Frank Oppenheimer grew up in New York City. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in physics and later earned a Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, where he experimented with artificially induced radiation.
In 1941, Frank began working on uranium isotope separation, and, in 1945, he joined the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. This top-secret effort to produce an atomic bomb was directed by Frank’s brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
After the war, Frank became a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. But in 1949, he was forced to resign as a result of harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blackballed by McCarthy-era paranoia, Frank was unable to continue his physics research, and spent the next ten years as a cattle rancher in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
In 1957, he was drawn back into education as a science teacher at the local high school, which had fewer than 300 students and only one science teacher for all the grades. A tireless and innovative teacher, he took students to the dump and used abandoned auto parts to teach principles of mechanics, heat, and electricity.
With improvement in the political climate, Frank was offered an appointment at the University of Colorado in 1959. There, he revamped the teaching laboratory, creating a “library of experiments” that was in many ways a prototype for the Exploratorium.
In 1965, while in Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship, Frank explored and studied European museums and became convinced of the need for science museums in the United States that could supplement the science taught in schools. When he returned home, Frank was invited to plan a new branch of the Smithsonian, but he declined, preferring instead to work on what he called his “San Francisco project”— a museum of his own.
Frank proposed to house his new museum in the vacant Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina district of San Francisco. The proposal was accepted by the city, and in 1969, with no publicity or fanfare, the doors opened to Frank’s Exploratorium. Frank nurtured and shaped the growing museum until 1985, when he died from lung cancer.
The qualities that made Frank so special are the same qualities that make the Exploratorium special: an insistence on excellence, a knack for finding new ways of looking at things, a lack of pretentiousness, and a respect for invention and play.