The first nuclear reactor, explained

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How was the first nuclear reactor born?

As physicists approached the nature of the atom in the 1930s, it became increasingly clear that a large amount of energy could be released through the splitting of atoms. In 1939, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard co-wrote a letter to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, explaining that the discovery could be turned into a powerful weapon and that Nazi scientists likely had the tools to do so.

This launched the Manhattan Project of the United States, a top-secret science mission to learn how to divide the atom and harness its power. But one of the first things on the list was whether it was possible to create and control a nuclear chain reaction.


The project decided to consolidate this effort in one place. Because Chicago had an existing population of high-level physicists and chemists, was located away from both coasts, and had space and housing for the project, the nuclear reactor project was headquartered at the University of Chicago and was codenamed “the metallurgical laboratory”.

The metallurgical laboratory was headed by Professor Arthur Holly Compton, Nobel Laureate and Dean of Physical Sciences at UChicago, and included the most eminent physicists, chemists and engineers of the time – including Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner. Hundreds of people were recruited to “help with the war effort”, though most were told very little about the details.

After a series of smaller experiments to prove the concept, work began on the reactor that would actually support the chain reaction. It was originally planned to be built west of the city of Chicago, but construction difficulties slowed progress, so Compton decided they would go ahead and build the reactor where many experiments had taken. place until then – an old squash court below. Stagg Field’s abandoned football is located at the University of Chicago.

It is debated whether University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins knew the experiment was going to take place, although Compton said he had not told him. The mayor of Chicago and other elected officials were not informed.



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