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robert james cowan and the manhattan project – updated

Lewiansto asks: Why would Cowan have code (and microcode) in his Rubaiyat?

It might be all in the timing, Lew ..

In 1929 Paul Leland Kirk became professor of biochemistry UC Berkeley.

Robert James Cowan travelled to Berkeley University to visit Paul Leland Kirk in August 1940. 

The Manhattan Project commenced in 1942 and it produced the first nuclear weapons during World War II.

Between the years 1942 to 1945 Kirk worked on fissionable materials for the Manhattan Project.

paul leland kirk

Paul Leland Kirk

Cowan’s US entry papers. Misca’s work here

Both Kirk and Cowan were biochemists and both worked with explosive materials.


Re: possible connection to the Manhattan Project – Byron Deveson

Three years ago two of DA’s students carried out a mass spectrometric scan of a hair from SM’s head and found that the lead levels were extremely elevated, and the strontium levels were somewhat elevated.

I can make a case that the strontium is very unlikely to have come from either food or water (arguments too bulky to present here, based on the levels of Strontium in food and water in Australia), but there were a small number of occupations and activities where dust containing significant strontium could be ingested.

There was one intriguing source of strontium in 1948, and that was “strontium tablets” that were used as protection against the highly radioactive, and highly dangerous Strontium 90 (Sr90 – a major uranium fission product – ie. radioactive fallout). These tablets were given at the time to anyone who might be exposed to nuclear fallout or reactor waste.

27 Comments Post a comment
  1. Byron – could you imagine any circumstances where the tools found in the suitcase – and I’m referring to the particle brush, cut down table knife, scissors and the square of soft metal – could be used in a place (laboratory) where explosive – or radioactive materials are examined or tested?

    Thanks GC for the pic.

    April 28, 2016
  2. Every time I see this picture I am struck by just how neatly the “tamam paper” is torn out and just how shoddy, cheap and makeshift the tools look.

    April 28, 2016
  3. Out of my league here but uranium dioxide looks like black powder:

    April 28, 2016
  4. BD?

    April 28, 2016
  5. Byron Deveson #

    regarding the tools found in the suitcase, yes, they could very well be used for various types of sampling and sample preparation. In particular they remind me strongly of my own mineral prospecting kit when I am working out in the Never-Never. The square of soft metal (judging from the wrinkles and creases) is almost certainly a piece of platinum foil, and about the only reason anybody carried a piece of well used platinum foil around n 1948 (and even now) is for carrying out micro-chemical tests that use fusion. Either to fuse a small sample so as to be able to dissolve it and then perform various qualitative or semi-quantitative chemical tests. Sodium carbonate (washing soda) is a fairly effective universal fusion medium. Nearly all rock samples will fuse into molten sodium carbonate, and the the fused mass can be dissolved in water and the excess sodium carbonate neutralised with hydrochloric acid (muriatic acid). Both washing soda and hydrochloric acid were available at any small store in the Never-Never in 1948. The colur of the piece of metal is the same as that of my well used pieces of platinum foil. Platinum foil is a fairly dull somewhat leaden colour to the eye, but it photographs with a yellowish tint.
    The crease in the piece of metal strongly suggests that it was used to pour a powder into some receptacle. In the bush I have used similarly creased metal or paper to pour samples into receptacles such as beakers or flasks, or fireclay crucibles (for gold assaying).
    The brush doesn’t seem to have been used with paint of any sort (no trace of stains on the handle) and it is exactly the sort of brush that is used to transfer small samples during testing.
    The cut down kitchen knife reminds me of a skinning knife and any prospector in the bush in 1948 would have carried a skinning knife to both skin a kangaroo or wallaby, and to cut up the meat.
    Pencils are of course essential for taking notes regarding sample locations and other information.
    As for the scissors. I carry a pair in the bush so I would think that they fit in a prospecting kit 1948. Useful for cutting rubber patches to repair punctured tire tubes, which you would know was a major drama in years gone-by. Particularly in the sandy desert areas where the sand is full of fire hardened stick that can (and do) easily stake a tyre.

    In 1948 the methods involved in prospecting for uranium were jealously guarded secrets. The known secure deposits of uranium ore were not sufficient for the predicted requirements and the British Government did a hasty deal with the South Australan and Federal Governments to develop and mine the known uranium resource at Mt Painter in the north of South Australia. The US at this stage had not discovered their large uranium orebodies and were presumably anxious to keep tabs on what Britain was doing in Australia. Remember, relations between the USA and the Commonwealth were at a very low ebb in 1948 for several reasons. And Britain was going it alone in developing atomic weapons and nuclear power.

