Science: Atomic Patent

In 1935 a group of Italian scientists led by Enrico Fermi applied for a U.S. patent on a process that looked, at the time, about as impractical as a bridge of butterflies' wings. While working together in Rome, they had discovered that neutrons (themselves discovered in 1932) could be slowed down by passage through water or paraffin. Thus slowed, the neutrons were much more likely to be captured by other elements, making them radioactive. A friend of the scientists, Gabriel M. Giannini,* thought the process might have commercial value, but practically no one else did. Such great U.S. companies as Du...

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