Nuclear Engineering Division


Nuclear Energy

Nuclear Reactors
Designed by Argonne

CP-1 Anniversary

Argonne's Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Met Lab & Argonne’s Early History

Historical News Releases

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Reactors designed by Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne's Nuclear Science and Technology Legacy

Atoms forge a Scientific Revolution

  • Atoms forge a scientific revolution:
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A Home for Heffalump and Pooh

The U.S. government's emphasis on "atoms for war" did not preclude interest in peaceful uses of atomic energy among nuclear scientists. They dreamed of new worlds where nuclear reactors would produce unbelievably cheap electrical power, a world in which nuclear science would revolutionize industrial production, medical practice and agricultural harvests. Fermi clearly recognized that nuclear fission would lead to ever-expanding peaceful applications that would surpass its military uses. Those remaining at Met Lab at that time—including Fermi, Seaborg, Szilard and Zinn—began to investigate the civilian potential for nuclear fission and transuranic elements. As with later space technology, continuing research and what followed at Argonne would produce spin-offs of benefit to the population at large.

Quonset huts in 1948 at Argonne's new site near Lemont, Ill.

Quonset huts were quickly set up at the lab site near Lemont, Ill. (Click the image to see a larger photo.)

The Met Lab began moving to Site A at Palos Hills in February 1943. The facilities were renamed the Argonne Laboratory for the woods that surrounded and secluded them. Fermi was the first division director of Argonne Laboratory—until he joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1945—and Zinn was his assistant. The reactor Chicago Pile 1 was dismantled, reconstructed at Site A and renamed Chicago Pile 2. The counting room at the one-building site contained instruments that were given whimsical names like Heffalump and Winnie the Pooh. According to Elmer Rylander, a scientist at the site, "A favorite pastime during the first winter at Site A was playing a game called `peggity.' It involved moving wooden pegs on a board with a cross formation of holes. Fermi was its chief proponent."

On July 1, 1946, the laboratory was formally chartered as Argonne National Laboratory to conduct "cooperative research in nucleonics." It was a model for the U.S. national laboratory system: the first attempt to establish a new kind of scientific research institution—a government-funded organization that would apply academic research traditions to problem-solving in the national interest. Walter Zinn was its first director. A tall blond Canadian, Zinn was determined and self-confident; he was also extremely demanding and tended to be hardheaded. Some of these attributes would stand him in good stead during the laboratory's formative years. Glenn Seaborg recalled the early days during the laboratory's 25th anniversary celebration: "The Met Lab, then, provided a strong and valuable heritage for the new Argonne National Laboratory. The Met Lab experience engendered a sense of mission and a standard of excellence which every great laboratory must have. Thus from its very origins Argonne has operated from a principle that others are only now beginning to understand—namely, that the scientists' responsibilities extend far beyond the technical data of the laboratory. These are worthy traditions."

The initial responsibility of Argonne National Laboratory was to study peaceful rather than military uses of atomic power. It was to conduct basic research in medicine and biology, physics, reactor analysis, applied mathematics, and nuclear engineering. On December 26, 1947, the laboratory's role was broadened considerably. At the request of the Atomic Energy Commission, Argonne assumed the development of reactors for the nation's nuclear energy program.

A new and much larger location at Lemont, Ill., six miles from Site A, became the laboratory's new home. Staff began moving there in August 1948. The following year, the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho was established to test various reactors—reactors with separate missions and with distinct personalities.

Next: Reactors: Modern Day Alchemy

Celebrating Chicago Pile 1 70th anniversary

Related Information


  • 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 9:11 PM

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