I’m bringing nuclear power to the 19th century and need to know who had the tools and connections to become the 19th century “Father of nuclear power.”

Background: The Real World

Raw, unenriched uranium and graphite can sustain a very powerful thermal reaction; but we never knew this until 1942. So, what if someone else stumbled upon it earlier?

In the 1970’s we "stumbled upon" a fusion reactor that just formed itself in nature (this is true). The earth now has seventeen known nuclear powered reactors which had formed naturally in Gabon, Africa. Others may exist but have not been found. In one case it is estimated that the reactor generated about 100 kW of power for a period of over 110,000 years when it formed. (enough power to keep one thousand 100W light bulbs lit for 1,100 centuries) It doesn’t run today because it is dry. It has no water or graphite to moderate it. Raw uranium and graphite are all that is needed to create a Chernobyl-like event; again, but In my story we tripped over this natural phenomenon before 1970. We found one in 1790.

But even before we found a reactor in the wild, we built one with raw uranium. In 1942 Enrico Fermi built the CP-1 graphite moderated reactor in downtown Chicago, USA, and quickly shut it down when it grew to 200 Watts output, narrowly avoiding a Chernobyl-like meltdown by replacing the cadmium poison control rods. The reactor was supercritical, only the control rods prevented it from reaching prompt criticality.

But we have known about unranium since 1789, when leading German chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth was studying pitchblende recovered from Bohemia, and separated Uranium from it for the first time. He gave the element its name after the newly discovered planet Uranus.

He never did anything with it!

Now, FICTION: the premise:

Assume we found one of these natural nuclear reactors earlier in history. What if the first person to put raw uranium and graphite together was not Enrico Fermi?

Here are the events which have unfolded in my alternate world: We had accidentally stumbled upon a naturally occurring nuclear reactor in 1790. It was heating up a lake or a pond. They didn't know why, but it had localized concentrated uranium of 60 wt% (this is what comes from the deep mines in in Cigar Lake, Canada). By strange chance, however, sedimentary erosion had left graphite on the lakebed covering the concentrated pitchblende. This formed a natural fission reactor at the bottom of the lake, making it heat up. The pond never froze over, and it was unusually warm for no known reason. On studying the mystery, some pitchblend was removed, because it was warm to the touch. But when removed from the lake, it cooled off! They learned it only heated up when near the graphite.


First: the reality check part: I may be answering my own question here, but I am not sure. This is the reality-check part: If Klaproth had continued experimenting with his Uranium, by putting it in water maybe and closely watching the temperature; I assume he could have discovered nuclear power. Or at least, that someone would have.

And now on to the heading problem: Not any random person would discover the low heat from a natural reaction like this; and certainly only a few would have pushed this new find to attempt an engine with it. The average person would just stich the rocks in their socks on a cold night and warm their toes up. But surely someone was in the position to study, and exploit this new strange, seemingly limitless heat source.


My question is simple: Into whose hands did this discovery land? NO OPINIONS PLEASE! The question asks for a real person or agency. Who would have pursued it until they created a small heat engine with it - the first nuclear engine? An answer MUST:

  • Consider the person/agency's real-world areas of specialty
  • Consider the person/agency's access to resources, and
  • Consider the person/agency's contributions

Who of all the brilliant revolutionaries would be the most likely to have unlocked the secret of making a steam engine from Uranium before 1900?


It would also be useful to know who would have "envisioned" a nuclear steam engine first as well; such as Jules Verne perhaps, upon discovering that a certain rock 'magically' heats water.

The words BEST OPPORTUNITY in the title are put there on purpose. The question is asking for that.

Thank you for reading the question first.

It is obvious no one would know why certain Uranium samples heat water, and the concept of nuclear fission—radioactivity—would remain a mystery; but we have no idea at all what gravity is today, yet Archimedes of Syracuse used it to lift water up a hill with a screw pump.

To the off-topic "discovery of radioactivity" comments: I can not believe that a brilliant mind who stumbled across rocks heating up a lake would wait until they knew why it works before they started experimenting with it. Some answers are suggesting this is how science works: First, know why it happens. Then, try to experiment with it to see if it is useful. That isn't reasonable, someone was in the best position to become the Thomas Newcomen of nuclear power.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ You might be able to justify Marie Curie, but this is a little later than you like. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 2:51
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus I don't know how much earlier she could have done it, but assuming she knew about a natural uranium heat source.... maybe? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 4:42

4 Answers 4


France, via Loius Pasteur

Let's start at the beginning - the location of this nuclear reactor is in Gabon, Africa. The only discovered nuclear reactors have been in this location, so there's not reason to assume that it would anywhere but Gabon, Africa. So who was in control of Africa during this time period?

