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The following podcast contains some graphic descriptions which some listeners might find upsetting. In a disused squash court buried beneath an old football stadium in the center of Chicago, the world's first nuclear reactor lies in wait. Twenty five feet wide the size of a two car garage. It resembles a giant black egg haphazardly propped up by wooden scaffolding. This is pile one a team of physicists has been working for nearly a year to get to this point. Hard, dirty work.
Every surface is slippery with a coating of graphite. The light is dim underground and the scientists are almost invisible. Except for the occasional flash of eyes or teeth, 40 tons of graphite have been cut and drilled to follow Leo Sellards carefully designed lattice pattern and assembled under Enrico Fermi precise direction.
Tiny uranium orbs dot the structure, which is intersected with long cadmium control rods placed to absorb stray neutrons and prevent meltdown.
On the 1st of December 1942, the scientists laid the fifty seventh layer of bricks firmly Czechs calculations on his slide rule and confirms tomorrow Pyle one will be ready to test nearby and Eckardt Hall, an old Gothic style building near the central quadrangle of the University of Chicago. Leo Szilard gets up from his desk. He wraps his coat tightly around a short round flame, guarding against the bitter cold of the Chicago winter.
What his colleagues are building in the squash court is not a bomb, but an experiment designed to do exactly what a bomb does. It will trigger a nuclear chain reaction, the very first in human history. If Salade and Fermi's calculations are off, they will likely all die taking a good chunk of Chicago with them. As he trudges through the snow and slush, bracing his body against the winds, Leo Szilard contemplates asking a friend to join him for a second dinner.
Why not? It might be his last. My name is Emily Strasser from the BBC World Service, this is the bomb episode for Pearl Harbor.
P.O. Box 16, 63, Santa Fe, New Mexico, a humble sounding address, the normal sounding address, and yet in the 1940s, this mailbox was shared by 5000 people. That's right, P.O. Box 16, 63 was the single mailing address for an entire secret city nestled in the mountains of the New Mexican desert. The city was called Los Alamos and it wasn't on any major. Roads are listed on any maps. That's because Los Alamos was built to hide the top secret bomb building project.
But it's hard to contain secrets. The mailman didn't know about Los Alamos, but he must have thought something funny was going on at P.O. Box 16 63. After all, that was an awful lot of mail for one little mailbox. The nuclear plant where my grandfather worked was also in a secret city, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to maintain both secrecy and efficiency. Nearly all of the Oak Ridge workers, from scientists to secretaries to construction workers, along with their families, lived within the fenced boundaries of the city.
They weren't even told what they were doing.
A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20000 tons of TNT.
The people of Oak Ridge only learned what they had been building when President Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima over the radio.
The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid, many manyfold.
Only the top scientist and highest level managers had been fully briefed. Though he was a chemist, my grandfather was not told he was building a bomb. He knew that he was working with uranium, but even that word was forbidden. Still, after the announcement of the bombing, the city's librarian leafed through the library's encyclopedia. The volume with the letter, you fell open to uranium. The spine was cracked where it had been read so many times. The people of Oak Ridge knew something.
And I wonder sometimes what my grandfather might have guessed. Secrets do have a way of getting out. Often it's the dangers we don't expect and can't foresee that alter our lives the most radically, the chain of events that leads Leo Szilard to that tense wintery walk has its roots almost a year earlier, an ocean away after President Roosevelt has given the nod to action on uranium research, a uranium committee is set up. Leo Szilard attends the first meeting and the scientists are grudgingly promised six thousand dollars to build a reactor.
But then. Nothing, the funds are delayed and meetings are stalled for months. Until something happens that finally makes the U.S. take the war seriously. Pearl Harbor is located in a shallow basin on the largest Hawaiian island. This makes it an ideal base for U.S. military operations in the Pacific and also a perfect target.
That's Cynthia Kelley, president and founder of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. The majority of the U.S. Pacific fleet was in Pearl Harbor at seven a.m. on Sunday morning, December seven. Radio operators detect what they think might be 50 planes, but Navy officers assure them that this is simply a fleet of American B seventeens. It was a Sunday morning, the better part of the Pacific fleet was snugly anchored in the Hawaiian basin and it was really largely unmanned that morning.
