Edward Teller was born Teller Ede on January 15, 1908 in Budapest, Hungary. As a youth, he was very quiet and his parents thought that he might be mentally retarded, but it was later seen that he was able to speak just fine, but did so only when necessary.
In 1926, he left Hungary to study chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. At that time, Hitler was in the process of taking over the government and, being Jewish, Teller developed a disdain for communism and fascism. He was also injured by a streetcar around this time, forcing him to get a prosthetic foot and walk with a limp.
After graduating from Karlsruhe, Teller studied physics under Werner Heisnenbeg at the University of Leipzig. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the quantum mechanical properties of the hydrogen molecular ion and received his Ph.D. in 1930. After graduating, he continued research at the University of Gottingen.
By this time, however, antisemitism was reaching its peak in Nazi Germany. Teller left Germany in 1933 with help from the Jewish Rescue Committee. He spent a short time in England, before moving to Copenhagen. There, he worked under Niels Bohr and got married to a woman named Augusta Maria Harkanyi.
In 1935, he secured a position at George Washington University as Professor of Physics and moved to the United States. There, he began researching nuclear physics with George Gamow, a fellow physicist. In 1941, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States and he began focusing more on the concept of nuclear fission for the war effort.
In 1942, he was invited to a conference led by Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley University. He was introduced to the idea of a fusion bomb by his friend Enrico Fermi and pushed for the development of a fusion bomb at the conference. He was hired to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he helped develop the fission implosion mechanism for a theoretical bomb. After the war ended, he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago.
In 1950, Teller returned to Los Alamos to work on the development of a hydrogen bomb. Little progress occurred until 1951, when Teller used mathematical calculations by Stanislaw Ulam to develop the first design for the H-Bomb that would work. In 1952, he left to work for Berkeley University and the first hydrogen bomb was detonated on November 1, 1952. He was dubbed "father of the hydrogen bomb" by the press and became a celebrity practically overnight.
In 1954, Teller testified against Oppenheimer at a security clearance hearing. He made several statements that questioned Oppenheimer's loyalty to the United States, which eventually led to Oppenheimer's security clearance being stripped. Afterward, Teller became the darling of many politicians and found himself in possession of great political influence.
In 1958, he was appointed director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, serving in the position through 1960. After that, he continued to work as an Associate Director. At the same time, he continued teaching and research at Berkeley. When some politicians proposed a ban on nuclear testing, Teller became a vocal opponent and called for more nuclear development. In 1975, he retired from working at the lab and focused on political ventures.
In the late 1970s, there was a lot of anti-nuclear sentiment led by people like Ralph Nader and Jane Fonda. He had a heart attack in 1979 and took out a two page ad in the Wall Street Journal in which he blamed her for the heart attack and criticized her lack of knowledge about nuclear energy. Soon after, the Three Mile Island incident occurred, further increasing anti-nuclear sentiment in the US.
During the 1980s, Teller was a driving force behind the Strategic Defense Initiative. The program proposed setting up missile defense systems that used lasers to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles. The idea was also endorsed by the Reagan Administration, but was never really implemented. In more recent years, the program has been revitalized by the Bush Administration.
Teller died on September 9, 2003 in Stanford, California.