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Ted Petry dies; last known witness to historic 1942 U. of C. nuclear reaction

Ted Petry near the Henry Moore Nuclear Energy sculpture that commemorates the site of the first controlled nuclear reaction at the University of Chicago. He was the last known witness to the 1942 event. | Jean Lachat / University of Chicago

Ted Petry was a 17-year-old kid from Tilden Tech High School when he started working at the University of Chicago with some of the finest minds of the generation — the scientists who created a nuclear reaction that changed the world.

In the middle of World War II, he was just happy to have landed a $94-a-month job. Young Ted focused more on being a good lab assistant than his proximity to a man who always seemed to be studying a slide rule — the brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi, whom he once described as “a little guy, short and very quiet.”

“Absolutely, he just didn’t realize the work he was doing,” said Adeline Petry, his wife of 68 years. “He just worked hard.

“A lot of kids like to play baseball,” she said. “He liked to work.”

Mr. Petry died July 28 of cancer at 94. The Orland Park resident was the last known living witness to the dawn of the atomic age: the first controlled nuclear reaction, which took place on Dec. 2, 1942, in an old squash court under a U. of C. athletic field.

During work on the top-secret Manhattan Project, he sometimes took the Cottage Grove street car downtown to “pick up uranium or some radioactive material, actually just put it in my pocket and go back with it to the university,” Mr. Petry said in an oral history he shared with The Atomic Heritage Foundation in March. “It was just like a beer can of uranium.

“Eventually, they did test your blood, and my red blood corpuscles were diminishing,” he recalled. “They decided to pick up the radioactive material with a station wagon and a lead container.”

Ted Petry was the last known living witness to the first controlled nuclear reaction, which took place at the University of Chicago. | Jean Lachat / U. of C.
Ted Petry was the last known living witness to the first controlled nuclear reaction, which took place at the University of Chicago. | Jean Lachat / U. of C.

In addition to running errands on the project — which included the work of famed scientists Arthur Compton, Leo Szilard and Walter Zinn — Mr. Petry helped with the carpentry, planing, drilling and stacking of layers of graphite bricks for ”Chicago Pile-1,” a 57-layer atomic mound that included more than 90,000 pounds of uranium metal and uranium oxide.

There were escape plans in case the experiment didn’t go well, with “doorways jack-hammered out of the concrete stands,” he said in the oral history. “Those were escape doorways in case something went critical and we couldn’t contain it. They said, ‘Just get out of those things, and head for Indiana.’ That was their saying, ‘Head for Indiana. Just get away.’ ”

The chain reaction — from splitting uranium nuclei — didn’t generate enough power even for a lightbulb, said Henry J. Frisch, a professor with the university‘s Enrico Fermi Institute.

But it demonstrated a new source of energy — one that would be used less than three years later to make the bomb dropped with devastating effect on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, Frisch said.

Ted Petry was a recent high school graduate when he worked on the breakthrough nuclear project at the University of Chicago. Afterward, the witnesses signed a Chianti bottle to commemorate the event. | Jean Lachat / University of Chicago
Ted Petry was a recent high school graduate when he worked on the breakthrough nuclear project at the University of Chicago. Afterward, the witnesses signed a Chianti bottle to commemorate the event. | Jean Lachat / University of Chicago

After the successful experiment, the witnesses shared a toast. “And, of course, Fermi, being Italian, they brought out a bottle of Chianti wine, Italian wine, with the straw around the bottle,” Mr. Petry later told the university, “and a lot of us signed that straw.”

The bottle, with Mr. Petry’s signature inches away from Fermi‘s, is stored in the National Archives in Chicago.

Ted Petry’s signature is on the left side of the Chianti bottle used for a toast to commemorate the first controlled nuclear reaction. On the right is the signature of physicist Enrico Fermi. | Jean Lachat / University of Chicago
Ted Petry’s signature is on the left side of the Chianti bottle used for a toast to commemorate the first controlled nuclear reaction. On the right is the signature of physicist Enrico Fermi. | Jean Lachat / University of Chicago

At a university event last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the breakthrough, “He was so surprised when he realized he was the last one living,” his wife said.

He grew up near 68th and Carpenter. His father was a meat sales representative, he told the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

After leaving the university, Mr. Petry worked for a time as a deckhand on a Great Lakes ore freighter, at Joslyn Manufacturing and as an electrician with the Pullman Company, according to the oral history, called “Voices of the Manhattan Project.”

He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at what became Chicago State University. Mr. Petry taught shop at Corliss and Simeon High Schools, according to his daughter Laura Dowling.

“He volunteered with the Boy Scouts, and he worked hard every day,” said his wife.

“The remarkable thing about this era and the people in it was their idealism and their patriotism and the really remarkable, can-do attitude. These were people not driven by money or material gain,” Frisch said. “These were people driven by something more honorable, and he represents that era. He was proud of the country and the whole effort.”

Ted Petry (center, in bow tie and glasses), is visible facing President John F. Kennedy at a gathering to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction. | John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Ted Petry (center, in bow tie and glasses), is visible facing President John F. Kennedy at a gathering to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction. | John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Twenty years after the nuclear reaction, he was proud to be among the Chicago Pile-1 workers honored by President John F. Kennedy. “We drove up to the gate of the White House, and they said, ‘The CP-1 Guys,’ and they opened the doors, and we went right in,” he told the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

In addition to his wife Adeline and daughter Laura, Mr. Petry is survived by daughter Linda Jamison, sons Theodore III and Terrence, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A service is planned in September.