I am curious to determine how much J. Robert Oppenheimer got paid in today's dollars when he was the head of Los Alamos National Laboratory?

Do we have any HR or accounting documents of the Los Alamos National Lab when it was tasked with the Manhattan Project?

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    – MCW
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 16:44

1 Answer 1


On page 14 of FAS.org it indicates his salary was initially set at $10,000. Since that exceeded his previous UC professor’s salary he asked that it be reduced in line with others. Apparently the Regents turned down his request (following letter on that page).

As a comparison, on page 10 there is a salary listing for "Persons not now holding an academic position but who were in academic work", where the maximum salary (presumed monthly) for a PhD with more than 4 years of experience is set at $400, or $4800/year. So, Oppenheimer's salary was roughly double that of an experienced PhD from outside academia.

Now, at the US National Lab where I work, an experienced PhD will be paid somewhere around ~30 times the $4800/yr, or Oppenheimer's salary would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $300k/yr (plus/minus $100k?).

As a separate comparison, per Business Insider, a US Army private was paid $50/month during the war. A technician at Los Alamos made up to six times that salary (and was not shot at).

  • 13
    According to the first random online inflation calculator I tried, $10k in 1943 (the year he signed that letter) dollars would be roughly $150,000 today. Not bad dough, but considerably less than a modern commercial VP in charge of a large project site like that would expect to be pulling down today.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 17:24
  • 25
    @T.E.D. - $150,000 is low for a commercial VP but consistent with 2021 Federal salaries for civil servants in executive positions. E.g. the payscale for the Senior Executive Service is $132,552 - $199,300.
    – dbc
    Commented Jan 23, 2021 at 23:37
  • 8
    @dbc I think "Senior Executive Service" is nothing compared to Robert Oppenheimer. No comparison whatsoever. Where in that link is there a "list of extremely notable examples" section that has anyone nearly as close to what Oppenheimer was. I do get your point though that civil servants are not paid like VPs at private corporations. Also I'll point out to T.E.D. that even though 150k is not much compared to VPs in private corps these days, house prices were also not nearly as high, and stress levels in VP positions may not have been either. Competition to get there wasn't nearly as high. Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 2:30
  • 13
    It's quite impressive that Oppenheimer asked for his salary to be reduced! Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 15:42
  • 9
    @T.E.D. - the salary range from bottom to top was much more compressed in those days. It wasn't until around the 80's that the ratio of top to bottom in a company really took off.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 18:04

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