This Day in History (2-Dec-1942) – Enrico Fermi Creates a Self-Sustaining Nuclear Chain Reaction for the Manhattan Project

American scientists, many of them refugees from fascist regimes in Europe, took steps in 1939 to organize a project to exploit the newly recognized fission process for military purposes. In the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein was persuaded by his fellow scientists to use his influence and present the military potential of an uncontrolled fission chain reaction to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In February 1940, $6,000 was made available to start research. After the U.S. entry into the World war II, the War Department was given joint responsibility for the project. In June 1942 the Corps of Engineers’ Manhattan District was initially assigned management of the construction work (because much of the early research had been performed at Columbia University, in Manhattan). “Manhattan Project” became the code name for research work that would extend across the country.

Only method available for the production of the fissionable material plutonium-239, was developed at the metallurgical laboratory of the University of Chicago. In December 1942, Enrico Fermi, the Italian-born Nobel Prize-winning physicist, finally succeeded in producing and controlling a fission chain reaction in this reactor pile at Chicago.  Upon succesful completion of the experiment, a coded message was transmitted to President Roosevelt: “The Italian navigator has landed in the new world.”

The large-scale production reactors were built on an isolated tract on the Columbia River north of Pasco, Washington—the Hanford Engineer Works, for the quantity production of plutonium-239. By the summer of 1945, amounts of plutonium-239 sufficient to produce a nuclear explosion had become available from the Hanford Works, and weapon development and design were sufficiently far advanced so that an actual field test of a nuclear explosive could be scheduled. By this time the original $6,000 authorized for the Manhattan Project had grown to $2 billion. The first atomic bomb was exploded at 5:30 am on July 16, 1945, at a site on the Alamogordo air base 120 miles (193 km) south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, followed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions in the next month.


This Day in History (21-Nov-1905) – Albert Einstein publishes a paper which was a precursor to the announcement of E = mc²

After reaching the lowest point of life at the age of 23 in 1902, with no job in hand, father going bankrupt, unable to marry girlfriend due to family pressure; Albert Einstein got a job in Swiss patent office in Bern, Switzarland. He quickly mastered the job, leaving him time to ponder on the transmission of electrical signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization, an interest he had been cultivating for several years. While at the school he had studied Scottish physicist James Maxwell’s electromagnetic theories which describe the nature of light, and discovered a fact unknown to Maxwell himself, that the speed of light remained constant. However, this violated Isaac Newton’s laws of motion because there is no absolute velocity in Newton’s theory. This insight led Einstein to formulate the principle of relativity.

In 1905—often called Einstein’s “miracle year”—he submitted a paper for his doctorate and had four papers published in the Annalen der Physik, one of the best known physics journals. The four papers—the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy—would alter the course of modern physics and bring him to the attention of the academic world. In his paper on matter and energy, Einstein deduced the well-known equation E=mc2, suggesting that tiny particles of matter could be converted into huge amounts of energy, foreshadowing the development of nuclear power.

At first, Einstein’s 1905 papers were ignored by the physics community. This began to change when he received the attention of Max Planck, perhaps the most influential physicist of his generation and founder of quantum theory. With Planck’s complimentary comments and his experiments that confirmed his theories, Einstein was invited to lecture at international meetings and he rose rapidly in the academic world. He was offered a series of positions at increasingly prestigious institutions, including the University of Zürich, the University of Prague, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and finally the University of Berlin, where he served as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics from 1913 to 1933.


This Day in History (8-Nov-1895) – Wilhelm Rontgen Accidentally Discovers the X-ray

Wilhelm Roentgen was working on the effects of cathode rays during 1895, when he actually discovered X-rays. His experiments involved the passing of electric current through gases at extremely low pressure. On November 8, 1895 while he was experimenting, he observed that certain rays were emitted during the passing of the current through discharge tube. His experiment that involved working in a totally dark room with a well covered discharge tube resulted in the emission of rays which illuminated a barium platinocyanide covered screen. The screen became fluorescent even though it was placed in the path of the rays, two meters away from discharge tube.

