Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What highly explosive technology was originally patented on July 4?

As the Simpsons video above teaches us, there's no better way to celebrate the independence of our nation than by blowing up a small part of it. Indeed, setting off fireworks on Independence Day has been an American tradition since the holiday's first observance on July 4, 1777. Still, July 4th is a date with a long association with explosive events -- even those separate from American residents telling off British monarchs via the indulgent ignition of gunpowder.

In fact, on one particular July 4, perhaps the most historically significant explosive technology ever created was patented -- and no American was involved.

What highly explosive technology was originally patented on July 4?

On July 4, 1934, Leo Szilard filed a patent for the nuclear fission chain reaction, including notes on how to develop a critical mass and goad the process towards a significant explosion. Put more simply, on July 4, 1934, Leo Szilard patented the idea of an atomic bomb.

Kind of puts your paltry little M-80-and-Black-Cat celebrations to shame, doesn't it?

Szilard was a Hungarian refugee living in London at the time, and he gifted the patent to the British Admiralty in an effort to keep it secret and thus out of the hands of Nazi Germany. Ironically, the British initially rejected the patent for nuclear fission before finally accepting it in 1936. In 1938 Szilard emigrated to America and in 1942 he undertook the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction in an ad-hoc reactor built under the stairs of a stadium at the University of Chicago. It was Szilard that persuaded his friend Albert Einstein to sign a letter to Franklin Roosevelt urging the creation of the Manhattan Project.

If Robert Oppenheimer is the father of the atomic bomb, then Leo Szilard is its grandfather. And it all began with a British patent application filed on the Fourth of July, 1934. Now that's an explosively ironic invocation of the truly trivial.