Hidden on a shelf in the government building on the South Side of Chicago is a fading reminder of a historic experiment 75 years ago that ushered in the Atomic Age.
The relic is an empty, jade-green bottle of Bertolli Chianti, which physicist Enrico Fermi opened on Dec. 2, 1942 to toast the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
The bottle’s straw wrapper was signed by 49 people who witnessed scientific history in an abandoned squash court beneath the University of Chicago’s old football stadium. While most of the signatures have faded, a few remain, including the cursive “E Fermi” written below the bottle’s label, and “Ted Petry” printed in block letters along its side.
In 1942, Petry was a teenager recruited to a secret government project, told only that it had “something to do with the war effort.” Today, the 93-year-old is the last known living person to have been present for the momentous experiment.