The box office hit “Oppenheimer” by Director Christopher Nolan based on the 2005 Pulitzer award winning biography American Prometheus has reinvigorated a historical fascination with the so-called “father of the atomic bomb.”
Much of the film centers around neighboring Berkeley where J. Robert Oppenheimer (or “Oppie” as he was referred to by those close to him) was a Physics professor for the University of California.
Emeryville is never directly referenced in the film but the famed Shell Development Emeryville Research Center plays a critical part of the storyline.
Shell Development Emeryville Research Center Established in 1928
Shell Oil was formed in 1907 through the merger of Royal Dutch Petroleum Company of the Netherlands and The Shell Transport and Trading Company of the UK. The company became the leading competitor of the American Standard Oil (now Chevron) and by 1920 Shell was the largest producer of oil in the world.
Shell entered the chemicals industry in 1928 with the establishment of their Emeryville Research Facility which was originally constructed at 30,000 sq. ft. and employed less than 40 workers. At the time it was considered among the “largest and most modern research laboratories in the United States.”
The location in Emeryville was strategic in recruiting from nearby University of California, Berkeley where some of the brightest minds in chemical engineering were emerging.
It was also within a close proximity to their refinery operations in Martinez and their chemical manufacturing plant in Pittsburg, CA.
The West’s “University of Petroleum”
The facility rapidly expanded to 27-acres with ninety buildings and employed as many as 1500 workers at its peak. It was often referred to as “The University of Petroleum.”
In addition to fuels and lubricants, the facility helped pioneer more than a thousand petroleum-based products including pest controls, drugs, cosmetics, fabric and paint.
Great Depression Helps Fuel interest in Communism
At the time the facility was constructed, the country was in the midst of prohibition and Emeryville was fighting its reputation for corruption and lax enforcement of bootlegging operations. The Great Depression gripped the country soon after fueling interest in organizing workers and alternatives to capitalism.
As typical during economic downtimes, Americans begin to question whether the current economic and political system was still working for the majority of the people. The scientific community and academic circles were active in exploring communism during the 1930s.
[Oppenheimer] was asserted to have been ‘an offstage force’ in unionizing parts of the Shell Development Emeryville Research Center workforce.
Robert Oppenheimer engaged in support for leftist causes during this time at Berkeley including donating to the anti-fascist Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He also helped unionize campus employees and was asserted to have been “an offstage force” in unionizing parts of the Shell Development Emeryville Research Center workforce.
Atomic Bomb Detonation and Ensuing Cold War Ramp up Tensions
Despite concerns over Oppenheimer’s loyalties, he was recruited to lead The Manhattan Project. Shell Emeryville employees were said to be among those recruited for the top-secret assaignment.
The project led to the creation and successful testing of the atomic bomb in Los Almos, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Soon after, two bombs were dropped on Japan which expedited their surrender and drew an official end to World War II.
During the ensuing cold war with Russia, efforts of espionage ramped up between the two political adversaries.
The U.S. government engaged in sweeping investigations on suspected communist ties including a 1954 security hearing of Oppenheimer where he was grilled about his past ties to members of the Communist Party.
The hearing touched on a testimony by Oppenheimer when he was indirectly solicited for secrets by a soviet spy named George Charles Eltenton who worked at the Shell Development Emeryville Research Center.
George Charles Eltenton and “The Chevalier Incident”
The so-called “Chevalier incident” referenced in the film is a moment in 1942 when Oppenheimer’s friend, fellow professor and marxist sympathizer Haakon Chevalier makes Oppenheimer aware of a contact he has at the Shell Emeryville facility that he could channel secrets to the Soviet Union through.
This contact, identified as George Charles Eltenton, was a British physicist who worked at Shell as a physicist in the spectrograph and prism fields.
Oppenheimer refused the offer citing treason, but did not immediately report the incident to his government contacts fearing that Chevalier and others close to him would suffer. Oppenheimer later came clean about the incident when interrogated by U.S. military intelligence.
The incident first came into the public eye in 1946 during the Tenney Committee led by California State Assembly member Jack Tenney. The hearings investigated George Eltenton and his ties to communism including Robert Oppenheimer.
Eltenton’s ties with Russia included a visit to the USSR in 1931 and employment at the Institute of Chemical Physics in Leningrad from 1933 to 1938. Eltenton’s wife worked as a secretary at the American Russian Institute in San Francisco.
Eltenton, while at Shell, helped organize an employee union known as FAECT (Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians).
Oppenheimer was a member of this union during his time at Berkeley, along with his protégé and radiologist Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz; who helped organize FAECT within the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory.
Other employees at Shell who were members of the union were subpoenaed to testify at the House of Un-American Activities investigation including chemists David Adelson and Otto Beeck. Adelson later spoke about the unionization efforts that were instigated when Shell abruptly laid off approximately 10% of its workforce. Neither Adelson or Beeck were ever formally charged.
Further investigation revealed that Eltenton was tasked by San Francisco Russian consulate Peter Ivanovwith with seeking Oppenheimer out. Eltenton convinced Chevalier to inquire with Oppenheimer and make him aware of his services. The FBI questioned Eltenton in 1946 who admitted the incident to them although he was never charged or prosecuted.
Eltenton flew back to England in 1947 and was immediately re-employed by Shell in the town of Thornton (about 60 miles northwest of London). “I have no comment to make on such testimony,” he told the U.S. press in 1947. “However, concerning the committee’s work in general, it doesn’t seem to be sticking very closely to the facts.”
Aftermath of Hearing
The hearing ultimately resulted in Oppenheimer’s U.S. security clearance being revoked marking the end of his formal relationship with the U.S. government.
His stature as a hero of American science damaged, he lived out his life “a broken man” and died in 1967 at the age of 62.
Oppenheimer was ultimately vindicated by history and the “black mark” against him removed by the Biden Administration 68 years later in 2022. The proceedings against him have been deemed a “kangaroo court” in retrospect and considered retaliatory for him being outspoken against weapons of mass destruction and the military industrial complex threat.
The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations, now AFL-CIO) proceeded to purge organizations that were sympathetic to communism including the FAECT.
Robert’s brother Frank Oppenheimer, blacklisted from teaching because of his communist ties, reinvented himself and went on to found SF’s Exploratorium Museum that our families enjoy today.
Move to Houston amid Consolidation Efforts
In 1971, Shell announced it would abandon its Emeryville plant and consolidate operations in Houston, Texas. A few hundred of the facilities more than 1000 employees were relocated.
Many components of the lab were demolished but office space was repurposed for other uses.
Shell Campus Today
Shell Development’s facilities languished briefly before becoming the home of biotechnology pioneers Cetus. Cetus went on to invent the groundbreaking PCR method that won the Nobel Prize for famed scientist Kary Mullis.
The southern most building along 45th street was partitioned for artist space and eventually became the 45th Street Artist Coop.
Cetus merged with Chiron in 1991 who were in-turn acquired by Swiss multinational pharmaceutical corporation Novartis in 2005.
Now occupied by Grifols, artifacts of Shell Oil still exist at the property including several shell logo medallions on the facade of the building facing Horton.
The legacy of the Shell Research Center remains strong and Emeryville remains an epicenter of scientific innovation in the East Bay today. The northern part of the campus is currently being redeveloped as “Emery Yards” by BioMed Realty.