Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

The Department Of Energy posted 21 photos onto its Flickr page a few weeks ago about Chicago Pile-1, the site of the first human-made, self-sustaining nuclear reaction, located in Chicago.

Built under the west stands of the Stagg football field of the University of Chicago and initiated on 2 December 1942, the Chicago Pile-1 was the world's first nuclear reactor. It consisted of a large, monolithic pile of uranium pellets and graphite blocks, with cadmium, indium, and silver control rods, but no radiation shield and cooling system. As the supervisior of the chain reaction, physicist Enrico Fermi described the CP-1 as "a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers." Over the years, a myth has persisted that "all the people at the first reactor died of cancer." Argonne National Laboratory tracked all those people who worked at the site, however, and, for those who passed away noted the cause of death. The myth was proved to be false.

This is how Argonne remembers the CP-1 criticality:

Work on the final experimental pile—the 31st—began on November 16, 1942. It was a prodigious effort. Physicists and staffers, working around the clock, built a lattice of 57 layers of uranium metal and uranium oxide embedded in graphite blocks. A wooden structure supported the graphite pile. Fermi was reading "Winnie the Pooh" to improve his English so the instruments were given names of characters in the Pooh stories—Tigger, Piglet, Kanga and Roo. A Fermi protégé, Leona Woods—the only woman on the project—took careful measurements as the pile grew. Fermi, stripped to the waist, was black and glistening; Hilberry said he could have played Othello.

December 2, 1942, the day wartime gas rationing began, was bitterly cold. The pile was ready for testing. It contained 22,000 uranium slugs and had consumed 380 tons of graphite, 40 tons of uranium oxide, six tons of uranium metal. It cost an estimated $2.7 million. The experiment began at 9:45 a.m. 49 people were in attendance: Fermi, Compton, Szilard, Zinn, Hilberry, Woods; the young carpenter who built the graphite blocks and cadmium rods; members of the laboratory's health and protection unit; students and other scientists. Just before noon, Fermi declared he was hungry and called time out for lunch. All minds were on the experiment, but no one discussed it. At 2 p.m., Fermi's team was back at the court.

The three-man "suicide squad"—part of the automatic safety control system—stood by to douse the reactor if anything went wrong. There was a main control. And there was ZIP, a weighted safety rod devised by Zinn; it would automatically trip if neutron intensity became too high. There was an emergency ZIP, tied to the balcony rail, which Zinn operated by hand. And there was SCRAM—the safety control rod ax-man. That was Hilberry. He stood ready, ax in hand, to cut the rope. "I felt silly as hell," he later recalled. "This was a lot of nonsense. We all knew the scientific work would be all right." At 3:53 p.m., a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was achieved for the first time ever. It had taken 28 minutes.

CP-1 during assembly. Photograph shows the 7th layer of graphite blocks and edges of the 6th layer.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


This is the only photograph made during the construction of the first nuclear reactor.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


One of at least twenty-nine similar uranium-graphite lattice structures.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


Exponential pile. At least 29 exponential piles were constructed in 1942 under the West Stands of Stagg Field.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


Positively no smoking.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


Birthplace of the Atomic Age, the Squash Court under the West Stands of Stagg Field, University of Chicago.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


This is one of two drawings of Chicago Pile 1 made in 1946 by artist Melvin A. Miller.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


Stagg Field, University of Chicago, circa 1957.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


Plaque at Stagg Field, University of Chicago.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


Enrico Fermi at the dedication of the plaque at Stagg Field, University of Chicago.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV


View of west end of Stagg Field, The University of Chicago, as it looked during World War II.

Rare Manhattan Project Photos Show The Birth Of The Atomic Age

Photo: ENERGY.GOV