    So, it is quite likely that the US Government had agents in Australia keeping an eye on what the British and Australian governments were doing regarding uranium exploration, mining and processing. There would also have been private prospectors, working for themselves, or working on behalf of others.

    Pete, the answer to your question is, yes. Those items could very well have been used for sampling or testing things like explosives, radioactive materials and a wide range of other materials.

    Misca, yes, uranium dioxide is usually a black powder. Which brings us to the question of Cowan’s competence or commitment while working on the SM case. If he could not identify the black powder that came out of the brush, then why didn’t he call in the experts in the field of X-ray diffraction andmicro-chemical analysis? Cowan’s laboratory was only a short distance from the University of Adelaide, and the Government Department of Mines laboratories. Both would have had access to X-ray diffraction equipment, and there was not much that X-ray diffraction in 1948 could not identify. And why didn’t the sod keep a sample of the black powder for future testing? Deliberate incompetence? Real incompetence? Lack of commitment?

    April 29, 2016
  6. From BD
    I photographed two pieces of platinum foil that I carry in my prospecting kit. To the eye these pieces of platinum foil are bright silver, but they photograph quite dark, and with a yellowish tint. Just like the piece of metal in SM’s suitcase.

    April 29, 2016
  7. Jigsaw pieces click when they fit, don’t they.

    April 29, 2016
  8. Robert Nowak #

    The pencils, Pete, could have been used as Louis Slotin (the publind former tail-gunner who worked at Los Alamos after the Canadian airforce found out he couldn’t see so well) used screwdrivers: to slide cuisinaire-like rods of plutonium towards a small atomic pile….until the day he slipped and dropped them. The pile threatened to go critical, and Slotin broke it up with his hands while everyone else went for the door.

    Misca’s remarks have drawn my attention to the fastidiously torn out tamam shud slip of paper and the rudely ripped book. This looks like some sort of discrepancy…and who would have known what ‘tamam shud’ meant – which, if they put it in the pocket as a message (odd, if it was a message, to be that obscurely placed), they presumably did. Or was the meaning of that phrase explained in that edition?

    April 29, 2016
  9. If Cowan was the man who hid the Tamam Shud slip, he knew that Cleland would soon rummage it out. The man had a grand reputation for sniffing out discrepancies in the order of things.

    April 29, 2016
  10. I went back into my files to look for the original manifest and couldn’t find it…So I went back to ancestry to get it and wouldn’t you know…I found another manifest. For the same trip but, this one is typed and more clearly states that his trip was for a 10 month stay!

    For those of you who have ancestry, you can see it here:

    April 30, 2016
    • It’s here, Misca … WordPress has had a few wrangles lately, and I’m off for some parmesan-crumbed fresh Barramundi at the Eltham Hotel. Plus beers.

      April 30, 2016
  11. Looks and sounds lovely. I would go for the 11 Hour Slow Cooked Lamb Shoulder…Allowing you to suggest the beer…


    April 30, 2016
  12. Lewiansto #

    Something about the microcode has been bugging me. I’m not questioning it’s existence. Anyone with an open mind and at least one functioning eyeball can see that Gordon has proven there is something there.

    As far as I am aware, Gordon has found microcode in 4 locations:

    1. The Fez Lady drawing in Boxall’s Rubaiyat
    2. Verse 70, also from Boxall’s Ruabaiyat
    3. The “Tamam Shud” strip, ostensibly torn from the “Francis” Rubaiyat
    4. The actual code itself

    The first 3 make perfect sense, hiding the microcode in plain sight, within something relatively mundane. To me, though, it just seems a bit odd to go to the trouble to hide microcode within another code. Surely, if the code was found that would just draw people’s attention, as has happened. After all, the code is what has drawn many to this case in the first place. Granted, it took 60-odd years ’til Gordon came along and made the discovery, but if it hadn’t been for the fact that he was looking at the code, chances are the microcode would never have been found.

    Sorry for the long-winded comment. Just wondering if anyone might have any thoughts on the subject.

    May 1, 2016
  13. Lew: no one could ever figure out what the letter code meant (WRGBOA …etc) because it wasn’t a code.
    The bloke punched his micro-code down on a piece of paper resting on the back of a rubaiyat. His system was that he used the alpabet as a code template – maybe the other blokes ripped it off in straight lines, or all around the page. Who knows?
    Alf would be like that – half shot in the back of the Clifton Gardens pub, fighting off the babes and writing code in great spidery lines.
    Sounds like an IT fellow I used to know. He’d only work nights and he only ate LSD. He is one of the only three members of the Warriewood Cave Club.
    There is a story written about that night.

