Oil painting on masonite (wooden) board. Depicts a dark basement room with a group of men in suits surrounding two desks on left. On right is large wooden structure filled with black bricks. Three men crouch on top of the wooden structure, one man in lab coat stands by its side.
Chicago Tribune staff artist Gary Sheahan in 1957, painted this scene based on interviews with eyewitnesses and written reports. A copy was published in the Tribune on December 1, 1957 and the original painting was donated by Sheahan to the Chicago Historical Society in 1964.
This painting depicts the moment of the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942 at 3:25 pm in a disused squash court under the University of Chicago's Stagg Field Stadium. Physicist Enrico Fermi stands on the balcony, surrounded by fellow scientists. George Weil stands below in a lab coat, operating a control rod. The reactor itself, called "Chicago Pile 1" is on the right, while the three figures crouched atop are the so-called "suicide squad" ready to douse the pile with cadmium solution should something go wrong.
The world's first controlled nuclear reaction on December 2, 1942 at 3:25 ushered in a new period of world history. The achievement of Fermi and his colleagues was part of the United States' Manhattan Project, and the structure of Fermi's reactor was used a model for the atomic bombs later dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The experiment's location at the University of Chicago illustrates both the University's reputation and Chicago's geographic advantages. As the nation's rail center, Chicago provided easy access to other parts of the country, and its distance from either coast provided the top-secret project extra protection from enemy attack. Because it was top secret, no photographs of the experiment exist, making this extensively researched painting a valuable source.