In a small shed at the top of a 100-foot-tall steel tower deep in the New Mexico desert, Donald Hornig sat next to the world’s first atomic bomb in the late evening of July 15, 1945, reading a book of humorous essays. A storm raged, and he shuddered at each lightning flash.
It was his second trip to the tower that day as part of the Manhattan Project, the secret American effort to build an atomic bomb. He had earlier armed the device, code-named Trinity, connecting switches he had designed to the detonators.
But Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the project, had grown nervous about leaving the bomb alone. He told Hornig to return to the tower and baby-sit the bomb. A little after midnight, the weather had improved, and Hornig was ordered down from the tower. He was the last man to leave and the last to see the weapon before it changed human history.
A little more than five miles away, Oppenheimer and others waited in a bunker to see if the device they called “the gadget" would actually go off. After Hornig joined them, he took his position for his next task: placing his finger on a console switch that when pressed would abort the blast, should anything appear awry. The countdown began, his finger at the ready.
The bomb was detonated at 5:29:45 a.m. on July 16 as Hornig and the others watched from the bunker. He later remembered the swirling orange fireball filling the sky as “one of the most aesthetically beautiful things I have ever seen."
Three weeks later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days after that, another fell on Nagasaki.
It was the dawn of the nuclear age and also of a career that took Hornig to the White House as science adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson and to academic eminence as president of Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he died Monday at 92, his family said.
Hornig worked under Johnson from 1964 to 1969, conferring with him on space missions and atom smashers as well as on more practical matters, like providing sufficient hospital beds for Medicare patients and desalting water for drinking.
He had actually been President John F. Kennedy’s choice for science adviser. Kennedy had asked him to take the job shortly before his assassination in 1963, and Johnson followed through with the appointment.
Working for Johnson was reportedly not easy. The president was said to disdain scientists and academics after so many of them had voiced opposition to the Vietnam War, which made it difficult for his science adviser to lobby for them.
But when a power blackout hit the Northeast in 1965, the president turned to Hornig for guidance, as he did when earthquakes hit Denver. After Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Johnson sought Hornig’s advice on ways to detect concealed weapons.
Under Johnson, Hornig doubled the budget of what is now the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which he headed, and pushed for federal research in housing and transportation. He also helped kill a proposal to put giant mirrors into orbit over Vietnam to spotlight the enemy at night.
As president of Brown from 1970 to 1976, Hornig established a four-year medical school. He oversaw the merger of Pembroke College, Brown University’s women’s school, with Brown College, the men’s undergraduate school. He faced student protests — including a 40-hour sit-in at Brown’s administrative building — over cost cutting, minority admissions and other matters.
He met some student demands but later declared that the university would never again negotiate with students occupying a building. He described his presidency as “bittersweet."
Donald Frederick Hornig was born on March 17, 1920, in Milwaukee and attended Harvard, earning his undergraduate degree there in 1940 and his doctorate in 1943, both in chemistry.
His dissertation was titled “An Investigation of the Shock Wave Produced by an Explosion," and he went to work at the Underwater Explosives Laboratory of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.
He joined the Manhattan Project after his boss at Woods Hole passed along a mysterious invitation asking him to take an unspecified job at an unspecified location. No explanations were offered, and Hornig declined. James Conant, the president of Harvard, helped persuade him to change his mind.
Hornig and his new wife, the former Lilli Schwenk, bought an old Ford with frayed tires and puttered to New Mexico. His wife, who also had a doctorate in chemistry, worked for the project as a typist, then as a scientist.
Hornig is survived by his wife as well as his brother, Arthur; his sister, Arlene Westfahl; his daughters Joanna Hornig Fox and Ellen Hornig; his son, Christopher; nine grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.