Theodore B. Taylor, a theoretical physicist who dedicated his early life to building smaller and more efficient atomic bombs before undergoing a near-religious conversion to become an antinuclear activist, died Oct. 28 at a nursing home in Silver Spring, Md.
Taylor, who was 79, died of heart disease, his family said.
A Caltech graduate who was booted out of the graduate physics program at UC Berkeley, Taylor displayed so much native genius that he got a job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory despite his lack of a higher degree and became the lab’s leading designer of fission weapons.
His specialty was designing exceedingly small bombs that carried a more powerful punch than their earlier, much larger counterparts. His efforts reached their apogee with the development of a bomb called Davy Crockett, a 50-pound device almost small enough to fit in a suitcase. By contrast, the ineptly named “Little Boy” device dropped on Hiroshima weighed 9,000 pounds and was less powerful.
He also designed the largest and most powerful fission bomb ever, the Super Oralloy Bomb or SOB.
When he left Los Alamos, he became the chief designer on Project Orion, a massive spaceship that would have been powered by 2,000 atomic bombs exploding sequentially on its tail, powering the craft to Mars and beyond.
That work was cut short, however, by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibited the detonation of nuclear devices in the atmosphere and in space.
Taylor’s career path took a sudden turn during a two-year stint at the Defense Atomic Support Agency in the mid-1960s, when he became aware for the first time of the large number of atomic bombs circulating in the world and of the dangers from theft of nuclear materials and the construction of bombs by terrorists.
“I became privy to the actual characteristics and deployments of what, by then, were thousands of nuclear weapons,” he later wrote. “And I discovered willful deceptions at all levels of government concerning the effects of nuclear weapons on people, on buildings, on military equipment, on everything.”
He became, in his own words, a “nuclear dropout,” who spent his business life devising elegant schemes for green power sources and other environmentally acceptable technologies and his private life campaigning against nuclear weapons.
“My work at Los Alamos had been so intellectually stimulating, so compelling, but so insane,” he said.
His intellectual about-face was chronicled by John McPhee in a three-part New Yorker magazine series that became the 1974 book, “The Curve of Binding Energy.”
Taylor was born in 1925 in Mexico City, where his American father was the general secretary of the YMCA in Mexico. His mother, Barbara Howland Taylor, was the first American woman ever awarded a doctorate by the National University of Mexico.
He was intellectually precocious, beginning one school year in the fourth grade and finishing it in the sixth. A chemistry set acquired at the age of 10 provided much amusement. Taylor built small explosive devices and placed them on the city’s streetcar tracks, where they would detonate with great light and sound but little damage. He also synthesized a sleeping drug and put his white rats to rest for 12 hours at a time without killing them.
He also developed a lifelong interest in music, rising early to listen intently to recordings for an hour before leaving for school. At his retirement home in western New York, he had a large collection of albums and CDs, including a complete library of Bach.
He chose physics as his major at Caltech and graduated in three years in an accelerated wartime program. He had hoped to be put to work in physics when he entered the military in 1945, but instead was assigned to a troop carrier bringing soldiers home from their posts in the Pacific.
His graduate career at Berkeley was less successful than his previous undergraduate work. Taylor was a brilliant student who worked hard, but only on those subjects that interested him. As a consequence, he flunked his oral examinations in “boring” thermodynamics and modern physics and was sent packing.
Robert Serber, who led the theoretical physics group at Berkeley, recognized young Taylor’s talents and helped him get a job at Los Alamos.
“Within a week, I was deeply immersed in nuclear weaponry,” Taylor wrote. “I was fascinated by every bit of information I was given during those first few days.”
While others at the lab were working on producing the first hydrogen bomb, he was concentrating on compact, more efficient fission bombs. Physicist Freeman Dyson, quoted by McPhee, said, “He was the first man in the world to understand what you can do with three or four kilograms of plutonium, that making bombs is an easy thing to do.”
While he was working at Los Alamos, Taylor obtained a doctorate in theoretical physics from Cornell University.
Despite his wife’s and mother’s objections to his line of work, Taylor was convinced that building better bombs represented a pathway to peace. But when he saw the true extent of nuclear proliferation, he wrote, “My peacekeeping rationale collapsed.... I have worked since then to rid the world of nuclear weapons.”
He left government work and started two businesses, the consulting group International Research and Technology Corp. and Nova Inc., which developed alternatives to nuclear energy.
His books include “The Restoration of the Earth,” written in 1973 with Charles C. Hampstone, and “Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards,” written in 1974 with Mason Willrich.
He also taught for some time at Princeton University and was a member of the president’s commission on the accident at Three Mile Island.
Taylor married Caro Arnim in 1948. They divorced in 1992. He is survived by five children, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.