This is Jeannette Kornet. She's the author of a number of books about World War Two and the development of the atom bomb. The first wave of 183 planes caught the Americans by complete surprise. It was absolute chaos on the ground as the Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes swooped in in two waves of attacks, Japanese aircraft bombarded American battleships. They tore through cruisers and target ships and mine layers, and then they blew up the battleship Arizona. Lifting it clean out of the water, then they bombed the Oklahoma.
It was just one battleship after another.
The Arizona's entire explosive stores were detonated and it ripped the ship to smithereens and blew over a thousand men into the air, creating sort of rainfall of body parts, grisly sight beyond belief. They were burning, screaming men in the water, frantically attempting to swim to shore, trying to make their way through the pitch black smoke and burning oil on the water.
This was shocking news. Almost the entire U.S. Pacific fleet. You know, sunk on the peaceful Sunday morning with no war declared, this was quite a declaration of war. In the United States, people react with shock and grief, there's a sense of outrage not just at the loss of life, but that this happened on U.S. soil.
The very next day, the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addresses Congress yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The war in Europe had seemed distant foreign.
Now its personal hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unfolding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph. So help us God. I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December seven, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.
This is now truly a world war. And the bomb becomes a top strategic priority for the U.S. government.
Once the United States enters World War Two, leadership shifts to more famous scientists and in February 1942, Salade and his team moves to Chicago.
That's William Leinwand, author of Genius in the Shadows. And at the University of Chicago is set up what's called the metallurgical lab. That was the code name, also known as the meth lab.
The name was actually kind of a misnomer intended to confuse the enemy into thinking that it was just some sort of sleepy metals research facility.
Arthur Holly Compton is chosen to direct the research. And as the head of the physics department at the University of Chicago, it was decided to move the team to Chicago.
News of the move does not go down.
Well, this is a shift for Salade, who has been with Fermoy running things for years. And suddenly they're part of a much bigger and much more decentralized organization. As usual, with Zijlaard, there are immediately political problems. His nose is out of joint because Zijlaard thought when he first spoke to Compton that he and Ferme would be in charge of the work and it would take place at Columbia. Compton then made an executive decision that he would be in charge of the work and it would take place on his home campus of Chicago.
In the earliest days following FDA's establishment of the uranium committee, Salaheddin, his colleague Enrico Fermi are at the heart of the action. They're invited to key strategic meetings. And even with just a scant amount of government funding, they have continued working independently to make progress. But as the program gathers momentum and the possibility of turning a nuclear chain reaction into an atomic bomb transforms from a fringe idea into an inevitability, the stakes become too high to leave the project in the hands of these foreign scientists, both enemy aliens working independently.
The U.S. government wants more control and the men in power need this project to be in the hands of people they trust. But Leo Salade is not about to take a backseat. Not after all the time and effort he has spent and thinking about how to make a bomb and what it means. LA doesn't just want to keep control. He needs to he knows the fate of the world may depend on what happens with this bomb.
The scientific leadership may be determined to reduce his influence, but he is not going to make it easy on them. He packs his bag where the bomb goes. He goes. Leo Szilard still feels it is urgent to beat the Germans to the bomb. The fear was that Germany was far ahead of our efforts, we were kind of slow to get started. We felt they were two years ahead and the Germans were now we knew they were killing millions of people just in the course of the ordinary war.
And gradually people knew what was happening to the Jewish population. The war, meanwhile, is intensifying, but there are some encouraging developments for the allies. Hitler's invasion of Russia carries echoes of Napoleon's failed attempt, the Russian winter is a deadly foe. Although Japan has taken over a huge portion of the Pacific, the US scored a decisive victory at the Battle of Midway, permanently damaging the Japanese fleet, Zijlaard has finally achieved his goal of establishing a program dedicated to developing and funding the bomb.
But nothing is how he pictured it. He's living in Chicago at the peak of a global war. He has the full weight of the U.S. government behind his ideas. But this brings an equal amount of bureaucracy.
The need to hold on to this potentially world destroying technology has never been greater, but he can feel his control slipping away.
Salade had a kind of allergy to authority figures, so not only is he not in charge and a lot of physicists who he thinks are new to the work are being brought in over him and he feels a bit shoved aside. There's also the growing military presence and the bureaucratic constraints that they're being asked to work under.
