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Friday Flashback: Enrico Fermi Creates First Controlled Nuclear Reaction at the University of Chicago

By Chris Bentley in News on Dec 2, 2011 8:00PM

A drawing of CP-1, the site of the world's first self-sustaining, artificial nuclear chain reaction.

On this day in 1942, a University of Chicago team led by Enrico Fermi created the first controlled nuclear chain reaction, in converted squash courts under Stagg Field, the University’s football stadium.

That achievement led to the development of nuclear energy and the atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project, of which Fermi was a member.

Today the site, known as Chicago Pile-1, is a National Historic Landmark. The pile was dismantled in February 1943 and reassembled as CP-2 in Argonne Forest, a Cook County Forest Preserve. Argonne National Laboratory grew up around the reactor but did not officially exist until 1946.

The original experiment was kept under wraps. But archival records and recordings, including these from the federal Office of Scientific and Technical Information, survive.

In June, the University even unearthed a time capsule planted by Fermi and then-university president Robert Maynard Hutchins, though its contents didn't quite live up to its lore.

Physicist Arthur Compton reported the reaction’s success to James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee in Washington, D.C. In a coded phone call, Compton said, “The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world.”

Fermi won a Nobel prize for his nuclear research in 1938, at age 37. The prize came just in time. The Italian physicist brought his family to Stockholm for the awards ceremony, from which they fled Mussolini’s fascism for the United States. Fermi became a U.S. citizen in 1944.

He died of cancer ten years later at 53.