Nuclear Fission

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.

Declaration of Intention, Number 27081, for Enrico Fermi [Application for U.S. Citizenship]. December 2, 1939. National Archives and Records Administration.

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.

[Albert Einstein, half-length portrait, seated, facing right]. Doris Ulmann, photographer, c1931. PH Filing Series Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

Letter, Franklin D. Roosevelt to J. Robert Oppenheimer thanking the physicist…June 29, 1943. (J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers). Manuscript Division

In this letter, the president thanks Oppenheimer and his colleagues for their ongoing secret atomic research.

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Touro Synagogue

On December 2, 1763, members of the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island witnessed the dedication of the Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue building in what is now the United States—and sole survivor from the colonial era. Designed in the Georgian style by English architect Peter Harrison, the synagogue was named for Isaac Touro, its first Hazzan (prayer leader).

Organized Jewish community life in Newport dates to 1658, when fifteen families emigrated and established a congregation in the growing seaport. Then called Nephuse Israel (Scattered of Israel), it was the second Jewish congregation in the future U.S., and the first in a British colony.

Front and Side Elevations (View from Yard), Touro Synagogue, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, Newport, R.I.. Jack Boucher photographer, 1971. In Touro Synagogue, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, 85 Touro Street, Newport, Newport County, RI. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division
Newport, R.I., 1878. New York: Galt & Hoy, 1878. Cities and Towns. Geography & Map Division
Touro Park, Newport, R.I. c1905. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Newport developed into a thriving commercial center where the Jewish community included a sizeable number of merchants active in the sea trade. By the mid-eighteenth century, Newport’s Jewish congregation, now known as Jeshuat Israel (Salvation of Israel), was ready to build a synagogue structure for its ongoing use. Begun in 1759, the “Jews Synagogue” was designed by Harrison with a neoclassical exterior but an interior closely suited to the needs of Jewish religious practice. Still in use as a synagogue today, the building was designated a National Historic Site in 1946.

On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew congregation of Newport welcomed George Washington to their city. In a pair of letters exchanged with the congregation’s president, Washington penned his most memorable statement on the place of religious freedom in America: “To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance.”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Newport’s temperate climate and scenic location made it a favorite vacation spot for the rich. Newport is filled with “cottages” like Belcourt Castle and The Breakers. Designed by architects like Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by professionals including Frederick Law Olmsted these mansions provided imposing settings for wealthy Americans like Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The Breakers, Vanderbilt Residence, Newport, R.I. c1904. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

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