He continued his experiments using photographic plate to capture the image of various objects of random thickness placed in the path of the rays. He generated the very first “roentgenogram” by developing the image of his wife Anna’s hand and analyzed the variable transparency as showed by her bones, flesh and her wedding ring. Terrified, Anna famously cried out, “I have seen my death!”

Based on his subsequent research and experiments, he declared that X-ray beams are produced by the impact of cathode rays on material objects. He named the new ray X-ray, because in mathematics “X” is used to indicated the unknown quantity. His discovery revolutionized the entire medical profession and set foundation for diagnostic radiology. In 1901, Roentgen received the first ever Nobel Prize in Physics.

It would be nearly a decade before scientists discovered X-rays had harmful effects. Clarence Dally, one of Thomas Edison’s assistants, died of skin cancer in 1904 after working with the radiation. Without a full grip on the consequences, standards for protection did not come into force until the 1950s — by that time some stores in America had been helping people to see how well shoes fit by looking through an X-ray machine for decades!


This Day in History (30-Sep-1954) – The USS Nautilus becomes the first nuclear-powered submarine

In July of 1951, US Congress authorized construction of the world’s first nuclear powered submarine. Construction of NAUTILUS was made possible by the successful development of a nuclear propulsion plant by a group of scientists and engineers at the Naval Reactors Branch of the Atomic Energy Commission, under the leadership of Captain Hyman G. Rickover, USN. On September 30, 1954, NAUTILUS became the first commissioned nuclear powered ship in the United States Navy. On the morning of January 17, 1955, at 11 am EST, NAUTILUS’ first Commanding Officer, Commander Eugene P. Wilkinson, ordered all lines cast off and signaled the memorable and historic message, “Underway On Nuclear Power.” Over the next several years, NAUTILUS shattered all submerged speed and distance records.

After preliminary acceptance by the Navy, Nautilus headed south for shakedown on May 10, 1955. She remained submerged while en route to Puerto Rico, covering 1,381 miles in 89.8 hours, immediately setting submerged endurance and speed records.On July 23, 1958, NAUTILUS departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii under top secret orders to conduct “Operation Sunshine”, the first crossing of the North Pole by a ship. On August 3, 1958, NAUTILUS’ second Commanding Officer, Commander William R. Anderson, announced to his crew, “For the world, our country, and the Navy – the North Pole.” With 116 men aboard, NAUTILUS had accomplished the “impossible”, reaching the geographic North Pole – 90 degrees North.

In the spring of 1966, she again entered the record books when she logged her 300,000th mile underway. During the following 12 years, NAUTILUS was involved in a variety of developmental testing programs while continuing to serve alongside many of the more modern nuclear powered submarines she had preceded. She was decommissioned on March 3, 1980 after a career spanning 25 years and over half a million miles steamed.



This Day in History (28-Sep-1889) – The length of a meter is defined by the General Conference on Weights and Measures

The origins of the meter go back to at least the 18th century, when there were two approaches to the definition of a standard unit of length. One defining the meter as the length of a pendulum having a half-period of one second; others suggested defining the meter as one ten-millionth of the length of the earth’s meridian along a quadrant (one fourth the circumference of the earth). In 1791, soon after the French Revolution, the French Academy of Sciences chose the meridian definition over the pendulum definition because the force of gravity varies slightly over the surface of the earth, affecting the period of the pendulum. Thus, the meter was intended to equal one ten-millionth of the length of the meridian through Paris from pole to the equator. However, the first prototype was short by 0.2 millimeters because researchers miscalculated the flattening of the earth due to its rotation. Still this length became the standard.

In 1889, a new international prototype was made of an alloy of platinum with 10 percent iridium, to within 0.0001, that was to be measured at the melting point of ice.  The prototype of the meter was sanctioned by the 1st CGPM – The General Conference on Weights and Measures (Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures) in 1889, and is still kept at the BIPM (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures) under the conditions specified. In 1927, the meter was more precisely defined as the distance, at 0°, between the axes of the two central lines marked on the above mentioned bar, this bar being subject to standard atmospheric pressure and supported on two cylinders of at least one centimeter diameter, symmetrically placed in the same horizontal plane at a distance of 571 mm from each other.

