The First Nuclear Squash Court

My First Time on Court

I remember it distinctly. A weekday lunchtime in Spring, sometime in the mid-70s. Rather gloomy weather I recall. I’d only just discovered that the game of squash existed never having come into contact with anyone who’d ever played it – or watched it being played, for that matter. But the company I’d recently joined straight from university as a research scientist ran a sports centre, known as the ‘Rec Soc’ or Recreational Society. The Rec Soc building was located just outside the company’s perimeter fence and included a bar, a lecture theatre and four squash courts. I’d watched a couple of squash matches from the balcony and been offered a game by a work colleague. So there I was. Complete with new squash racket, non-marking squash shoes – and not the faintest idea of the rules or how to play the game.

Oh, and one other thing. The company I was working for, and who owned the squash courts, developed nuclear weapons.

The Manhattan Project

Re-wind to World War II. In 1942, American scientists were competing with Nazi Germany in a race to create the physics behind the splitting of the atom. The Manhattan Project was the code name for the US government’s secret project to develop a nuclear bomb. Work on the project was taking place at sites all over the US but needed to be centralised. But where?

Step forward University of Chicago physicist Arthur Holly Compton. A Nobel Prize winner, Compton ran a well-respected laboratory, and had plenty of space to accommodate the scientists – including another Nobel Prize winner, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. So the scientists and their families made their way to Chicago.

The World’s First Atomic Pile

But Fermi and his team (see photo) didn’t just need accommodation. They needed a certain type of space for their experiments. An extremely important space. A space to build an atomic pile which they could use to start – and, hopefully, stop – a sustained nuclear chain reaction in uranium. This was the material which would later be used to build an atomic bomb.

The Chicago Nuclear Pile Team (Enrico Fermi is on the left in the front row)

A squash court, or more probably a rackets court, located under the stands of the recently-closed football stadium seemed like the perfect place for Fermi and his team to build their atomic pile. Known as Chicago Pile 1, it was literally a monolithic construction of graphite bricks and uranium fuel (see picture). On December 2nd, 1942 Fermi and his colleagues gathered on the balcony of the court to test the reactor. The sustained chain reaction took place and the scientists stopped the reaction, without incident, after 28 minutes.

After the experiment, the scientists decamped en masse to Los Alamos in New Mexico where they subsequently developed the world’s first atomic bomb, testing it for the first time in the Nevada Desert. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fermi himself became known as The Father of the Atomic Bomb. In 2009, over 65 years after Fermi’s famous atomic pile experiment, his granddaughter, Olivia Fermi, visited Los Alamos. She was filmed for a local TV station trying her hand at squash on the local YMCA squash court.

“It’s my first time here,” she said. “I’ve wanted to come for a long time.”

Footnote: The Meaning of Squash

After the end of World War II, due to a mistranslation of the word squash, Soviet reports  of Fermi’s experiment claimed that it was carried out in a converted pumpkin field instead of a converted squash court.

But that’s another story.

For a Chicago-centric view of the atomic pile story , read Alex Beam’s 2008 article for Vanity Fair, ‘The Most Important Squash Court, Ever.’