December 2 1942 – Enrico Fermi Creates a Self-Sustaining Nuclear Chain Reaction for the Manhattan Project

December 2 1942 – Enrico Fermi Creates a Self-Sustaining Nuclear Chain Reaction for the Manhattan Project
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*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of all the scientific advancements in the 20th century, only one could be said to have created a massive shift in the political and social realms in an instant: The Manhattan Project. The United States’ quest to develop an atomic bomb achieved the first step in a major innovation when physicist Enrico Fermi started the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction on December 2, 1942 in a makeshift lab at the University of Chicago.

An Italian from Rome, Fermi won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1938 with a series of calculations guiding induced radioactivity (taking a neutral material and using radiation to force a radioactive shift). Leaving for Stockholm for the ceremony with his wife and children, he sailed on to New York City after receiving the award — the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in his homeland left him with no desire to return.

From early 1939 on, Fermi and a team of researchers at Columbia University began working to test the possibility of nuclear fission — the splitting of atoms — after hearing Niels Bohr’s announcement that experiments in Germany proved it was possible. Performing trial after trial and demonstrating the release of immense quantities of energy, the group from Columbia gained the attention of a more secretive collection of brilliant minds: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

Setting up shop at the University of Chicago, Fermi connected with Leo Szilard, an assistant to Albert Einstein and discoverer of the theoretical chain reaction. Taking up space in a squash court below an abandoned football stadium on campus, the team designed a system of cadmium control rods to help manage the reaction of the uranium pellets at the center. The further the long, cylindrical rods were pulled from the simply-designed “core” the more fission would take place.

On December 2, 1942, Chicago Pile-1 (CP-1) — “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers,” as Fermi would later say — was put to work. While Fermi kept a close eye on the measurements, one of his assistants moved the last control rod into place. At 3:25pm, the core began to feed upon itself. Stable and controlled, the uranium pellets at the center had become the first critical mass in history — it would go on producing energy until the fuel was spent without requiring any manipulation. Fermi and his associates had created a nuclear reactor.

Witnessing the achievement of the Fermi-Szilard design, Arthur Compton, a fellow physicist, placed a phone call to the National Defense Research Committee Chairman, James Conant. Speaking in code, he relayed a basic message of success: “The Italian navigator has landed in the New World.”

Armed with the knowledge gained from CP-1, those working on the Manhattan Project were able to understand what it would take to manufacture the necessary amount of nuclear material to produce a weapon. Fermi and Szilard would go on to influence the further development of reactor technology as part of the massive Project team, with Fermi even on hand to observe the Trinity test — the first detonation of a nuclear device — in Socorro, New Mexico in the middle of July 1945.

Also On This Day:

1804 – Napoleon Bonaparte crowns himself Emperor of the French

1908 – Pu Yi becomes takes the throne of China at age two

1971 – The United Arab Emirates is formed

1988 – Benazir Bhutto becomes the first woman sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan

2001 – Enron files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

2nd December, 1777 – British General Howe is said to have planned an attack on General George Washington’s army for Dec 4.

2nd December, 1899 – Philippine-American War: The Battle of Tirad Pass, termed “The Filipino Thermopylae”, was fought in the northern Luzon area of the Philippines.

2nd December, 1927 – Paleoanthropologist Davidson Black announces to the Geological Society of China that the ancient human fossils from Zhoukoudian, China are a new species which he has named ‘Sinanthropus pekinensis’ (now known as ‘Homo erectus’).

2nd December, 1957 – The world’s 1st US large scale nuclear power plant was opened in (Shippingport Penn).

2nd December, 1961 – Fidel Castro declares he’s a Marxist & will lead Cuba to Communism.

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