Ceremonial trowel - one of three fabricated for use by President Eisenhower and dignitaries in dedication of U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's headquarters building, Germantown, MD on November 8, 1957

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Background on the history and acquisition of ceremonial trowel; Object ID no. 2014.0124.01
On May 2, 2014, Joseph Ball donated to the National Museum of American History (NMAH) the ceremonial trowel in its box, together with a descriptive plaque, all mounted on a felt-covered, wooden platform enclosed in a clear plastic display case. The text inscribed on the plaque is as follows:
"This trowel is one of three fabricated for use by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in dedication of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's headquarters building, Germantown, Maryland on November 8, 1957."
"The blade of the trowel is uranium from CP-1, the world's first nuclear reactor. The ferrule and stem are zirconium from the initial critical assembly for the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine. The handle is wood from the west stands of Stagg Field at The University of Chicago beneath which CP-1 was brought to criticality on December 2, 1942, by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues."
"The historic trowel was presented to Eisenhower College by Argonne National Laboratory through the courtesy of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission."
[Note: Due to radiation safety concerns of the Secret Service, the uranium trowels were dropped from the AEC building dedication ceremony and silver-plated trowels were used instead.]
For a history of the establishment of the AEC headquarters site in Germantown, MD, see
Mr. Ball, an alumnus of Eisenhower College (established in 1968 in Seneca Falls, NY in honor of President Eisenhower), obtained the trowel in 2012 at a silent auction during the 40th alumni reunion of the charter class of 1972 of the now defunct college. (It closed in 1982 owing to lack of students and funding.) The College had many Eisenhower memorabilia, which had been put into storage when the school closed.
A number of the items from the Eisenhower memorabilia inventory were offered at the silent auction, along with the trowel. However, the trowel was not listed in the inventory. The College historian and others Mr. Ball asked knew nothing about the object or how it came to the College. He subsequently got in touch with Thomas Wellock, Historian of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who was able to uncover the curious early history of the trowel. Mr. Ball agreed to loan it to the NRC, which displayed it in their headquarters lobby in Rockville, MD from 2012 to 2014.
Mr. Ball then donated the trowel to the Modern Physics Collection of the NMAH, where it is now in storage.
For a brief and fascinating historical account of the trowel, below are links to the text of two consecutive U.S. NRC Blogs on the subject by Mr. Wellock:
The Mystery of the Atomic Energy Commission Trowel – Part 1
Posted on U.S. NRC Blog on November 26, 2012; http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/2012/11/26/the-mystery-of-the-atomic-energy-commission-trowel-part-i/
The Mystery of the Trowel – Solved
Posted on U.S. NRC Blog on November 28, 2012; http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/2012/11/28/the-mystery-of-the-trowel-solved/
The other ceremonial trowels; their respective locations and descriptive plaques/inscriptions
It has been determined that three uranium-blade trowels were made, and that none of these was used in the cornerstone laying ceremony. Instead, three silver-plated plated trowels were made for use during the ceremony.
1) ANL. As noted above, one of the two other uranium trowels is at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), where it appears as part of an historical exhibit on nuclear energy. An image of the ANL display is in Nuclear News, April 2009, p.58. This display can be viewed at:
With this trowel came a crude typewritten label reading as follows:
The Blade is made of Uranium from CP-1.
The Shank and Ferrule is made from Zirconium from
The [First Pile_] Nautilus. [“First Pile” crossed out]
The Handle is made from Benches in the West
Stands close to where the pile was."
In the bottom left corner is a torn, unclear handwritten note: “]l for _________ at Germantown.” The name after “for” may be “Comerston,” “Elmer Loyd,” “Gomer Stoyd,” or something similar.
2) DOE Headquarters. DOE Historian Terry Fehner confirms that the third uranium trowel is in a display case, along with one of the silver-plated trowels and related ceremonial artifacts, in the lobby of the auditorium at the Department of Energy (DOE) administration building in Germantown, MD.
The uranium trowel has a plaque that reads:
"Symbolic Trowel
Blade - uranium from nuclear reactor
Stagg Field, Chicago (Dec. 2 1942)
Handle - portion of squash court door
Ferrule - zirconium from submarine Nautilus prototype reactor"
The silver-plated trowel has a plaque that reads:
"Trowel used in cornerstone laying ceremony November 8, 1957"
Inscription engraved on silver-plated blade:
"Atomic Energy Building
Cornerstone laid by
President Eisenhower
November 8, 1957"
3) Eisenhower Library. NRC Historian Tom Wellock confirms that a second silver-plated trowel is located at the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. An image from the Library shows that this trowel has an inscription different from that on the DOE silver-plated trowel.