The Kingdom of Orungu, a slave-trading kingdom which existed during this time and participated heavily in the triangle trade. They would have knowledge of it, but they do not posses the capacity to use the this knowledge to build anything. On the other hand, they know someone who does - France.

In 1873, Orungu agreed to a French outpost and eventually was formally colonized by France in 1927. True, they traded with Portugal for the most part, but it's unlikely slave trader captains would care about stories of a hot spring when there's profit to be had. But French scientists would care, especially given what just happened - the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, where France lost heavily to Germany.

In fact, I have just the man in mind: the legendary French chemist Louis Pasteur, head of the Pasteur Institute, who, at this point in time, was angrily making superior French beer to spite Germany. (Yes, that's a real thing.)

Now, you are giving a world-class chemist who is harboring a vicious grudge the building blocks of a nuclear reactor - I very much believe that Louis Pasteur would be able to cobble together a crude nuclear reactor. (And also die during the process from radiation, too, but that's beside the point.)

Now armed with their new nuclear reactor, France will (in all likelihood) proudly lose WWI again, but that's a question for another day.

  • $\begingroup$ ??? O. M. G. o_o . Starfish Prime was pasteurization? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 18:18

No one

Nuclear power is too much advanced for XIX century.

Without study of radioactivity, a nuclear reactor that produces effects measurable by XIX century instruments can not be built.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Let me try to understand this answer for a second. Anders Jonas Ångström was able to measure the minute difference in earth's magnetic field in different parts of Sweden in 1851; and we could measure the adiabatic coefficient of heat capacity in gasses in 1824, but not one living soul would be able to detect a 1kW heater in a lake before 1900? The post clearly states the effects were already measured. The lake was heated. Anyone with a thermometer could detect a natural nuclear reactor. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 14:41
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @VogonPoet Detect? Yes. Determine its causes? No. Without an atomic theory, discovering a natural nuclear reactor is just discovering a lake with hot water. And there are plenty of those in Earth. They would have thought it was just geothermal activity. And since you cannot take a kilo of pitchblende, soak it in water and make it warm it, there's no way to discover that the source of heat was not geothermal activity. It is our knowledge of radioactivity which has allowed us to discover natural reactors, not the other way around. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 16:39
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Vogon Poet "Geothermal activity had been ruled out" - precisely how? Your setup implies access to technology beyond XIX century level. I don't know what was the exact 1824 experiment that you are referring to, but in general, Calorimetry requires a tightly controlled system. A lake (even a small lake) is not a tightly controlled system. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 17:36
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @Vogon Poet "They learned it only heated up when near the graphite" - again, what was the precise experiment there? Chicago Pile experiment required dozens of tons of uranium oxide carefully interlaced with hundreds of tons of ultra pure graphite - and it generated only minuscule 0.5 watts of energy at first. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 17:47
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Vogon Poet Ok, let's allow full 200 watts here. What does it change? $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 17:58

You can imagine that Earth is much younger (by 2 billion years) so Uranium does not need any additional enrichment, it can be used in reactors right away - the ratio of U-235 will be much higher.

In this case, it would be France and England. Why France? They have access to rich ore deposits in Africa, such as the one in Gabon which was a natural fission reactor. There the effect could be discovered and studied which would allow artificial reproduction.

  • $\begingroup$ Can you think of anyone in particular in those countries who was set up best to make a heat engine? $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 16:22
  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid I'm not that much into XIX century science. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 17:07

The only serious 19th century candidate team would be Faraday and Maxwell...but it will be a sad story when Faraday succumbs to radiation poisoning.

Alternately, if you're just looking for a name...go for the Curies just because their destruction of Tokyo is so cool. Few will notice that their work was actually done in the early 20 century.

  • $\begingroup$ The story leaves earth in 1891 so I think they will notice. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 17, 2022 at 15:48
  • $\begingroup$ I had always considered Faraday as a physicist in electromagnetism, didn't know he was also a chemist... a good one. Timeline make this a hard team to assemble though. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 1:59

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .