One of the most important branches of the far-flung Manhattan Project was the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. Known simply as the "Met Lab", it served as the headquarters of the nationwide Metallurgical Project, commissioned to study atomic theory. The laboratory’s primary role was to design an atomic reactor, created through chain reacting piles. These piles of uranium could be converted to plutonium, making a nuclear reaction and eventually a nuclear bomb.
Arthur Compton, Nobel Prize laureate and Professor of Physics at the University of Chicago, was the head of the laboratory. Many noted scientists worked in Chicago during this period. Enrico Fermi worked to continue his research from Columbia, acquiring graphite and uranium for the production of a new pile. Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard was also in Chicago and helped contribute witht the design of the pile. These physicists were eventually joined by future Nobel laureates Eugene Wigner and Glenn Seaborg.
The Met Lab’s most notable accomplishment was Chicago Pile-1 – the world’s first nuclear reactor. A group headed by Compton's chief engineer, Thomas V. Moore, began designing the production pile in June 1942, building it under the west stands of Stagg Field. In the meantime, Enrico Fermi studied the fundamentals of pile operation on a small experimental unit to be completed and in operation by the end of the year. His goal was to reach a reproduction value (k) of one, which would cause the reaction to continue indefinitely.
CP-1 went critical on December 2, 1942 and the continuous chain reaction was witnessed by Szilard, Wigner, and DuPont engineer Crawford Greenewalt along with dozens of others. Fermi’s basic design would be expanded and built at Hanford as the B Reactor.
While the Met Lab labored to make headway on pile design, Glenn Seaborg and his co-workers tried to gain enough information about transuranium chemistry to ensure that the plutonium produced during the reaction could be successfully extracted from the irradiated uranium. Seaborg's discovery and subsequent isolation of plutonium were major events in the history of chemistry, and discovered in the George Herbert Jones Laboratory, still the home of the University of Chicago’s chemistry department.
Compton originally planned to build the experimental pile and chemical separation plant on the University of Chicago campus. In the fall of 1942, the S-1 Executive Committee concurred that it would be safer to put Fermi's pile at Argonne and build the semi-works (pilot plant) and separation facilities at Oak Ridge than to place these experiments in a populous area. On October 3, DuPont agreed to design and build the chemical separation plant in the Red Gate Woods, codenamed Argonne.
Argonne was the direct successor of the Metallurgical Laboratory. Physicists there constructed Chicago Pile 2 and Pile 3. After the war, a larger, permanent site was built in DuPage County and the original Argonne Forest site was demolished. The new site, named the Argonne National Laboratory, was the first science and engineering national laboratory in the United States. Today, the Laboratory is managed by the United States Department of Energy and continues to conduct nuclear science research, especially reactor engineering.
James A. Schoke was selected to be part of the Special Engineer Detachment that worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory. The full interview transcript can be found on "Voices of the Manhattan Project."