In 1913, one-hundred years ago this year, a high school kid in Seattle was showing up for his first day of class. He was new to Washington, his family having moved across the country to follow his father’s reassignment as a chaplain in the army. Thirty years later, in 1943, that boy had grown to be not just a man, but a general in the Army: Leslie “Dick” Groves. He found himself considering Washington once more, this time as a possible location for the world’s first plutonium reactor.
The mid-columbia was selected then because of what we had on hand: plenty of space, a source of fresh water, and too few people too far from anything for anyone to notice. People, machinery, and science beared down on the luckiest dot on an army map, all to build a single concrete room where newly discovered properties of the universe would be harnessed to win a war.
Fast forward to 2013. We often feel the outside world sees us as an inconsequential dot and government-backed scientific innovation is still a driving purpose of the community. The river is still blue and the desert is still beige. At the same time, the Tri-Cities has blossomed into a quarter-of-a-million people, we live in a time where distance is becoming less meaningful, and the economic engine of civilization is no longer only fed by agriculture or forged by industry. A single idea in a single room can change the world easier than ever.
In this century, we must build a new reactor. It will not win a war, but it must help us survive. It will not produce plutonium, but it will need to fuel the next hundred years of prosperity. Unfortunately, we are restricted to only what we have on hand, since there is no outside force that will mobilize to assemble it for us; we must build one for ourselves.
As of this moment, the components of this reactor are already coming together. Room to Think, the first coworking space in Tri-Cities, is perhaps the closest to a literal reaction chamber. The various groups dedicated to the sharing of techniques and idea, such as DocType Society, Mobile Makers Tri-Cities, and The Collaborative, are the particles colliding every day, with larger events like TriConf reminding us that critical mass is within our grasp.
The reactor of the next hundred years will not be poured in concrete, it will be produced by the culture of Tri-Cities; with our choice being how to focus and share this new innovation of our little civilization. No single person can choose its design or lay its foundation. Its fuel must be our own and cannot be borrowed. Its workers must remember it will succeed on their quality of minds, not number of hands. We must make it happen; here and now.
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