75 years ago at the U. of C., Ted Petry saw the atom split for the first time

Saturday, 02 December 2017, 09:30:42 PM. Ted Petry, 93, of Orland Park, is the last surviving witness to the chain reaction experiment that happened under the University of Chicago's Stagg Field stands on Dec. 2, 1942, one of the most significant, and ominous, scientific breakthroughs.

For Ted Petry, working under the stands at the ’s Stagg Field was his first job out of high school and a good one, considering there was a war on.

“They came to the high school, and they were recruiting,” he said. “The fact that there were no jobs available at the time, you took it.”

Petry was drawn by the promise of some $90 a month and the proximity to his South Side home. What the recruiter didn’t mention, probably didn’t know, was that the Tilden Technical High School graduate would become part of scientific history in that improvised laboratory, shaping the building blocks and even fetching the uranium for the inaugural human-made nuclear reactor.

Seventy-five years ago Saturday, on Dec. 2, 1942, the graphite bricks he helped plane into shape and assemble into a pile under the direction of physicist Enrico Fermi became a key component of the world’s first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, an event that opened the curtains on the atomic age.

And now Petry, as the university prepares to culminate its commemoration of the anniversary with a slate of events Friday and Saturday, is the only known survivor of those 49 eyewitnesses.

“I call myself ‘the last man standing’ because there's nobody else left — probably because of my age. I was 17, 18 years old,” Petry said from his Orland Park home earlier this week. “I was just lucky enough to outlive everybody.”

Now 93, he’s been retired since 1982 and drawing a pension from his 17 years as a Chicago high school shop teacher, he said. He is matter-of-fact about his role in the Manhattan Project. While the dream team of scientists Fermi assembled on behalf of the U.S. government believed they were racing Hitler to be able to develop the atomic bomb, Petry said his understanding of things was much more prosaic.

“You did what they wanted you to do,” he recalled. “You readjusted the pile or took care of the uranium, pressing it into the cylinders and such. And when your eight hours was over, you went home.”

A university record lists him as “Laboratory Assistant,” but Petry described the job as “a laborer, a gofer.” One of the things he’d go for was the radioactive metals necessary to, ultimately, split the atom, at first via streetcar from Hyde Park.

“I used to go downtown and pick up the radioactive materials in little canisters, stick it in my pocket and bring it back,” Petry recalled. “Finally my red blood count went down” — a danger sign revealed in regular blood tests at the university hospital — “and they decided that, ‘Well, we’d better pick it up with a station wagon with a big lead container where you could put the radioactive material in it.’ But it didn't affect me. I’ve got four good, healthy children.”

...Read more
Share this

You might also like