The good old college days. When you look back at your own college life as a teen, you were either the kid who loved studying, getting all those A’s, or that party jock varsity kid enjoying all the free-flowing booze. There’s a lot of in-betweens to those categories—the invisibles, those music-loving band kids, those who didn’t really care about studying, those who were making something out of themselves, and then you have an unassuming John Aristotle Phillips.

Well, who the heck is John Aristotle Phillips? He’s that Princeton graduate who just happened to design a functioning atomic bomb in his dorm room in 1976.

Unassuming John Aristotle Phillips

John was pretty much your normal college kid who had his ups and downs. In 1976, World War II wasn’t a distant memory, and pretty much were still in the talks in the physics realm, a field Phillips was studying at Princeton. Especially with former President Truman signing the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, a law that would be revised in 1954, the whole nuclear bomb topic would float around for decades to come—in fact, until today.

Growing up with a Yale-tenured mechanical engineering professor as a father, you can say that he was not a newcomer to the whole numbers and physics game. However, the New Haven native wasn’t really the stellar student of his time. In fact, he was an underachieving student who was also the school mascot who entertained the crowds as the Princeton Tiger at sporting events. He also helped a pizza business within the campus to thrive, a pizza joint that earned $1,000 a week.

Designing A Nuclear Bomb In His Dorm Room

Hoping to stay in school, he wanted to impress his professor with his term paper in his junior year. What better way to get an A than designing a nuclear bomb with 1/4 the power of the Nagasaki bomb?

And so, the months of intensive research began. Phillips wanted to prove to his professor that making a nuclear bomb can be relatively easy and cheap so that the public and the authorities could be awakened to the idea that terrorists can make a nuclear bomb with readily available materials.

“I wanted it to be simple, inexpensive, and easy to build,” said Phillips, 21, the son of a Yale engineering professor. “The idea was not to use any classified information. I wanted to do it with what was available to the public,” said the then 21-year-old college junior.

The Little Boy, an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 ( Source:
The Little Boy, an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945 (MPI/Getty Images/

When he passed his 40-page term paper, his professor was quite shocked. The 21-year-old Phillips had designed a $152,000 nuclear bomb, where $2,000 was for the actual shell of the weapon and $150,000 was theoretically to be used to buy Plutonium, the core component of a nuclear bomb that enables it to explode.