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Celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1)


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Argonne's Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Atoms forge a Scientific Revolution

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The Italian Navigator Lands

It was a flawless execution — achieved one year ahead of schedule. Compton noted that the chain reaction was "slow enough to be controlled" and later recalled hearing the "sigh of relief from the suicide squad." "Atomic power!" he wrote. "It had been produced, kept under control, and stopped. The power liberated was less than that needed to light an electric lamp, but that power marked a new era in man's history."

Compton's phone call to James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, was in code, though not a prearranged one: "The Italian navigator has landed in the New World." "How were the natives?" Conant asked. "Very friendly." Thus Compton conveyed his recognition of the success of the pile as the fastest way to harness nuclear energy. (The first Italian navigator discovered the New World in 1492; the second found another in 1942.)

The signed Chianti bottle

The signed Chianti bottle. (Click the image to see a larger photo.)
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For a close-up of the Met Lab crew signatures, go here.

Wigner brought a bottle of Chianti to mark the occasion; most of the Met Lab scientists and crew signed their names to the wine bottle's basket. Toasts were drunk from paper cups, but the celebration was a muted one. All knew the next step was the bomb. There were other concerns. Were they the first to succeed? Had their secret been kept from the Germans? The secret had been kept — even from the wives of the scientists. At a social gathering a few days later, Laura Fermi noticed her husband being bombarded with congratulations. She wanted to know why, but no one would give her a reason. Woods finally whispered to her: "He has sunk a Japanese admiral!" When Laura Fermi asked her husband if that was true, he replied, "Did I?" The obvious next question was asked: "So you didn't sink a Japanese admiral?" Without changing his sincere expression, Fermi said, "Didn't I?" Laura Fermi would not learn of the events of December 2 for another two-and-a-half years. After its success with the chain reaction, parts of the Metallurgical Project moved to Oak Ridge, Tenn., Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, N.M. There, the military aspects of devising a bomb went forward under the high-priority, $2 billion "Manhattan Project" — the biggest national investment until mankind's voyage to the moon.

Next: The Chicago Pile 1 Pioneers

Celebrating Chicago Pile 1 70th anniversary

Related Information


Multimedia

  • CP-1 Flickr Gallery (by Argonne National Laboratory)
  • Argonne nuclear pioneers: Chicago Pile 1 on YouTube (by Argonne National Laboratory) On December 2, 1942, 49 scientists, led by Enrico Fermi, made history when Chicago Pile 1 (CP-1) went critical and produced the world's first self-sustaining, controlled nuclear chain reaction. Seventy years later, two of the last surviving CP-1 pioneers, Harold Agnew and Warren Nyer, recall that historic day.

Last Modified: Wed, September 25, 2013 9:10 PM

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