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 (28-Aug-1963) – Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I have a dream speech” adressing civil rights march at Lincoln Memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr.  was an American pastor, activist, humanitarian, and leader in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. “I Have a Dream” is a public speech delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. on August 28, 1963, in which he calls for an end to racism in the United States. Delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, the speech was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Beginning with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation (issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863), which freed millions of slaves in 1863, King observes that: “one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free”. Toward the end of the speech, King departed from his prepared text for a partly improvised peroration on the theme “I have a dream”, prompted by Mahalia Jackson’s cry: “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” In this part of the speech, which most excited the listeners and has now become its most famous, King described his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred.  The speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th century in a 1999 poll of scholars of public address.

Among the most quoted lines of the speech include “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

The March on Washington put pressure on the Kennedy administration to advance its civil rights legislation in Congress. In the wake of the speech and march, King was named Man of the Year by TIME magazine for 1963, and in 1964, he was the youngest person ever awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, triggering riots in many US states.