The Plan B decision to build at UChicago
The University wasn’t the original site for the historic experiment though. In early 1942, Compton identified a promising plot of land while on a horseback ride in a forest preserve about 25 miles southwest of Chicago. But by late October, workers constructing the buildings in the so-called Argonne Forest went on strike, and it soon became clear that the site wouldn’t be ready until year’s end.
Fermi suggested to Compton that he could demonstrate the controlled chain reaction safely on campus—under Stagg Field, the long-abandoned, crumbling home of the former Big Ten football powerhouse. And if something were to go wrong, “I will walk away—leisurely,” Fermi once wrote. As a safeguard, a series of control rods would be installed to prevent a runaway reaction.
“According to Fermi’s calculations, which I carefully checked…it should take some minutes for the reaction to double its power," Compton wrote in his memoir. “If this proved correct, there would be ample time for adjustments, and the reaction would be under full control.”
Compton at the outset had predicted a nuclear chain reaction would be achieved by Jan. 1, 1943. With time of the essence, Compton told Fermi to proceed without informing UChicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins. Compton felt Hutchins, a trained jurist and former Law School dean, “was in no position to make an independent judgment of the hazards involved.”
“As a responsible officer of the University, according to every rule of organizational protocol, I should have taken the matter to my superior. But that would have been unfair,” wrote Compton. “Based on considerations of the University’s welfare, the only answer he could have given would have been—no. And this answer would have been wrong. So I assumed the responsibility myself.”