DuPont’s Crawford Greenewalt remembers witnessing the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942.
Narrator: When DuPont signed on to the Manhattan Project in late 1942, the company sent a 40-year-old chemical engineer named Crawford Greenewalt on a fact-finding mission. At one stop at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, physicist Arthur Holly Compton invited Greenewalt to witness the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Enrico Fermi and his team had created a simple reactor from a lattice of graphite blocks and uranium fuel that they had assembled in a squash court.
Crawford Greenewalt: Compton came to me and said, “We’re going try this out, would you like to see it?”
“I would absolutely love it.”
And so over we went, and I sort kept my mouth shut, and stayed and looked. I saw the first chain reaction take place. I remember Fermi at the time, when he shoved the control rod back in, the reaction. And the thing went like that, we all heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Hosanna.”
Narrator: On December 2, 1942, this simple structure known as the “Chicago Pile-1” proved that man could control a nuclear chain reaction.
DuPont’s engineers had to work with the physicists at the University of Chicago to design the first full-scale reactors. DuPont’s Crawford Greenewalt and physicist Herbert Anderson discuss the challenges this posed.
Narrator: DuPont made Crawford Greenewalt the liaison between the physicists at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and the engineers at DuPont headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. The challenge was to translate the scientists’ theoretical ideas into blueprints for tangible devices. Greenewalt, who was a chemical engineer by trade, was justifiably nervous.
Crawford Greenewalt: I had my doubts. All these people I had met, they were eminent scientists. But none of them were engineers. And the DuPont Company was being asked to undertake this major undertaking. And all we had in assurances that there was any chance of this working or not, were the physicists.
Narrator: The Manhattan Project was a phenomenal collaboration of talented and dedicated people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.
Herbert Anderson: But I think it was handled beautifully by Greenewalt. His key engineers learned a lot. They worked hard, asked lots of questions and found out everything they needed to know.
Narrator: Physicists, engineers, and industrial experts joined forces to produce the many first of their kind facilities and devices need to produce plutonium.
Physicist Herbert Anderson was surprised when he asked about DuPont’s postwar plans.
Narrator: During World War II, many major American corporations supported the war effort. Bechtel built Liberty and Victory ships, Chrysler built Sherman tanks, and DuPont produced plutonium. But as Manhattan Project physicist Herbert Anderson recalls, trust did not come easily to academics and industry.
Herbert Anderson: There were always the academic types who were very suspicious of big industries, felt they were always out for themselves, making profit and so on. The fact of the matter is that the DuPont Company, according to its contractual agreement, said they would be reimbursed for all costs and a one dollar profit. They certainly didn’t make any money out of it. I think they looked at the whole enterprise as a public service.
I remember discussing it with Greenewalt, when I traveled to and from Wilmington sometimes with him. I said, “Well, I bet DuPont will go into nuclear energy after the war and make a big thing of it, because you know so much more than anybody else.”
He said, “No, we are not going to do that. We are going to go into nylon, and make nylon stockings. We can make much more money that way.”