On this day in 1942, Chicago Pile-1 (or CP-1) initiated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction under the football grandstands at Chicago University. The very first successful nuclear reactor, CP-1 was built by a team of brains led by Enrico Fermi, an American physicist. While CP-1 was a huge leap forward in terms of nuclear power production, it was built with the intent of beating Nazi Germany’s race towards the nuclear bomb. Many on Fermi’s team – codenamed the Manhattan Project – had concerns about the safety of CP-1, which at the time was “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers” according to Fermi. But the Italian-American scientist had so much faith in his calculations that the reactor was first tested in a densely-populated area – downtown Chicago. The Project, which cost over $23 Billion (2019 adjusted) and involved test sites in 30 sites across North America and the UK, resulted in the construction of Little Boy and Fat Man – the “nukes” dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th of August 1945.
With the Manhattan Project and the bombings of Japan, the US demonstrated to the world that this new superpower could essentially erase its enemies with the press of a big red button. Since their rise to international dominance, Americans have historically signalled the beginnings of new eras with vicious demonstrations of violence: just as Little Boy and Fat Man provided a demonstration of American capabilities going into the Cold War, Operation Desert Storm in 1991 reminded the world of American dominance going with the collapse of the USSR. Ironically, the Manhattan Project also gave nuclear power to the Soviet Union – “Atomic Spies” Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall’s intel gathered from the Americans massively benefited the Russian nuclear program.
Human-initiated nuclear reactions brought the power of god to inherently fallible and irrational human beings. With the advent of the nuclear age, the world got a lot smaller. Nuclear proliferation and the possibility of “mutually assured destruction” (tit-for-tat retaliation promised by the US and the USSR during the Cold War) ensured that, in the advent of a nuclear war, humanity would effectively have nowhere to run. To quote Albert Einstein, one of the architects of nuclear power: “Mankind invented the atomic bomb; but no mouse would ever construct a mousetrap.”