The Manhattan Project

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HistoryNational Museum of Nuclear Science & History

20th Anniversary of the Atomic Age

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In this radio segment, notable physicists who were present during the first nuclear chain reaction of the Chicago Pile-1 on December 2, 1942 recall the events of that day. The historic occasion, which took place under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago, ushered in the atomic age.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
December 2, 1962
Location of the Interview: 
Unknown
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Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day a group of scientists, led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi, operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was Dr. Norman Hilberry former director of Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. This is how he explains his part in that day.

Dr. Norman Hilberry: December 2, as far as I was concerned marked the culmination of a lot of experiments. Now true, that day I stood there with an axe supposedly to cut a rope, which would pull a rod in and shut down the pile. But there was no question in my mind as to what the success of the reactor was going to be. And it worked that way. My problem was: what do we do next?

Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day a group of scientists, led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi, operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was Dr. William J. Sturm, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. This is how he explains his part in that day.

Dr. William Sturm: Years before the burden was shared by the rest of humanity we had lived with the knowledge that nuclear energy and nuclear warfare might be possible. This day was likely to produce important confirmation or rejection of these hopes and fears. All preliminary measurements completed, graphite and uranium supplies adequate, we had constructed what might be the first reactor. I approached the reactor control board closely with a prudent eye on the reactor scram button, gathered, recorded, and relayed to Fermi the digital data concerned with the reactors response to control rod motion. Fermi’s experiment succeeded. Man entered a new age of heightened promise and intensified fears.

Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day a group of scientists, led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi, operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was Robert G. Nobles, a technical specialist at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. This is how he explains his part in that day.

Robert Nobles: I was a member of a group conducting experiments to determine the correct size and the arrangement of graphite and uranium in the reactor. Our group also played an active part in the actual construction of the “pile,” we called it. To me, this day of December 2 was a climax to the preceding summer and fall of hard work. My part was finished; I could relax and watch the master scientist Enrico Fermi take over and demonstrate that his theories and calculations were valid and that our preliminary work was well done.

Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day a group of scientists, led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi, operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was David R. Rudolph of the Chicago Operations Office of the US Atomic Energy Commission. This is how he explains his part in that day. 

David Rudolph: The night before, I had just issued the last of the uranium metal, which was now sealed in this large graphite pile. Now my work was at a lull, but the tension in the building was quite real; it felt like being in a hurricane. I went to lunch early and got back early. The rest of the group was still out at lunch, and the quiet in the building was like being in the eye of a hurricane. That afternoon they were going to see if the pile could convert some of this uranium into energy and plutonium.

Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day a group of scientists, led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi, operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was Anthony J. [Tony] Matz, a receiving and store supervisor at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. This is how he explains his part in that day.

Tony Matz: I was a member of the support group; there were four high school graduates assigned to assist us in handling and moving many of the materials used to build a reactor. On the eventful afternoon we sent them home at Dr. Walter Zinn’s request, having turned the heat off as an excuse so that their suspicions would not be aroused. Dr. Zinn – one of the leading scientists – had informed me that he did not want too many people involved. I spent most of the afternoon pacing the corridor adjacent to the squash court where the reactor was assembled, waiting for the mystery to unfold.

Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day, a group of scientists led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was Robert E. Johnson, executive assistant of the Reactor Engineering Division at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. This is how he explains his part in that day.

Robert Johnson: This day was to me very cold, quiet, and strange. By contrast, prior days had been very busy. We all had been performing various tasks toward the assembly of the first atomic reactor. On this day practically, everyone had vanished into the rackets court, leaving the balance of the west end deserted. Two of us finding this strange situation stationed ourselves in the outside pressing room adjacent to the rackets court; there we waited for word from within the court. Our primary effort was conversation and attempt to keep warm. 

Interviewer: December 2, 1962 marks the twentieth anniversary of the first nuclear chain reaction achieved at the University of Chicago. That day a group of scientists, led by the late Dr. Enrico Fermi, operated man’s first atomic reactor. The occasion ushered in the atomic age. Present at that historic moment was Dr. Gerard S. Pawlicki, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. This is how he explains his part in that day.

Dr. Gerard Pawlicki: Two of us were seated at the remote control console for the reactor. The console was underneath the uppermost seats at the north end of the stadium some 200 feet from the reactor. In our position, we saw the progress of the experiment as it was indicated on meters and recorders. We also heard the activity in the reactor room over the intercom system. We had come dressed for the big occasion, and we hoped that the electronic instruments for which our group had been responsible would not fail and interfere with Dr. Fermi’s experiment.