Enrico Fermi and the First Self-Sustaining Nuclear Chain Reaction

Resources with Additional Information · Fermi Honored · Atoms for Peace · Centennial of Birth · Stamp
Patents · Audio/Video Clips · Selected by NSTA for SciLinks

"The President of the United States of America ... for especially meritorious contributions to the development, use, or control of atomic energy, grant[s] an award of merit to Enrico Fermi for his contributions to basic neutron physics and the achievement of the controlled nuclear chain reaction."     – Excerpt from Enrico Fermi Award signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on December 1, 1954.

Enrico Fermi
Courtesy Argonne National Laboratory

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, Italy, on September 29, 1901. The son of a railroad official, he studied at the University of Pisa from 1918 to 1922 and later at the universities of Leyden and Gottingen. He became professor of theoretical physics at the University of Rome in 1927.

Fermi's accomplishments were in both theoretical and experimental physics, a unique feat in an age in which scientific endeavors have tended to specialize on one aspect or the other.

Fermi received the Nobel Prize in 1938 for "his discovery of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for the discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons." Fermi and his family used the opportunity offered by his trip to Sweden for the awards ceremonies to come to the United States where Fermi accepted a position as professor of physics at Columbia University.

Fermi moved to the University of Chicago to be in charge of the first major step in making feasible the building of the atomic bomb. In the squash courts under the west stand of the University's Stagg Field, Fermi supervised the design and assembly of an "atomic pile", a code word for an assembly that in peacetime would be known as a "nuclear reactor". Today, a plaque at the site reads: "On December 2, 1942, man achieved here the first self-sustaining chain reaction and thereby initiated the controlled release of nuclear energy."

Fermi's momentous accomplishments caused him to be recognized as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. Following his death on November 28, 1954, a number of science institutions and awards have been named in his honor.

- Edited excerpts from NAL Dedication …


Resources with Additional Information

Additional information about Enrico Fermi and his work is available in full-text DOE reports and on the Web.


The First Reactor (40th Anniversary Commemorative Edition), DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, December 1982
A story of the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction that took place at Stagg Field, University of Chicago, December 2, 1942.

The Future of Atomic Energy, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, May 1946

"Where is Everybody?" An Account of Fermi's Question, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, March 1985

The Nuclear Thomas–Fermi Model, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, August 1994

Neutron Physics. A Revision of I. Halpern's Notes on E. Fermi's Lectures in 1945,, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, October 1951

Summary of the Activities of the Experimental Section of the Nuclear Physics Division in the Past Month, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, June 1943

Studies of Nonlinear Problems. I, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, May 1955

Taylor Instability of Incompressible Liquids, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, November 1955

Establishing Site X: Letter, Arthur H. Compton to Enrico Fermi, September 14, 1942, DOE Technical Report Download Adobe PDF Reader, September 1942


Fermi Honored:

The Enrico Fermi Award DOE Office of Science
"The Enrico Fermi Award is a Presidential award–one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology awards given by the U.S. Government. It recognizes scientists of international stature for their lifetimes of exceptional achievement in the development, use, or production of energy (broadly defined to include the science and technology of nuclear, atomic, molecular, and particle interactions and effects)."

Fermium – The 100th element in the Periodic Table, named for Enrico Fermi

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (FNAL) – A U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory

The Enrico Fermi Institute – A component of the Physical Sciences Division at the University of Chicago

FGST (Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope)

Remembering Fermi (video)


Additional Web Pages:


Fermi and Atoms for Peace:

"Fermi was a physicist's physicist whose legacy was one of style as well of substance – a style so attractive and so productive for science that it became substantive in itself."

Excerpt from "Enrico Fermi's Impact on Science" by John Marburger, White House Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, at the Italian Embassy on November 27, 2001.

Courtesy Argonne
National Laboratory

The Future of Atomic Energy, Download Adobe PDF Reader Fermi, E.
Fermi discusses the nuclear chain reaction and possibilities for peace time uses of atomic energy.

Understanding the Atom; Fermi, E.
Excerpts about the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and the role of plutonium in nuclear energy.

Century of the Atom – audio clip
Ten years after the experiment, Fermi recalls his confidence in the success of the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction.

Fermi's account of the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction – video clip. The First Reactor (40th Anniversary Commemorative Edition)
A story of the first self-sustaining controlled nuclear chain reaction that took place at Stagg Field, University of Chicago, December 2, 1942.

US PATENT 2,708,656 [May 17, 1955]; Fermi, E., et al.
Patent for the first nuclear reactor.

Additional Information about peaceful uses of the atom


The Centennial of Fermi's Birth

The Centennial Celebrations of the Birth of the Physicist Enrico FermiDOE Office of Science

Fermi Facts, Fables: Colleagues and Friends Share Memories, – Argonne National Laboratory (ANL)

Symposium with a retrospective focus on the period when Fermi was a faculty member at Chicago and laid the groundwork for the field of elementary particle physics. Included will be the issuing of a commemorative Fermi stamp by the United States Postal Service – The University of Chicago

Beyond the Bomb


100th Anniversary Commemorative Stamp

Photo courtesy of the
United States Postal Service (USPS)

Additional Information

commemorative stamp

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