The 1889 definition of the meter, was replaced by the CGPM in 1960 using a definition based upon a wavelength of krypton-86 radiation. This definition was adopted in order to reduce the uncertainty with which the meter may be realized. In turn, to further reduce the uncertainty, in 1983 the CGPM replaced this latter definition by the following definition: The meter is the length of the path travelled by light in vacuum during a time interval of 1/299 792 458 of a second.



This Day in History (25-Sep-1906) – The First Remote Control Is Demonstrated

Torres Quevedo became interested in science and technology from an early age.  In 1887 at the age of 35, he received his first patent—for a small funicular (transbordador). The most famous funiculars is the Whirlpool Aero Car over the Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada, installed in 1916 is still working at present without having any problem. Fascinated by aeronautics, he built an ultra light dirigible bolstered with a frame of flexible cables for rigidity. He needed a way to test his dirigibles without risking pilots’ lives. The solution turned out to be a radio controller. Lacking funds, Torres Quevedo first built a radio control for a tricycle. He created codes from the signals generated by a telegraph transmitter. He then built a receiver to read and respond to the signals, moving the tricycle forward or backward, or turning it. He called it the telekino. Telekino is the precursor to the modern-day TV clicker, key fob, and video game controller or the remote control.

Torres Quevedo presented the telekino at the Paris Academy of Science in 1903. He also applied for and obtained a patent in France, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States. On 25th September1906, in the presence of King Alfonso XIII of Spain and a crowd of awed spectators, Torres Quevedo successfully demonstrated the telekino in the port of Bilbao, where he controlled a vessel with eight people aboard, from a distance of two kilometres. Recognising the potential of his invention, Torres Quevedo then sought funds from the Spanish government to develop the device to control dirigibles as well as underwater torpedoes, both his inventions. He was denied the funds and ultimately abandoned his work on the telekino.

In 1911 Torres made and successfully demonstrated a chess-playing automaton for the end game of king and rook against king. This chess automaton was fully automatic, with electrical sensing of the pieces on the board and what was in effect a mechanical arm to move its own pieces. In 1916 King Alfonso XIII bestowed the Academy of Science’s Echegaray Medal upon him. In 1920 Torres demonstrated a second chess automaton, which used magnets underneath the board to move the pieces. A number of his other inventions, still exist and are still operational.



This Day in History (29-Aug-1831) – Michael Faraday demonstrates 1st electric transformer

Electro-magnetism describes the relationship between electricity and magnetism — electricity produces magnetism. Scientists hoped to find that the reverse was also true and many tried to demonstrate it. Faraday persisted longer than most, and finally succeeded on 29th August, 1831. His set up was equivalent to have a continuous ring in the middle made of solid soft iron. It’s wrapped on opposite sides in two sets of unconnected copper wires. Let’s call the left hand side coil A and the right hand side coil B. The wires don’t touch each other or the ring at any point. They are wrapped around the ring in layers of cotton wadding for insulation. The coils have 2mm spacing between each winding. Each end of coil A is connected to a battery, which will provide the current. Each end of coil B is connected to a galvanometer, an instrument that detects current.

When the battery is connected up, the needle of the galvanometer leaps into action, registering current in coil B. However, the effect quickly fades and the needle soon detects no current, even though the battery is still connected. If the battery is switched off and on again repeatedly, the effect can be reproduced over and over again, as rapidly as you like. When the battery is connected up, electrons flow along the copper wire of coil A, round the windings round the ring. The effect of this is to induce magnetism in the ring. A magnetic field, or vibration field, of excited electrons is created, producing an electrical current in coil B, which is inside the magnetic field. This is one of Farady’s great discoveries — electro-magnetic induction.

Repeatedly switching the power on and off generates what we call alternating current (AC), since the current swaps back and forth between the two coils. This principle is the basis for much of our modern public electricity supply. In setting up this experiment, Faraday invented the transformer — his apparatus was a primitve version of the transformers we use today, in everything from electricity substations to mobile phone chargers.