Manhattan Project and Met Lab

Amid fears that German scientists might already be well on their way to creating a chain reaction, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the fall of 1941 approved a full-scale effort to apply atomic theory to the design and construction of a new military weapon. Arthur Holly Compton, Nobel laureate and professor of physics at the University of Chicago, was placed in charge of the program, which was named the Manhattan Project. Compton and colleagues decided that the work of building and operating a test reactor would be concentrated in Chicago under the code name Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab).

Early in 1942 Enrico Fermi and groups of scientists began to arrive at Chicago, where they collaborated on refinements in the design of a nuclear pile. After plans to build the reactor at a remote site on the outskirts of Chicago were blocked by a labor strike, construction shifted quickly to a space beneath the West Stand of Stagg Field on the University of Chicago campus. Originally designed for racquetball, the room had been in use more recently as a squash court.