Hyman George Rickover (1900-1986) was an officer in the U.S. Navy who played a significant and controversial role in ushering the Navy into the nuclear age. On active duty for almost 60 years, Rickover greatly influenced many nuclear power technicians who later served in the nascent military and civilian nuclear power industries.
Hyman George Rickover was born on January 27, 1900 (1898 according to school records), in the village of Makow, then in the Russian Empire, some 50 miles north of Warsaw. His father, Abraham, a tailor, emigrated to New York at the turn of the century. Around 1904 the senior Rickover sent for his family, wife Rachel (née Unger), daughter Fanny, and Hyman. Four years later they moved to the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, where Hyman attended public schools while working at various jobs as he grew older. He entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1918.
Accounts of his years at Annapolis stress that he was a loner, perhaps because of anti-Semitism, but more likely because he preferred to concentrate on his studies. Commissioned an ensign in 1922, Rickover put in four years of sea duty before studying engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School. He then completed requirements for a Master's degree in electrical engineering at Columbia University in 1928. Promoted to lieutenant while at Columbia, Rickover met Ruth Masters, a student in international law and subsequently a scholar of some distinction. The two carried on a correspondence courtship and in 1931 were married by an Episcopal minister. They had one son, Robert Masters Rickover. Two years after his wife's death in 1972, Rickover married Eleonore Bednowicz, a navy nurse who retired thereafter and who survived him.
Accepted into submarine school in 1929, Rickover spent the next four years of his career in that branch of the navy. By the time his tour as engineer officer and then executive officer of S-48 was completed in 1933 Rickover hoped to receive command of a submarine. Instead, he did a two-year tour at a naval facility in Philadelphia, after which he served two years in engineering on the battleship New Mexico. In 1937 Rickover was promoted to lieutenant commander and given command of the antiquated minesweeper Finch. His hard-driving ways seem to have caused resentment, and he was relieved after three months.
Convinced by his assignment to Finch that his aspirations for a conventional career of command at sea would not be fulfilled, Rickover had already requested a transfer to the status of "Engineering Duty Only." Since 1916 the navy had officially differentiated between unrestricted line officers and EDO officers. Line officers were trained to command ships, being rotated to a variety of duties at sea and on shore to familiarize them with many aspects of the navy. In contrast, an EDO officer could design, maintain, modernize, and repair ships but could not command one.
His first billet as an EDO was at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines, where he spent nearly two years. From Cavite he returned to the United States for assignment to the Bureau of Engineering, consolidated with another shore establishment into the Bureau of Ships (BuShips) in 1940. The navy was expanding rapidly, and Rickover's duties as head of the Electrical Section of BuShips put him in a key post to develop and improve electrical apparatus. His style of command—which in time would become a major part of his public persona—was considered unconventional as he ignored rank among his section's personnel and thought nothing of working on Sundays and late into the evenings.
Rickover, after 1942 a (temporary) captain, appealed for duty in a combat zone and in 1945 went to Okinawa with orders to develop and operate a ship repair base. The war ended soon thereafter, and, like many other officers in a postwar navy due for retrenchment, Rickover's future was in doubt.
Within a decade, however, Rickover was to become world-famous as the father of the nuclear navy. Although popular accounts credit Rickover alone with the founding of the nuclear navy, the idea of a nuclear-powered submarine had been batted around within the navy since 1939. His immediate superior, Admiral Earle Mills, was in favor of it, as were others. In 1946 Rickover was sent as one of a team of engineering officers to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to learn about nuclear technology. Rickover then served as Mills' assistant for nuclear matters until 1948 when the navy made a firm commitment to develop nuclear propulsion. Rickover then received two choice assignments: head of the Nuclear Power Branch of BuShips and, in 1949, chief of the newly established Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
These dual posts gave Rickover a great deal of autonomy in that he could initiate action from either his naval billet or from his post in the civilian-run AEC chain of authority. He gathered around him a group of bright and loyal officers who worked diligently to overcome the myriad problems in harnessing a nuclear reactor for shipboard power. By the early 1950s Rickover, still a captain, had succeeded in making himself known to the media and to influential congressmen as an officer who got things done, presumably indispensable to the navy's nuclear propulsion program. Although he was twice passed over for promotion to rear admiral—meaning that by navy regulations he would have to retire—pressure from congressional leaders led the secretary of the navy to order a reconsideration of Rickover's status, and he was promoted to rear admiral in 1953. Two years later Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine, was launched, and Rickover was about to become a living institution, compared most frequently to J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a master of bureaucratic ways.
As the navy added more nuclear submarines to the fleet, and then surface ships, Rickover was retained on active duty through a series of special two-year re-appointments that allowed him to serve long past the mandatory retirement age of 64. He was promoted to vice admiral in 1963 and a decade later to admiral. By insisting that safety considerations required him to personally approve officers of all nuclear-powered ships Rickover exerted influence far beyond his official position. As later assignments took these officers throughout the navy, Rickover's impact was felt in many quarters.
By no means was his reputation confined to the navy. His organization, with some private funding, developed the nation's first nuclear-powered electrical generating facility at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, in 1957. Rickover himself had little more to do with it following completion, but many men who learned their trade with the Naval Reactors Branch went on to become major figures in the growing nuclear power field in the 1960s. After the launching of Russia's Sputnik satellite called into doubt America's supremacy in science, Rickover for a while also gained recognition as an authority on American education. He wrote several books criticizing what he considered its shortcomings and calling for standards of excellence like those he had always imposed upon himself.
Not until 1981 was he retired from active duty, and even then he remained well-known, ironically making the news several times in 1984 when it was revealed that he had received—indeed requested—expensive gifts from many contractors he had dealt with. Regardless of those accusations—and Rickover did not deny them in their entirety—his naval career will rank as one of the most important and controversial of all time.
His detractors claim that by the 1960s Rickover had become a conservative force in the navy, hindering both innovation in submarine design and the adoption of gasturbine technology for surface ships by placing excessive emphasis on a comparatively few costly nuclear-powered ships at the expense of more numerous, less expensive, conventionally-powered ships which could perform many missions just as well. His admirers, however, were numerous and pointed to his role in ushering the navy into the nuclear age and his stress upon excellence at a time when laxness seemed to be pervading the armed forces and society as a whole. He summed up his own philosophy in the saying, "The more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war."
Clay Blair, Jr.'s, The Atomic Submarine and Admiral Rickover (1954) is an interesting biography of Rickover, in part because it was written with his cooperation and because it presents an early version of what became the Rickover mystique. Other studies of Rickover, more balanced in approach, are Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen, Rickover (1982) and Eugene Lewis, Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power (1980). For the navy's move into the nuclear age see Vincent P. Davis, Postwar Defense Policy and the U.S. Navy, 1943-46 (1962) and Richard B. Hewlett and Francis Duncan, Nuclear Navy, 1946-1962 (1974). The problem of gifts from contractors is discussed by Patrick Tyler in Running Critical: The Silent War, Rickover and General Dynamics (1986). Rickover authored several books. Perhaps the best known are the ones that deal with education: American Education (1963), Education and Freedom (1959), and Swiss Schools and Ours: Why Theirs Are Better (1962).
Duncan, Francis, Rickover and the nuclear navy: the discipline of technology, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1990.
Polmar, Norman, Rickover, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
Rockwell, Theodore, The Rickover effect: how one man made a difference, Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1992.
Rockwell, Theodore, The Rickover effect: the inside story of how Adm. Hyman Rickover built the nuclear Navy, New York: J. Wiley, 1995.