Inventors Behind the Atomic or Nuclear Reactor
Mankind’s greatest atomic power was harnessed through the invention of the nuclear reactor by two physicists, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard.Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard invented the atomic or nuclear reactor, a device that controls the energy released by neutron-bombarded uranium in a chain reaction. Their invention is most commonly used as an energy source in nuclear power plants.
Fission is the key to releasing energy. It is the splitting of an atom’s nucleus into two or more radioactive nuclei, accompanied by the emission of gamma rays, neutrons and a significant amount of energy.
Early Life of Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on September 29, 1901. He had always been interested in mathematics and physics, and got an engineer-mentor as he got older. In 1918, he was awarded a scholarship to attend the Scuola Normale Superiore of the University of Pisa. After four years of study, he graduated magna cum laude with a doctorate in physics. Academic careers followed in Rome as he became a professor of physics, then atomic physics, in particular, the creation of artificial isotopes through neutron bombardment.
Fermi’s Nobel Prize and Way Out
His work in the field was so significant that in 1938 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. It was during this time that Fermi suffered for his antifascist views, and the fact that his wife happened to be Jewish. Accompanied by her when he went to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize, he never returned to Rome. He obtained a position as a physics instructor at Columbia University in New York.
Early Life of Leo Szilard
Leo Szilard was born in Budapest, Hungary on February 11, 1898. He was studying at the Budapest Institute of Technology when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. After the war, he received his doctorate from the University of Berlin. He left Germany during World War II and came to the US.
Szilard took great interest in public policy and strong social consciousness that he started the movement for the civilian control of atomic energy in 1945. Eventually he became Soviet Premier Khruschev’s personal link between the US and the USSR to prevent nuclear war. After the war, he became a professor of biophysics at the University of Chicago, and in 1963, he became a resident fellow at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, a research center he helped create.
Fermi and Szilard Team Up
At Columbia University, Fermi teamed up with Szilard and a graduate student and researcher, Walter Zinn, to conduct experiments on nuclear fission. They concluded that enough neutrons released during the process causes a chain reaction, that is, a release of energy is also enabled. In March 1939, Fermi talked to the U.S. Navy about this phenomenon. Although the navy seemed intrigued, nothing happened in the discussion.
A few months later, Szilard sought the support of Albert Einstein, at that time already influential in the political circles. Einstein discussed the matter with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who followed through and got other scientists involved. Near the end of 1940, the project was provided a grant of $40,000 to set up requirements for controlled nuclear fission.
On December 2, 1942, the group was ready for the experimental launch. It was conducted on the floor of a squash court under the stands at Stagg Field, University of Chicago, the first attempt to control a chain reaction of nuclear fission. The experiment was successful.
Work intensified. In August 1944 the operation moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, with the scientific team headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Fermi became chief of the physics department. The Manhattan Project’s goal was to build an atomic bomb.
While war was raging with the Japanese, the team set off a trial test on July 16, 1945, in Alamogordo, near Albuquerque, New Mexico. On August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki, and few days later, a second was dropped on Hiroshima.
The patent of the nuclear reactor was granted to Fermi and Szilard in 1955.