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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Arthur Compton (1892-1962) was an American physicist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.

A top administrator and advisor during the Manhattan Project, Compton played a key role in the making of the atomic bomb. He headed a National Academy of Sciences committee, whose members included Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and Eugene Wigner, that examined the potential use of atomic energy for military purposes — research that was already going on at the University of Chicago.

From 1942 to 1945, Compton was project director of the Chicago Met Lab, an important university outpost of Manhattan Project research and development where Chicago Pile-1, the first controlled, self-sustained nuclear chain reaction, took place. The Met Lab supported the development, construction, and operation of the reactors at Hanford and the enrichment activities at Oak Ridge.

In 1945, he served on the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee that recommended military use of the atomic bomb against Japan. 


Scientific Contributions

Compton is best known for demonstrating the “Compton effect,” which occurs when high energy photons (such as X-rays) collide with a target, and transfer part of that energy to a single electron — supporting Einstein’s particle theory of light. Compton shared the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. For more on Compton’s scientific achievements, visit the Nobel Prize website.

[Photograph of Compton courtesy of the University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01862, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.]

Arthur H. Compton's Timeline
1892 Born in Wooster, Ohio.
1913 Graduated from Wooster College with a B.S.
1916 Received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University.
1920 Appointed Wayman Crow Professor of Physics and dean of the Department of Physics at the Washington University, St. Louis.
1923 Moved to the University of Chicago as Professor of Physics.
1927 Received the Nobel Prize in Physics.
1934 President of the American Physical Society.
19391940 President of the American Association of Scientific Workers.
19411942 Examined feasibility of developing an atomic bomb and early scientific recommendations enriching uranium and producing plutonium.
19421945 Project Director of the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago.
1942 President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
19541961 Distinguished Service Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Washington University.
1962 Mar 15th Died in Berkeley, California.

Arthur Compton, 1929. Photo courtesy of GF Hund/Wikimedia Commons.

Arthur Compton, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, and Karl Compton. Photo courtesy of Donald Cooksey.

Compton's ID badge at Hanford, with the last name "Comas," used for security reasons. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Arthur Compton at work. Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1-01881, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

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