gas and electric fixtures, a sprinkler system, and all “appurtenant equipment and all other fixtures of every kind.” Dr. Alexander, the president, his wife Eleanor R. Alexander, the as clerk, and Mr. A. G. Fulton, the treasurer, all signed the document. The sale was complete by October 13, 1939, and MHI soon began moving to their new place of business.
Slightly before Dr. Alexander’s discovery, a Hungarian nuclear physicist named Leo Szilard came to the United States in 1938 to become a guest researcher at Colombia University. In 1939, it was Szilard who conferred with Albert Einstein, then practicing at Princeton, New Jersey, and several other physicists, to send a letter to President Roosevelt introducing the concept of the production of an atomic bomb. In the letter, Albert Einstein, a German, also mentioned that Germany was probably setting out on a similar endeavor. This letter is noted as contributing to the urgency of the efforts in the United States to begin building the atomic bomb.
In 1941, the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), and the Office of Scientific Research and Development of Columbia University (OSRD), where Szilard had been working, offered MHI contracts for the production of the uranium metal powder. This ultimately lead to a contract with the OSRD in November of 1942, which started MHI’s work for the Manhattan Engineering District (MED). The massive Manhattan Project was established in August of 1942, meaning Beverly became involved less than three months after its start.
Metal Hydride’s Operations
MHI first appeared in the Beverly City Directory in 1941. Despite its purchase in 1939, the site at 12-14 Congress Street was listed as a vacant factory from 1938 to 1941. The company entry lists Peter P. Alexander as president, Eleanor R. Alexander as treasurer, and a man named Thayer Lindsley as vice president. What became of the previous treasurer, A.G. Fulton, is unknown. In 1944 and 1945, Mr. Lindsley was listed as treasurer, Mrs. Alexander as secretary, and a man named Louis (also spelled Lewis) W. Davis was listed as assistant treasurer. In 1946, Mr. Davis’ name disappeared from the listing, and Mrs. Alexander emerged as the vice president, and Lindsley remained treasurer.
Even after the company’s move to Beverly, Dr. Alexander and his wife chose to stay in their Marb1ehead home on 79 Rockaway Avenue. They did not make the move to Beverly until 1946, when they bought a house at 357 Hale Street. Oddly enough, throughout the years, Mr. Thayer Lindsley kept his residence at 230 Park Avenue, in New York City. This along with the fact that his entry into the company preceded MHI’s involvement with the Manhattan Project by one year raises many questions. Did Lindsley also work directly for the U.S. government?
MHI was a part of the Manhattan Project until about 1947. During this time MHI worked with natural uranium-238 to produce metal powder. This powder was then molded into ingots, and sent to other nuclear facilities in Chicago, Hanford, and Oakridge. These facilities used the ingots for fuels experimentation.
It is likely that the ingots sent to Chicago went particularly to the University of Chicago. It was here that Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist, produced the first controlled nuclear fission chain in 1942.  Another, located in Hanford, Washington, was the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. This was not only the largest of the nuclear facilities, but it was also the manufacturing site of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The third destination, Oakridge (also called “Oak Ridge”, and originally called Clinton Engineer works), located in central Tennessee, was originally founded by the government as a part of the Manhattan Project. Its numerous facilities included Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant, and Oak Ridge K-25 Plant.
In 1943, a better method for producing the uranium metal was discovered, and MHI shifted its operations to the recovery of uranium from scrap and turnings resulting from operations at Hanford, and other plants across the country.
The MHI factory area expanded over the years, from 12-14 Congress Street, in 1939, to 12-24 Congress Street in 1946. MHI occupied three main buildings for use in the production of uranium metal, two of which were wooden structures. The main buildings contained furnaces, leaching facilities, a mixing room, a drying room, and analytical laboratories. Another building was later built over one of MHI’s uranium processing areas.
Apparently, MHI’s involvement in the Manhattan Project affected the surrounding Goat Hill neighborhood. “Security tightened like a net around Goat Hill,” a local reporter remembers, and residents could only enter their neighborhood after showing an ID card. Secrecy was maintained throughout the period before the first bomb fell on Hiroshima. It was only on August 8, 1945, the day after, that Metal Hydrides made the front page of the Beverly Times. In a short article, Mr. Lewis (Louis) W. Davis is quoted as the general manager of MHI. He says that he is proud that all of the local employees had been able to keep the secret so well for so long. He reassured the citizens that they were in no danger, because “all major engineering and hazardous production work is centered in southern plants under strict army control.” Mr. Davis also told residents that: “As Secretary Stimson [secretary of war] stated on Monday, it is hoped that one day it will be possible to reveal in greater detail the contribution made by industry, and at that time Metal Hydrides, Inc. will be proud to report more fully on the part its employees have played in this great undertaking.” Unfortunately, that day has not yet come to Beverly citizens.
Beverly was not the only local city working on the atomic bomb. in the same August 8 issue of the Beverly Times in which MHI appeared, Lynn General Electric Company also admitted working on the atom bomb. “The secret was so cleverly guarded, however, officials said, that less than 100 of the G.E.’s 165,000 employees had any idea of what they were engaged on.” Other General Electric plants in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, were also involved in the project.
Beverly Employees of Metal Hydrides, Inc.
In 1947, while still under contract for the federal government, only 8 Beverly citizens were listed as employees of MHI in the 1947 Beverly List of Persons , (not including the president, Dr. Alexander, and his wife). However, the Beverly List of Persons only records those residents twenty years or older, therefore it is uncertain whether there were children working there, which would increase the number of local employees found in the book.
Furthermore, about four other people were listed as having jobs that seemed as if they might be associated with MHI, and because abbreviations were often used, discerning the full occupation is difficult. “Met. Police” could be short for “Metal Hydrides Incorporated Police Staff”, the people who checked the ID’s of those entering the Goat Hill neighborhood. Two such headings were found. Also “Metal.,” and “Metallurg.,” look as though they might be associated with the company. “Metal.” would either imply the person worked with metal, or, in the case of MHI, the shortened version of “Metal Hydrides Incorporated.” “Metallurg.” probably stands for metallurgy, which is the science that deals with extracting metals from their ores, and creating useful objects from them.
Four death records were recovered. The findings are interesting, although inconclusive about the effect of the radiation, nuclear waste, or metal powders at MHI. What they show rather is a glimpse into the lives of four men who worked at MHI in 1947.
Mr. Erland H. Smith was 35 in 1947, when he was employed to MHI. His 1946 residence had been somewhere in Salem, but from 1947 to his death he lived on Cabot Street with his wife, Anna. He and Anna were both born in Sweden, and perhaps had come over together. His common profession was a pattern maker, which could have had various uses at the MHI. Later he took his last job at the General Electric Company. He died March 1983, at the age of 78. He had had a stroke 14 weeks prior to his death, and then came down with pneumonia. The immediate cause of death was listed as a pulmonary arrest. He was cremated two days after. 
John D. Newell lived on Butman Street in Beverly, with his wife Evelyn. Although he was listed as working for MHI in 1947 at the age of 48, Mr. Newell spent most of his life as a storekeeper at a department store. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1898, and died in 1962 at the age of 63. An autopsy revealed that he had died of severe congestive heart failure due to arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease. He had also been suffering from diabetes mellitis, a chronic syndrome of impaired carbohydrate protein and fat metabolism, and an electrolyte imbalance. The medical examiner wrote “no” next to the line that asked if his disease was in any way related to his occupation. 
Mr. David S. Douglas was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and in 1947 he lived on Hale Street with his wife Sarah. He was, shockingly, 71 years old, while he worked for MHI that year. His job there was as a production worker. He later retired, but that year is unknown. He died in December of 1958, at the age of 93. The autopsy showed that he died of an arteriosclerotic heart disease, and Stokes-Adams syndrome, a type of cardiac arrest, due to his arteriosclerosis. He also had anemia. His death certificate also stated that there was no evidence to show that his disease was in any way related to his occupation. 
Mr. Ralph M. Dallison was born in Boston. He was 46 when he worked at MHI in 1947, and had been a World War I veteran. His usual occupation was in an engineering department, and he did much work for the city of Beverly. Before he died, he had divorced his wife, Catherine Shea, and lived in a house on Hale Street. Unfortunately the circumstances of his death are rather grim. He had been drinking heavily since June of 1960. He was also suffering from grand mal epilepsy, a symptomatic form of epilepsy often preceded by an aura, a sensation of cold air rushing to the head, and characterized by a loss of consciousness with generalized muscle spasms. At age 61, in October of 1960, he died of an epileptic seizure, and anoxia, total lack of oxygen, as well as chronic alcoholism, and malnutrition. His body was discovered by fellow coworkers at 11 am the next morning, naked on a toilet, and slumped against an adjacent wall. No autopsy was needed, and it was concluded, according to his death certificate, that his occupation had nothing to do with his death. 
Metal Hydrides After the War
Even after the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945, MHI continued to manufacture uranium products for the Manhatten Project until 1947. The Atomic Energy Commission (ABC), established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, was a civilian agency of the federal government. Their job was to administer and regulate the production and use of atomic power. The ABC succeeded the Manhattan Project, and retained power over MHI.
From 1948 to 1950, the ABC conducted a radiological survey of the MHI site, which resulted in the decision to demolish two wooden foundry facilities. MHI then used them as back-fill along the sea wall, and in later years, new buildings were build over them. Finally in 1948, the ABC released MHI from their contract with the government. The company then decided to continue to pursue the manufacture of metal hydrides for commercial applications. In 1965, MHI changed its name to the Ventron Corporation, and took on new forms of commercial business.
The history of Metal Hydrides can be compared to a puzzle, which, at this point in time, is only an array of scattered pieces. This paper makes up a single border piece. It cannot show us the whole picture, yet we know where it fits in.
Metal Hydrides became involved with the government because of the notoriety Dr. Alexander received for his work with uranium and the calcium hydroxide. The factory was built in Beverly because of the source of natural uranium located there. Lindsley Thayer, the vice president and treasurer, who lived in New York during the whole course of MHI’s major existence, can either be seen as an insignificant wealthy stockholder, or perhaps some one more important, working for the government. The latter is a valid hypothesis considering that Mr. Lindsley suddenly emerged one year before MHI’s official hookup with the Manhattan Project. It can also be concluded that the situation of MHI was not totally unique, considering that Lynn GE and other plants were also working with MED. Yet, MHI was working directly for some of the major nuclear facilities in the country at that time, particularly the one in Hanford, Washington.
It is apparent, due to the recent Ventron cleanup program, that harmful radioactive chemicals were used in the factories. Yet, there was no concrete evidence to support that this had an effect on the workers, although this is a logical surmise.
Overall, there are many lingering questions, and a frustrating lack of readily available information. However, with further and more extensive investigation, one may be able to find more pieces of the puzzle.
 U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge Operations Office Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action
Program, Ventron Engineering Evaluation/ Cost Analysis (EE/CA). Administrative Record, V-O12 (Beverly, MA, 1996).
 U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge Operations Office Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action
Program, Ventron Engineering Evaluation/ Cost Analysis (EE/CA). Administrative Record, V-OI2 (Beverly, MA, 1996).