Inscription etched on silver plated blade:
“This trowel was used
by the President of the
United States at the laying of the
cornerstone of the U.S. Atomic Energy
Commission Headquarters Building,
Germantown, Maryland
November 8, 1957"
Presented to Dwight D. Eisenhower
President of the United States
Lewis L. Strauss, Chairman
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission”
Reference is made to two memoranda from the DOE archives: the first (Oct. 4 1957, from Acting Manager, AEC Chicago Operations Office to Director, AEC Division of Reactor Development, Washington) describes materials in uranium trowels made by ANL; the second (Oct. 21, 1957, Memorandum from AEC Secretary to AEC Director, Division of Construction & Supply) suggests the inscriptions for the three silver-plated trowels that were to be used at the cornerstone laying on November 8, 1957.
Tentative conclusions, comments, and remaining questions
Based on examination of available images of located trowels and their associated plaques, and the text of the cited AEC memoranda, we can reach the following tentative conclusions, assuming the language in the memoranda to be definitive:
Uranium Trowels
1) Three uranium trowels were fabricated at ANL but never used for the cornerstone laying ceremony. They are now located, respectively, at: the National Museum of American History, Washington; Argonne National Laboratory, Chicago; and the Department of Energy, Germantown, MD. The trowel on display at DOE apparently is missing its zirconium ferrule (reason unknown), although the accompanying plaque includes mention of ferrule.
2) The stems and ferrules of the uranium trowels were made from zirconium used in the first naval nuclear reactor critical assembly, Zero Power Reactor-1 (ZPR-1), which was essentially a prototype for design and testing at ANL. The lack of radioactivity in the metal shows that it cannot be zirconium removed from a reactor assembly that was installed and operated on the USS Nautilus. (Zirconium obtained from the actual Nautilus reactor would have attained prohibitively high levels of radioactivity.)
3) The handles of the uranium trowels were made of wood from a portion of the door to the converted squash court in which CP-1 was located under the west viewing stands of Stagg Field, and not from wood benches in the Field’s west stands.
4) Who authorized the donation of one of the uranium trowels to Eisenhower College, and when? We do not know; all we can say for now is that the label plaque for that trowel was prepared after 1965, when the College was founded, and before 1975, when the name “Atomic Energy Commission” went out of use.
Silver-plated trowels
1) Apparently three silver-plated trowels were intended to be used during the cornerstone laying ceremony by, respectively, President Eisenhower, AEC Chairman Strauss, and Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy Chairman Durham. Displays for two of these trowels are now located at, respectively, The Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum, and DOE Germantown, MD.
2) A comparison of images of these two displays shows that the two trowels have differently shaped blades and different types of wood handles. Further, the inscription on the Eisenhower Library trowel is identical to that suggested by the AEC Secretary for the President’s trowel, whereas the relatively brief inscription on the DOE trowel differs significantly and does not indicate for whom it was intended.
3) Thus, there is uncertainty concerning the DOE silver-plated trowel. Why is it of a slightly different shape and handle type? Was it actually used in the cornerstone laying ceremony by one of the three dignitaries, and if so, by which one – e.g., AEC Chairman Strauss?
4) What became of the silver-plated trowels used by AEC Chairman Strauss and Joint Committee Chairman Durham? Can their existence and current location be determined? Our investigations have so far yielded no further information.
Update on Uranium Trowels
Roger Tilbrook, Curator of the Nuclear Energy Exhibit, Nuclear Engineering Division, ANL, has investigated the inconsistencies regarding the uranium trowels. He makes the following points regarding the Argonne trowel:
An Argonne old-timer, A.B. Krisciunas, confirms that the handle is from wood in a squash court door under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. The lack of activity from the stem and ferrule indicates that the source of the zirconium was the Zero Power Reactor-1 (ZPR-1) at ANL, rather than a fuel assembly used in the Submarine Test Reactor (STR), or in the USS Nautilus itself.
The uranium blade could have been made from a CP-1 fuel artifact or from CP-2 fuel (which came from CP-1). After comparison of activity measurements, the conclusion is that the blade is from CP-2 uranium.
Currently not on view
Argonne National Laboratory
place made
United States: Illinois, Argonne National Laboratory Reservation
Physical Description
uranium (blade material)
zirconium (ferrule and stem material)
wood (handle material)
overall: 2 13/16 in x 2 3/4 in x 10 1/4 in; 7.14375 cm x 6.985 cm x 26.035 cm
handle diam.: 1 in; 2.54 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Credit Line
Gift of Joseph Ball
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Medicine and Science: Modern Physics
Science & Mathematics
Modern Physics
Energy & Power
Data Source
National Museum of American History


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