On the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the Atomic Age began inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. There, headed by Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction was engineered. The result—sustainable nuclear energy—led to creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear power plants—two of the twentieth century’s most powerful and controversial achievements.
“…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…”
Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.
Four years earlier, Fermi had received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Like so many intellectuals who had left fascist Europe, Fermi came to the United States and worked at Columbia University.
Fermi learned from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr about the findings of Lise Meitner. Meitner had worked in Germany with physicists Otto Hahn (Hahn later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Fritz Strassmann and had discovered the process of nuclear disintegration. She worked in the field of nuclear physics and chemistry with her nephew, Otto Frisch; they named the process fission.
Fermi and the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (who left Hungary for Germany, then fled to London, before moving to the U.S.) realized that the first split or fission could cause a second, and so on–in a series of chain reactions expanding in geometric progression. Szilard and fellow Hungarian émigré Eugene Wigner persuaded Albert Einstein to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt and request that atomic research receive a high priority. In fact, Szilard was responsible for the establishment of the Manhattan Project.
Preparing the nation for war, Roosevelt agreed. In December 1941, as the U.S. entered World War II, the project moved to Chicago where Fermi, Walter Zinn, Herbert Anderson, Arthur Compton, and Leo Szilard were the principal team members. Within four years, the Manhattan Project, supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Compton, and Fermi, developed the atomic bomb.
- Examine the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. Use the special presentation Alexander Graham Bell: Inventor and Scientist to access documents, drawings, and images pertinent to Bell’s scientific career.
- View The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress to read about their glides and powered flights as well as about their other scientific experiments and data.
- Read also about the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph and the development of telegraph systems in the U.S. and abroad in Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919.
- Read about American scientists from Benjamin Banneker to Willard Libby. Search Today in History on astronomer, physicist, mathematician, scientist, and science.
- The Nobel Prize is given annually in the areas of Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, Economics, Peace and Literature. Search Today in History on the term Nobel Prize to learn about Americans accorded this honor including Willard Frank “Wild Bill” Libby, who won the prize for chemistry, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. (Nobel Prize for Peace) and William Faulkner (Nobel Prize for Literature).
- Search on Manhattan Project or nuclear fission in the digital collection Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscape Survey. You can view photos, data, and caption pages on buildings involved in America’s nuclear reactor research.
- Read From the Manhattan Project to Chernobyl: A Guide to Exhibited Materials, a Science Reference Guide from the Science, Technology & Business Division to learn more about the Atomic Age.