Today in History: December 2
"…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…"
Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.
On the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the Atomic Age began inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field. There, headed by Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction was engineered. The result—sustainable nuclear energy—led to creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear power plants—two of the twentieth century's most powerful and controversial achievements.
Four years earlier, Fermi had received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Like so many intellectuals who had left fascist Europe, Fermi came to the United States and worked at Columbia University.
Declaration of Intention, Number 27081, for Enrico Fermi [Application for U.S. Citizenship]
December 2, 1939.
National Archives and Records Administration
Fermi learned from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr about the findings of Lise Meitner. Meitner had worked in Germany with physicists Otto Hahn (Hahn later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Fritz Strassmann and had discovered the process of nuclear disintegration. She worked in the field of nuclear physics and chemistry with her nephew, Otto Frisch; they named the process fission.
Fermi and the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (who left Hungary for Germany, then fled to London, before moving to the U.S.) realized that the first split or fission could cause a second, and so on--in a series of chain reactions expanding in geometric progression. Szilard and fellow Hungarian émigré Eugene Wigner persuaded Albert Einstein to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt and request that atomic research receive a high priority. In fact, Szilard was responsible for the establishment of the Manhattan Project.
Preparing the nation for war, Roosevelt agreed. In December 1941, as the U.S. entered World War II, the project moved to Chicago where Fermi, Walter Zinn, Herbert Anderson, Arthur Compton, and Leo Szilard were the principal team members. Within four years, the Manhattan Project, supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Compton, and Fermi, developed the atomic bomb.
Franklin D. Roosevelt to J. Robert Oppenheimer, June 29, 1943.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years
In this letter, the president thanks Oppenheimer and his colleagues for their ongoing secret atomic research.
Learn more about American scientists:
- Examine the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. Use the special presentation Alexander Graham Bell: Inventor and Scientist to access documents, drawings, and images pertinent to Bell's scientific career.
- View The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers at the Library of Congress to read about their glides and powered flights as well as about their other scientific experiments and data.
- Read also about the invention of the electromagnetic telegraph and the development of telegraph systems in the U.S. and abroad in Samuel F. B. Morse Papers at the Library of Congress, 1793-1919.
- Read about American scientists from Benjamin Banneker to Willard Libby. Search the Today in History Archive on astronomer, physicist, mathematician, scientist, and science.
- The Nobel Prize (external link) is given annually in the areas of Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Chemistry, Economics, Peace and Literature. Search the Today in History Archive on the term Nobel Prize to learn about Americans accorded this honor including Willard Frank "Wild Bill" Libby, who won the prize for chemistry, as well as Martin Luther King (Nobel Prize for Peace) and William Faulkner (Nobel Prize for Literature).
- Search on Manhattan Project or nuclear fission in Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present to view photos, and data and caption pages on buildings involved in America’s nuclear reactor research.
- Read From the Manhattan Project to Chernobyl: A Guide to Exhibited Materials, a Science Reference Guide from the Science, Technology & Business Division to learn more about the Atomic Age.
Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island, Jack Boucher photographer, 1971.
Historic American Buildings Survey,
Considered an architectural masterpiece, Touro Synagogue is the sole surviving synagogue built in colonial America.
On December 2, 1763, members of the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island witnessed the dedication of the Touro Synagogue, the first synagogue in what became the United States. Designed in the Georgian style by English architect Peter Harrison, the synagogue was named for Isaac Touro, its first officiating rabbi.
Organized Jewish community life in Newport dates to 1658, when fifteen families emigrated and established a congregation in the growing seaport. Newport was the second oldest Jewish congregation in the future U.S. and the first organized in a British colony. For more than one hundred years the community relied on correspondence with rabbis in Europe to sustain its religious traditions in the New World.
Newport developed into a thriving commercial center. The Jewish community included a sizeable number of merchants active in the sea trade, and early maps of Newport show Bellevue Avenue lined with shops owned by Jewish merchants of Spanish and Portuguese descent. On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew congregation of Newport welcomed George Washington to their city.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, Newport's temperate climate and scenic location made it a favorite vacation spot for the rich. Newport is filled with "cottages" like Belcourt Castle and The Breakers. Designed by architects like Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by professionals including Frederick Law Olmsted these mansions provided imposing settings for wealthy Americans like Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Learn more about the American Jewish experience:
- See the online exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic for information concerning Jewish communities in early America.
- View additional photographs of historic synagogues. Search the American Memory pictorial collections on synagogue.
- Read Louis Leon's Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier—a Southern Jew's experience of the American Civil War included in First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920.
- Explore Yiddish theater, a uniquely American dramatic form that developed in urban Eastern European Jewish communities during the early twentieth century. Over seventy-seven Yiddish playscripts are available through the collection American Variety Stage, 1870-1920.
- American Life Histories contains both personal recollections and examples of Yiddish Folklore. Search the collection on jewish to find these and additional materials.