Today in History

Today in History: December 2

Nuclear Fission

"…the Italian Navigator has just landed in the New World…"

Coded telephone message confirming first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, December 2, 1942.

On the afternoon of December 2, 1942, the Atomic Age began inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field. There, headed by Italian scientist Enrico Fermi, the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction was engineered. The result—sustainable nuclear energy—led to creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear power plants—two of the twentieth century's most powerful and controversial achievements.

Four years earlier, Fermi had received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Like so many intellectuals who had left fascist Europe, Fermi came to the United States and worked at Columbia University.

Document with picture of Fermi
Declaration of Intention, Number 27081, for Enrico Fermi [Application for U.S. Citizenship]
December 2, 1939.
National Archives and Records Administration

Fermi learned from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr about the findings of Lise Meitner. Meitner had worked in Germany with physicists Otto Hahn (Hahn later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Fritz Strassmann and had discovered the process of nuclear disintegration. She worked in the field of nuclear physics and chemistry with her nephew, Otto Frisch; they named the process fission.

Fermi and the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard (who left Hungary for Germany, then fled to London, before moving to the U.S.) realized that the first split or fission could cause a second, and so on--in a series of chain reactions expanding in geometric progression. Szilard and fellow Hungarian émigré Eugene Wigner persuaded Albert Einstein to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt and request that atomic research receive a high priority. In fact, Szilard was responsible for the establishment of the Manhattan Project.

Portrait of Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein,
Prints and Photographs Online Catalog

Preparing the nation for war, Roosevelt agreed. In December 1941, as the U.S. entered World War II, the project moved to Chicago where Fermi, Walter Zinn, Herbert Anderson, Arthur Compton, and Leo Szilard were the principal team members. Within four years, the Manhattan Project, supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Compton, and Fermi, developed the atomic bomb.

Roosevelt Letter to Oppenheimer
Franklin D. Roosevelt to J. Robert Oppenheimer, June 29, 1943.
Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years
In this letter, the president thanks Oppenheimer and his colleagues for their ongoing secret atomic research.

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Touro Synagogue

Exterior of Touro Synagogue
Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island, Jack Boucher photographer, 1971.
Historic American Buildings Survey,
Considered an architectural masterpiece, Touro Synagogue is the sole surviving synagogue built in colonial America.

On December 2, 1763, members of the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island witnessed the dedication of the Touro Synagogue, the first synagogue in what became the United States. Designed in the Georgian style by English architect Peter Harrison, the synagogue was named for Isaac Touro, its first officiating rabbi.

Organized Jewish community life in Newport dates to 1658, when fifteen families emigrated and established a congregation in the growing seaport. Newport was the second oldest Jewish congregation in the future U.S. and the first organized in a British colony. For more than one hundred years the community relied on correspondence with rabbis in Europe to sustain its religious traditions in the New World.

Map of Newport
Newport, Rhode Island, 1878.
Cities and Towns,
Map Collections(1500-Present)

Touro Park
Touro Park, Newport, Rhode Island, 1905.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920

Newport developed into a thriving commercial center. The Jewish community included a sizeable number of merchants active in the sea trade, and early maps of Newport show Bellevue Avenue lined with shops owned by Jewish merchants of Spanish and Portuguese descent. On August 17, 1790, the Hebrew congregation of Newport welcomed George Washington to their city.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Newport's temperate climate and scenic location made it a favorite vacation spot for the rich. Newport is filled with "cottages" like Belcourt Castle and The Breakers. Designed by architects like Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by professionals including Frederick Law Olmsted these mansions provided imposing settings for wealthy Americans like Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Curving drive leading to a mansion
The Breakers, Vanderbilt Residence, Newport, Rhode Island, 1904.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1880-1920

Learn more about the American Jewish experience: