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Going Critical: Big Ten Football and the Making of the Atomic Bomb

Or just watch Oppenheimer instead of reading this

The University of Chicago Maroons lost. No one was shocked.

The result was expected, but it was still an unpleasant way to end the season. Losing 46-0 at home to in-state and conference rivals from Champaign was painful, but that was how their entire 1939 season had gone. The Maroons were shut out in every Big Ten game they played, outscored 192-0.

Despite their abysmal results in 1939, UChicago was a blue-blood football program. It was the powerhouse of the Big Ten’s early years, rivaled only by Michigan. The blood feud between Michigan’s legendary coach, Fielding Yost, and the Maroons’ head coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg, defined the first few decades of Big Ten football. Between 1899 and 1924, Stagg and UChicago won seven conference championships and claimed two national titles. Stagg effectively created the sport as it exists today, developing an absurd number of play types, terms, and rules too lengthy to list.

University of Chicago. https://storage.lib.uchicago.edu/ucpa/series2/derivatives_series2/apf2-07724r.jpg

After 40 years of coaching, the university leadership ousted Stagg. UChicago later claimed the first-ever Heisman trophy in 1935, but without Stagg, the Maroons couldn’t compete with the rest of the Big Ten. The program dwindled to the bottom of the conference standings, mediocrity eventually giving way to cellar-dwelling.

Mercifully, that game against Illinois in November 1939 was the last loss, the last game at Stagg Field. University president Robert Hutchins killed the football program at UChicago that December, convinced that athletics were a dangerous distraction from academics. The school would ultimately leave the Big Ten a few years later. UChicago remains the only university to leave the conference and never return.

For years, Stagg Field held 50,000 rabid fans every Saturday; they were Chicago’s Big Ten team. And the stadium was truly unique, unlike anything in the sport today. Bounded by a low, castle-like wall, the field held massive bleachers on three sides, but the Gothic architecture of Hyde Park and UChicago marked the south end zone and loomed over the playing field. Ivy snaked over everything. A massive wooden door reinforced the stone gate, resembling the entrance to a cathedral. It looked like an American football field had been magically transported onto a quad in Oxford, England. But in 1942, the storied turf at Stagg Field sat unused, unneeded, unnecessary.

University of Chicago. https://storage.lib.uchicago.edu/ucpa/series2/derivatives_series2/apf2-07614r.jpg

Until the stadium was requisitioned by a sleepy-sounding governmental project called the Development of Substitute Materials. The program would later be known by a new code name: the Manhattan Project.

Just a few months before that last game at Stagg Field in November 1939, nuclear physicists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt. They pleaded with him to begin a nuclear weapons program and to preempt Nazi Germany from harnessing the technology first. That letter was the genesis of the Manhattan Project, arguably the most expensive, high-stakes, and world-altering governmental program in history.

But before the U.S. would fatefully drop the bombs on Japan, before Robert Oppenheimer tested the Trinity device in the New Mexican desert, before the United States government put its weight behind the mining, refining, and processing of fissile uranium and plutonium, the team had to prove that a nuclear chain reaction was even possible.

And that it wouldn’t destroy the planet.

In 1942, Enrico Fermi, the brilliant Italian-born 1938 Nobel Prize laureate, took charge of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago and the task of testing whether a nuclear chain reaction was realistic. Fermi and his team had the University’s complete support, but the Manhattan Project needed a lab. A huge lab, preferably located outdoors, one that they could quickly commandeer. Every day they delayed, the Germans gained ground.

The team looked around, constrained by the unceasing necessity of the war, and found the perfect location for a potentially unstable and completely untested nuclear reactor: below the grandstand bleachers at Stagg Field, just miles from the center of the second-largest city in the country.

They went to work.

On the disused tennis and racquetball courts built beneath the massive concrete bleachers at Stagg Field, a team composed of the most intelligent physicists the planet has ever seen and a brigade of local high school dropouts worked around the clock in 12-hour shifts to machine down the necessary materials. After a month of effort, the team could demonstrate its work: Chicago Pile-1, made up of 45,000 slabs of pure graphite encasing 19,000 pieces of fissile uranium, all painstakingly laid out in 47 massive layers.

NARA. https://repository.aip.org/islandora/object/nbla%3A312155/datastream/OBJ/view

It had no nuclear shielding. It had no cooling system. The safety system was simple: one scientist armed with a bucket full of cadmium nitrate and another with an axe to cut the “scram” rope, drop the emergency control rod, and immediately halt the reaction. The team hoped for the best and took solace in their calculations.

On December 2, 1942, three years since the last UChicago football game was played just above their heads, and precisely 81 years to this day, Fermi’s team made history.

They had achieved criticality and initiated the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. The first attempt ran for nearly five minutes, producing half a watt of energy. Later testing would ramp up the electrical generation to the point that they could power a lightbulb. It didn’t matter that the production was limited. They had proved the theory correct and pushed the Allies ahead of the Germans in the race for the ultimate weapon.

Within a month, the Manhattan Project’s leadership decided that having an unshielded nuclear reactor in the heart of America’s second city might be less than wise. Chicago-Pile 1 was moved out of Chicago proper.

Eventually, the war ended, and the Atomic age began. That experiment at Stagg Field changed our understanding of humanity’s capacity for destruction and ingenuity. It was the beginning of a brave new world with seismic consequences that we continue to grapple with today.

And it might not have been possible had Illinois not mollywhopped UChicago in 1939.

University of Chicago Archives. 63b337c46e12c.image.jpg