Years of Preliminary Research

Years of scientific effort and study lay behind this demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. The story goes back at least to the fall of 1938 when two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, found barium in the residue material from an experiment in which they had bombarded uranium with neutrons from a radium-beryllium source. This discovery caused tremendous excitement in the laboratory because of the difference in atomic mass between the barium and the uranium. Previously, in residue material from similar experiments, elements other than uranium had been found, but they differed from the uranium by only one or two units of mass. The barium differed by approximately 98 units of mass. The question was, where did this element come from? 1t appeared that the uranium atom when bombarded by a neutron had split into two different elements, each of approximately half the mass of the uranium.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory in the 1930s.

Before publishing their work in the German scientific journal Die Naturwissenschaften; Hahn and Strassmann communicated with Lise Meitner who, having fled the Nazi-controlled Reich, was working with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Miss Meitner was very much interested in this phenomenon and immediately attempted to analyze mathematically the results of the experiment. She reasoned that the barium and the other residual elements were the result of a fission, or breaking, of the uranium atom. But when she added the atomic masses of the residual elements; she found this total was less than the atomic mass of uranium.

There was but one explanation: The uranium fissioned or split, forming two elements each of approximately half of its original mass, but not exactly half. Some of the mass of the uranium had disappeared. Miss Meitner and her nephew O. R. Frisch suggested that the mass which disappeared was converted into energy. According to the theory advanced in 1905 by Albert Einstein in which the relationship of mass to energy was stated by the equation E = mc2 (energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light), this energy release would be of the order of 200,000,000 electron volts for each atom fissioned.