And this he has a real problem with. Then in June of 1942, the U.S. Army takes over their research in what is later called the Manhattan Project, heading the Manhattan Project was General Leslie Groves. Leo Szilard, now 44 years old, is small and round. He looks like an owl peering out from behind his spectacles. They could not be less alike, like Leslie Groves was a West Point graduate. He was frustrated with his assignment to work on the Manhattan Project.
He wanted to advance and he would much prefer a command position in the European theater.
Up to this point, Salade has managed to make the diplomacy of his new boss, Arthur Compton, work in his favor with Gross's arrival. It becomes clear that all is about to change.
Groves, in some ways, was the unlikeliest person to be put in charge of the bomb project. But from the military's point of view, he was perfect. He was an aggressive, supremely self-confident military leader.
He had earned a formidable reputation for overseeing the massive construction of the Pentagon.
And he had no patience with someone like Salade Groves was authoritarian, rather gruff in his demeanor, and had little interest or respect.
And the scientists, Leslie Groves and Leo Szilard, loathe each other on first sight. Literally, I think two days before Gross took command of the Manhattan Project, Salada has written one of his typical sort of 11 page memos entitled What is Wrong With US? Raising his usual problems with the Medlab, complaining about compartmentalization and how it was impeding progress and there was too much secrecy and that they were moving too slowly and then threw in his usual mash up of political fears and anxieties and warning about a postwar race for power.
Anyway, two days later, General Groves takes over and becomes aware of Zijlaard and his memo and is immediately displeased.
This irked Groves no, and he liked military manners and he liked discipline and he liked discretion.
Groves rejects all of psyllids ideas.
And just like that, Zijlaard is powerless. The man at the top of this ever expanding project aren't interested in his ideas anymore, Salade makes a strategic and dangerous decision. Salade thought that he should get some compensation for the fact that he has the world's first chain reaction, patent Salade still holds the patents to the technology essential to the bond program.
He patented the nuclear chain reaction almost a decade ago, and now he asserts that ownership groves has salade removed from the project until the patent dispute can be settled.
He viewed Zijlaard as insubordinate and an inveterate troublemaker who could not be trusted to keep the top secret work confidential. And above all, Groves was driven with a need for security and secrecy. And he actually drafted a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson. That's a lot to be interned for the duration of the war as an enemy alien grows, becomes convinced that Zijlaard is a spy.
This means he would be essentially imprisoned without trial. Salade isn't just at risk of losing his place in the bomb project. He's at risk of losing his liberty.
The only reason he'd taken these ideas to the government in the first place was because he wanted a defensive weapon against Nazi Germany. Now the people running things wanted it to be an offensive weapon against Japan.
You know, it's strange. The language we use when it comes to war weapons, we're told, are there to keep us safe, to help us defend ourselves. Do weapons change depending on whose hands they're in, or is it just our perceptions that change? We're fearful of the so-called enemy and we're relieved when people like us have weapons. By taking his ideas to Franklin Roosevelt, Salade had been trying to create a deterrent against the atomic ambitions of the Nazis.
He'd hoped that it would make the world safer to put weapons in the hands of a nation like America, a nation that espouses values of equality and justice. Now he's starting to feel like he might have been wrong, and he's beginning to see firsthand how the reality of those ideals are practiced is far more complicated and not equally shared by all. Salad is not prepared to leave the bomb in the hands of men like Groves. It goes against everything he stands for.
Five weeks later, the patent dispute lingers alongside the threat of retaliation from Groves, but the reactor is ready to go. On the morning of December 2nd, 1942, Salade picks up his newspaper, the State Department reports that two million Jews have been killed in Europe. Another five million are at risk. Jews like Leo Zijlaard and Enrico Fermi, his wife Laura, and many of their closest friends and colleagues. The full extent of these horrors won't be known until after the concentration camps are liberated, but this news is still shocking.
It is sickening to realize just how ruthless the Nazis have been in their campaign against the Jewish people and how many people have been killed as a result.
The experiment moves forward, but a somber air hangs over the proceedings, the nuclear reactor design came to be called a pile because what they try to do is to suspend spheres of uranium in a structure of graphite.
