What happened at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project?
Next week marks the seventy fifth anniversary of atomic bombs being dropped on japan. It's one of the most controversial decisions in us. History research resulted in the weapons of mass. Destruction took place at several locations but chicago became one of the main science centers. I spoke with writer. Terry mcclellan mcandrew about the work done in the state and the reasons chicago was a manhattan project site while there were several reasons wine wise. It was the home of arthur holly compton who was a physicist who was already working on some of this chicago is also seen as centrally located in the country. So that other manhattan project. Scientists around the country could excess it fairly readily also the university of chicago approved of being a manhattan project site and supported it. This work going on people unaware of it in a very busy location in a major city. It seems dangerous it does doesn't it It was a secret project and secrecy was something that was drilled into everyone's minds who worked on the manhattan project there have been some oral histories taking of people who worked on the project. And one was of william. J nicholson who helped. Create the pile as it was called. That was what became the nuclear reactor that developed the first self sustaining nuclear reaction at the university of chicago and he talks about this need for secrecy and how it was drilled into all of staff there there were known agents of the german government in and around the university of chicago and we were told that and that We were not to reveal anything of what you do. Don't take up with strangers If you're having a sandwich someplace or beer or whatever Watch out that people who may engage you in conversation. would be damaging to the war effort and that the they may actually be the enemy so one huge question that comes up about this manhattan project site at the university of chicago in the in. The middle of this metropolitan side is where danger. Was there a danger to the university chicago illinois even the mid west region and the physicists. I spoke to said in essence no the nuclear reactor that the scientists were developing at the chicago at chicago was very low powered in comparison to what we see today at most. It could have powered a two hundred watt lightbulb therefore it was not putting out the kind of radiation that one of our nuclear directors today could could do in there for the harm was not significant. Now there was some danger to the people who were in the room where that nuclear reactor was working one of the dangers. Although the scientists in charge had done innumerable calculations to make sure the danger was very small. There was still a worried that the nuclear reactor could get out of control and they took protection against that and they had what they called the suicide squad two to three men who stood atop the nuclear reactor with the cadman solution. So that in case it did run away and start to melt down. They would pour this over the pile and hopefully it would stop but as one. Scientists told me the suicide squad would not live to tell about it. The first nuclear reaction took place there and it was momentous you know especially when you think about it in terms of what would come later but at the time from what i read in your story to those folks sorta matter of fact it was a big deal but their reaction was a bit anti-climactic. They basically broke out a bottle of chianti and also signed the basket that the bottle of chianti was in and that was pretty much it. The physicists i talked to said that the lead scientists on the reactor enrico fermi was so sure he had done endless calculations he carried his slide rule around with him for those who don't know what a slide rule is. That was your pre computer calculator in the days and he cared around with him. He did endless calculations to make sure he knew what was going to happen with this nuclear reactor and so it went exactly as planned and in essence while it was an enormous event. It changed our lives. It changed science and international relations forever. The scientists there. Just pretty much congratulated. Each other broke out a bottle