    May 1, 2016
  14. Clive #

    Hi Lewiansto, If the micro writing was hidden in the letter Code then chances are the same was also hidden in other scripts etc. Perhaps using the letter Code was a “backup” to the micro writing already secreted in the first 3 items.. Perhaps the letter Code contains instructions on the meaning in the other 3 items? It would be very interesting to be able to read off the letters/figures in all 4 locations.

    May 2, 2016
  15. Xlamb #

    Dumb question but do ‘real’ spies or even ‘Special Police’ e.g. ASIO, even have dummy runs where they train someone up, take a ‘learner’ on a pretend mission and play it out as ‘the real thing’ to see how they stand up under pressure…an apprentice of sorts…Someone beholden to them that they mentor, and therefore might even sew on buttons (or darn your sox so badly as to cause embarrassment thus later removed). Maybe ‘imaginary’ apprentice is over zealous and fluffs it. Or even as with ‘Freemason myths & legends’, the apprentice kills the master (thinks he’s better, takes his job…Thus the new guys a nutter). It’s just a thought!

    May 2, 2016
  16. Xlamb #

    Pete…Movies and books are designed with a beginning and an ending. They require an organized approach and the author / script writer steadily moves it along towards the preplanned conclusion. Real life stories, the people and their witness accounts can be a muddle when told, but these are more likely to reflect the truth, rather than what story tellers and movie producers create in order to fit a 90 minute slot for marketing, entertainment or ratings purposes. As often said, truth can be stranger than fiction.

    SM only has an ending, his resulting death. It makes him perfect material for books and movies. Unidentified, thus no name and no family to complain re-defamation…

    It’s always concerned me that if the crime scene was manipulated from the outset, investigators and researchers can only followed a trail of breadcrumbs designed to lead them away from the truth.

    May 4, 2016
    • One of the great inconsistencies was Cowan’s failure to determine what was the black powder shaken from the particle brush .. despite his comprehensive knowledge and wide experience.

      May 4, 2016
  17. Lewiansto, a good question. The microcode on the code page was concealed in the larger letters, it’s very reasonable to ask why that would be done. If you look at the code page, at first glance you see what appears to be 5 lines of letters, a single strike through of the second line, two crossed lines in the middle with an X, a flourish of a kind beneath the AR on the last line and then a ragged looking line at the base.

    Each line of letters starts with the letter M except for the last line which starts with a V and ends with AR.

    If we consider the letter M was meant to be the starter for each line then just maybe we have a few more lines as in if we break the 3rd line at the letter M and then the last line has another two letters M.

    The code page would then look like:


    Add to this the total of four ‘straightish’ lines across the page, at line 2, beneath line 4 two more and the final line at the base. We could include the partial line beneath the AR on the last line.

    Under close examination, all of the ‘lines’ that cross the page contain strings of letters and numbers.

    The obvious question is how come whoever write the letters didn’t start new lines with an M instead of running them into a longer string? Straightforward answer would be that there physically wasn’t enough space on the page to do that.

    The US War Department Radio Operators Manual for 1945 contains Pro Signs, operators shorthand. In a post from almost 2 years ago, quite a few of the letters on the code page were identified as potential pros signs including T for Transmit, D for Defer, R for Routine, AB was ‘All Before’, C stood for ‘Corrected version’.

    In Radio Operator’s Pro Sign terms the letter ‘V’ means ‘from’ and the AR means ‘this is my last message no reply is expected or required’.

    These Pro Signs can be found in this manual:

    So, what could this all mean?

    Don’t forget that the police found ‘indentations’, in other words, the markings left on the lower piece when you place a piece of paper on top of another and write on it. In Tradecraft the technique used was called ‘Ink H’ developed by British SOE in 1942. The method was to first write the letters out in ink, add the microcode within each letter in sharp pencil (which left the indentations) and then another layer of ink. To develop the messages, the inked set of letters was immersed in a strong bleach solution which removed the ink but left the penciled microcode. What the police found was in my view, a lighter set of indentation where the pen pressed through with deeper indentations left by the sharp-penciled microcode. Wouldn’t it be nice if that original written set of letters carrying the microcode turned up?

    The lines across the page with their strings of microcode may, in fact, have been hastily recorded code from a radio transmission as we once discussed Pete, and it was these sets of code that were subsequently ‘filed’ across the appropriate pro sign letters.

    My thoughts are that Pro Signs were in use as a simple filing/action prompt. For example, the microcode contained in the letter ‘R’ was Routine information, ‘AB’ ‘AB’ was ‘All Before’ X 2 which may have referred to previous message sets. D was to be deferred, in the ‘C’ it was a corrected version. The letter T was for immediate transmission. The letter ‘P’ was for Priority.

    I suspect but have no proof that there was cooperation between US and British signals/operators such that it is possible that more prosigns could be matched if we were able to obtain a copy of a Royal Signals or RAR Signals manual from that period.

    If you sit back and think about this, it is extremely simple, a mass of coded messages quickly recorded and sorted for delivery to the next person in the chain and all in the guise of a set of letters complete with what look like errors. How else could they possibly do it? The prosign letters could well have been a last attempt at concealment should the note have been discovered. It worked well.

    May 4, 2016
  18. B Deveson #

    Another Cowan fail. GF page 191 “… an analysis of dust from the pocket showed no chemical.” So, there were other tests done and not reported to the coroner? Even if the tests (what tests? Even negative test results should have been reported) showed “no chemical” (which is an idiotic thing for a chemist to say) what were the results?

    May 4, 2016
  19. Gordon, I remember … so all we need to find is a manual that includes pro-signs for the letter M and the letter V.
    Is that it, in a nutshell?

    May 5, 2016
    • Pete, I think that Prosigns fit well given that we can get confirmation via another manual:

      A could mean ‘Authenticate’ references in various morse code sites. It can also mean ‘the originators call sign follows’ from the manual

      AB means ‘All before’ in manual

      AR means ‘This is my last message, no reply is expected or required’ in manual

      The single letter A could mean ‘All’. assumed from manual

      B is ‘More to follow’ in manual

      C is for ‘Corrected Version’ in manual

      D means ‘Defer’ in manual

      E repeated means error so possibly the E means an error from a previous message.assumed from manual

      G means ‘Repeat Back’ in the manual and possibly means ‘Groups’ which could contain microcodes of just which groups are to receive the messages. Assumed from manual and other sources

      ‘I’ could be for ‘Information only’ from other sources

      M stands for ‘Message’ The letters CM stand for ‘Classified Message’ so it would not be unreasonable to assume that it is OK. Assumed from manual

      N means ‘Not Received or Exempted’ in the manual, could be short for ‘Net Control Station’ or NCS. assumed from manual

      O means ‘Urgent’ from manual

      P means ‘Priority’ from manual

      We have the Q may be part of an operating signal normally containing 3 letters in which case we would have QCV, notably the 3 letter signal beginning with Q was used by aircraft to include movements of aircraft. That, of course, rings a bell because the Q contains microcode CA 23, a still on the board design for a twin jet fighter-bomber designed by Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation which used the two letters CA as ‘prefix’ for all their aircraft types. It could then alter the 6th line in the earlier comment to QCVTT. From manual

      R is ‘Received’ or ‘Routine’ from manual

      The S could mean ‘Station’ referred to in the manual.

      T means ‘Transmit to’ from the manual. There are other uses of the T which can be found in the manual

      V means ‘message from’ from manual

      Finally, the X above the two crossed lines could mean ‘Executive Message’ assumed from the manual. That would fit because those two lines contain strings of microcode.

      That would cover all of the larger letters and you should be able to see how they could have been used as a kind of ‘filing’ and instructions system for microcode messages.

      The code page letters make sense if they were designed to be carriers of microcode, but, as stand alone letters with Prosign meanings, they do not make any real sense.

      Another Military Radio Operators manual would be of value to confirm some of the assumptions.

      As it stands I think we may just have cracked open the first level of the code and have certainly discovered the presence of the concealed code.

      May 5, 2016
  20. Message: RGOABABD
    Message: LAIOI
    Message: TBI
    Message: PANETP
    Message: LIABOAIAQC
    V (message from) TT
    Message: TSA
    Message: STGAR

    So now we need to know who TT is.

    May 5, 2016
  21. Transmit Transmit, You could be right, my thoughts are that the message was in the QC and it was from whoever is described in the microcode inside the V. The TT is ‘Transmit’ ‘Transmit’, or transmit the contents of both letters T which I can confirm are quite different to each other. They went to a lot of trouble top cover up the contents of the V but some of it is recoverable.

    I think you’re right to look at different assemblies of the letters in that line, the one that shouldn’t alter would be the M starter for each line and they also contain microcode.

    May 5, 2016
    • If we are going to treat every letter as a pro-sign then the only message is the one you have found beneath them.

      May 5, 2016
  22. lewiansto #

    Gordon, what about the “Tamam Shud” strip? Is there microcode hidden in all the letters? Could the letters in the strip also serve as Pro-signs for the code within?

    May 5, 2016

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