Atomic power unleashed it full might on August 6th 1945 when the “Enola Gay” flew to its target Hiroshima. On board was one bomb – “Little Boy”. It had enormous explosive power, more than anybody on board the ‘plane could ever have imagined. Hiroshima was flattened. On the 9th August, the same destruction happened to Nagasaki. This time, the bomb was known as “Fat Man”. Why did both bombs have such colossal explosive power?
Scientists – especially in Germany – had been working on the potential of atomic power for some while. In 1938, a major advance was made by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. These men experimented by bombarding uranium with neutrons. What they had found was that the uranium divided into two roughly equal parts. They called this process “fission“.
Atomic fission had the ability to unleash vast amounts of energy. The first man to realise this was Leo Szilard – a Hungarian physicist. Szilard believed that if you could control atomic fission, you could boil water to create steam to drive the generators in power stations. If you deliberately set out not to control atomic fission, you could create a vast explosive force which, Szilard believed, could destroy a city. In later years, Szilard said that “there was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief.”
Many scientists knew that Nazi Germany had an unhealthy interest in atomic power and a letter from Albert Einstein – a scientist who had fled Nazi Germany to live in America – to President Roosevelt of America persuaded the American president to set up the “Manhattan Project”.
The man in charge of reactor development was Enrico Fermi. He was a brilliant physicist who, ironically at the age of 25, nearly did what Hahn and Strassmann had done but four years earlier in 1934 – discover fission. He had fled from Fascist Italy as he had a Jewish wife. They emigrated to America.
As part of the Manhattan team, Fermi constructed his Chicago Pile No 1, CP-1, in a squash court underneath the grandstand of Stagg Field Stadium at the University of Chicago.
On December 2nd,1942, an experiment by Fermi in the squash court-come-laboratory, proved that it was possible to unlock atomic energy in a controlled way. Fermi had created the first ever self-sustaining chain reaction. Szilard, who had worked with Fermi on CP-1, remarked that “this will go down as a black day in the history of Mankind.” Controlled, this reaction potentially had untold benefits for Mankind. Uncontrolled, it could unleash awesome power.
In New Mexico, work on an atomic bomb gathered pace. The team here was lead by Robert Oppenheimer. On July 16th, 1945, the result of their work was exploded near the research base in Los Alamos. Ground-zero (directly underneath the bomb) at Alamogordo, just south of Los Alamos, was turned to glass such was the heat generated by this new type of bomb. Three weeks later, the “Enola Gay” took off heading for Hiroshima. When the first bomb was exploded at Alamogordo, Oppenheimer said “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”