A Trombone and a Desk Calculator

During a good part of WWII, say 1941–1944, I was employed at the Argonne site of the Manhattan District. Argonne is a forest preserve some miles out of Chicago and adjacent to the better known (at least to me) Palos Park. A year after the first production of a chain reaction under the famous West Stands, the “pile” (chain reactor) was moved for safety and security reasons to this rural site. You entered a dirt road, went by a guard post that was around a bend and invisible from that highway, and climbed a long hill to get to the site. The current Argonne National Laboratory got its name from this wartime site, but is actually about ten miles away.

Employees could be ferried from the University of Chicago campus to the site in the morning and back in the afternoon on an ancient blue bus, known affectionately as “The Blue Flash”. At other times, there were periodic stations wagons, or one could even hitch a ride in a private car with Enrico Fermi and his bodyguard.

Somehow, I acquired a trombone, I don’t remember whether it was mine or had been lent to me. I have no recollection of what ultimately happened to it. Since a trombone can exceed any other orchestral instrument in volume except possibly for percussion instruments, I did not dare blow it in my apartment; I took it out to the lab.

One evening I was working late, but had the trombone by my side, intending to play with it when it became late enough. A colleague who had nothing better to do decided to experiment with it himself. What he was trying to do was to imitate his concept of a dive bomber. After some practice, he decided to record his creation. The lab had acquire a wire recorder. I don’t know whether it had been a captured German product or a classified domestic one. All I knew at the time was that it had been acquired to record the data from delayed neutron bursts, that the research had ended and that it was now liberated as a plaything. After he became fairly happy with the recording, he decided that he needed to add some machine gun fire. So, caught up in this enterprise, I wandered around the lab looking for a machine gun surrogate. I found one in the form of a Friden calculating machine.

the Friden has buttons to cause a carriage shift, and when the carriage gets to its limit position, the machinery emits a regular clacking noise. In one of the two shift directions, that noise seemed more realistic. Now, as the performer was starting to get out of breath, I provided a few machine gun bursts. We again recorded this masterpiece.

After playing it a few times, the “musician” wanted to add a few more seconds of flight after he ran out of breath. He held a low note while I started the recorder. Of course, as the wire speeded up from a standstill, the recording made a quick transition from a higher pitch to a lower one and we both thought it sounded like a ricocheting bullet.

I went home on the 11 pm station wagon. Close to midnight, my colleague went to the front office, where there was the mike for a PA system with speakers all over the site. He played the recording. Guards came running with drawn pistols. At midnight they changed shifts on the guards, and damned if he didn’t play the tape again.

When I got to work the next morning, a bit late; I probably drove in; I saw a queue of people lined up in front of my colleague’s office, waiting to hear this famous recording.