Little-Known Facts From The World’s First Nuclear Reaction

A decade of the atomic age is commemorated by scientists, from left, Enrico Fermi, Samuel K. Allison and Herbert L. Anderson, as they hold the empty wine bottle from which toast were made, Dec. 2, 1942, at the University of Chicago squash court. AP Photo/Edward Kitch

Julian Hayda, Jerome McDonnell

Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction.

Under the stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szliard, and three dozen other scientists witnessed the reaction. They later raised paper cups of Chianti wine to toast an accomplishment they knew would change the course of humanity. 

“I shook hands with Fermi,” Szilard remembered, “And I said I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind.”

William Lanouette is a historian of the Manhattan Project’s nuclear experiments, and author of Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szliard, the Man Behind the Bomb. He joins Worldview to discuss interesting, little-known details of that fated winter day.