Bernard Vonnegut was born on August 29, 1914 to Kurt Sr. and Edith Vonnegut in Indianapolis, Indiana. At the time, Edith was a brewing heiress and Kurt Sr. was a successful architect, and both were from wealthy families of German ancestry. According to a biographer of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., the earliest anecdote about Bernard predicated a fascination with science and technology.[1] When he was a toddler, his parents left him in the care of a babysitter. They didn’t return until late in the evening, long after he was asleep. One morning, they noticed he was excited and making unusual noises. The mystery was cleared up when a family friend mentioned seeing Bernard at Union Station in the arms of the babysitter. His unusual noises were the sounds of the locomotives. Young Bernard eventually set up a laboratory in the basement to find out more about steam, power, and electricity.

He spent the rest of his years at home benefitting from both the best of private schooling in the Indianapolis area as well as a loving home environment where his love and fascination for tinkering and chemistry flourished. Bernard earned a BS in Chemistry in 1936 and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1939, both from MIT. Upon graduation, he went to work at a bottle manufacturer in Pennsylvania, returned to teach at MIT for a couple of year, and then, in 1945, was offered a position to work in the industrial research lab at General Electric.

Bernard took the job at GE believing that the best science was done in a collaborative environment, and that this was exactly what the lab would offer.[2] Unfortunately, working under Irving Langmuir would not end up fostering the sort of creative environment which Bernard expected. Langmuir was a star at General Electric. A product of the lab since nearly its very beginning (he started to work at GE in 1909), he had won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1932, and, by 1940, was the highest paid employee at GE, after the CEO.[3] Like Bernard, Langmuir was a trained chemist. His early work at General Electric revolved around the so-called “General Electric Project,” otherwise known as the light bulb. During the 1920s, he worked to create a gas-filled incandescent lamp. In 1932 Langmuir’s Nobel Prize was for discovering microscopic surface films. By the late 1930s, Langmuir had turned from chemistry to other fields of interest. During World War II, he worked with the military to improve naval sonar for submarine detection and also worked on projects aimed at de-icing the wings of aircraft while in flight, similar in many ways to his Nobel Prize winning work in microscopic films.[4] After the War, Langmuir was allowed complete discretion to work on whichever projects he so chose, and compiled a team of other scientists to work with him. In 1946, he chose Bernard Vonnegut and Vincent Schaefer to work with him on “Project Cirrus,” to study controlling the weather, a project sponsored by the Department of Defense, who had had contracts with General Electric since the Second World War.[5]

Next week I will discuss “Project Cirrus.”

[1] Charles Shields. And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011): 12

[2] Kurt Vonnegut. Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage of the 1980s. (New York: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1991): 118

[3] Albert Rosenfeld. The Quintessence of Irving Langmuir. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1966): 136

[4] Albert Rosenfeld. The Quintessence of Irving Langmuir. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1966): 190

[5] Ibid., 299