Pyle is a nickname devised by FERME, who is still getting to grips with the English language, but the name sticks Chicago Pyle one is essentially fermions zijlaard scheme to use carbon as a moderator to slow down neutrons so that a chain reaction could be achieved. The problem is that under normal circumstances, most of the neutrons produced in fission escape into the air or absorbed by matter before they have a chance to act as uranium splitters. So Fermi and Zijlaard decide to build an atomic pile made of uranium and very pure graphite in stacks.
Layers of very pure graphite bricks would alternate with layers of graphite embedded with lumps of uranium, and this would form an atomic pile. It had to be big. They didn't know how big really when they started.
The pile in Chicago is built under an abandoned football stadium in a squash court in the center of one of America's biggest cities.
Fermoy says don't worry that it's in the middle of the campus. The probability of an accident is minimal.
The checks take all morning, Fermoy is in charge here, style, slow and methodical, he's confident in his calculations, but he is all too aware that the lives of everyone in that room and thousands of Chicago citizens depend on the accuracy of his psyllids work above the squash court as a balcony where people used to watch the squash games. And it's there that FERME and Salade and the other scientists are assembled to put this first pile into operation. By the time they were done, they had 57 layers of graphite piled up and they use something like 80000 pounds of uranium oxide at 12000, 400 pounds of uranium metal.
So the materials involved were fantastically expensive, running to more than a million dollars. So this was one hell of an expensive experiment. At first you could hear the sound of the neutron counter clickety click, click, click, click. Then it clicks came more and more rapidly, and after a while, they began to merge into a roar that countered couldn't follow anymore. That was a moment switched to the track record of. When the switch was made, everyone watched in sudden silence as the mounting deflection of the recorder's pen.
It was an awesome silence. Everyone realized the significance of that switch. We were in the high intensity regime and the counters were unable to cope with the situation anymore. Again and again, the scale of the recorder had to be changed to accommodate the neutron intensity, which was increasing more and more rapidly. Suddenly, Fermi raised his hand. The pile has gone critical. After Fermoy shut the reactor down, there was complete silence in the room, there was no cheering.
The moment was far too monumental. And the achievement far too profound. It's been nearly 10 years since Leo Szilard crossed a street in London and envisioned a nuclear chain reaction. He was told it was impossible. He was told it couldn't be done through perseverence, contacts and luck. Here he stands. His chain reaction is a reality.
For the first time in history, humans are close to harnessing the power of the atom, releasing the energies that bind a nucleus together and using them with deadly intent. They have created something, releasing the power of the atom for the first time. The control rods slips back into place. They checked the measurements. They're safe. The experiment is complete. The reaction is over. But everything has changed. Mission accomplished. After a minute or two, Eugene Vikner, who had apparently been confident of success, pulled from a brown paper bag, a bottle of kitty that he had concealed behind his back the entire time, and he presented Fayemi with the bottle, firmly pulled the cork, and then they all began to celebrate quietly.
Everyone drank from paper cups and afterwards they all signed the straw cover of the bottle of Kitty. Salade remembers. I said, I thought this day would go down as a black day in the history of mankind. It's taken so much to get here to convince the world he should be taken seriously, to convince the American government that they should take the atomic threat seriously. Mission accomplished. But at what cost? The bomb is on its way to being born and new permutations and more powerful descendants are already being imagined, what was going through Leo Psyllids head at that moment?
I have to believe he was thinking about that control ride. It stopped disaster and prevented untold destruction. Just one small ride can make the difference between safety and total devastation. Leo Sellards path is not easy, but it is clear if humanity is headed for its own destruction, he will have to be the one to stop it, to break the chain reaction and to prevent the coming explosion. If Leo Szilard wants to save humanity, he will have to be the control rat.
The bomb from the BBC World Service is hashtag the bomb on social media, the show is presented by me.
Emily Strasser, the producer is Glenn Tansley. Our writers, A.C Smith and our scripts are edited by James Robinson. Title music is composed especially for us by Trevor Gorecki's. Our sound design is by Richard Gould at Skywalker Sound. The program has been mixed by Martin Williams with additional sound elements by Lewis Whitmore, the production team is William Richards, Amelia Parker, Alice McKee and Amy Will. Our series editor is Martin Smith and our commissioning editor at the BBC World Service is Simon Pitts'.
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