Historical Encyclopedia of Atomic Energy

By Stephen E. Atkins | Go to book overview

V

Van de Graaff, Robert Jemison

Robert Van de Graaff (1901-1967) was an American physicist who is most famous for his development of a particle accelerator that was named after him. He was born on December 20, 1901, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His undergraduate (1922) and master's (1923) degrees were from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. For a short period he worked for the Alabama Power Company before leaving for a European trip. While taking courses at the University of Paris at Sorbonne in 1924, Van de Graaff attended lectures on physics by Madame Marie Curie and decided to study physics. In 1928 he received his doctorate in physics from Oxford University, studying under John Townsend. Part of his research led him to designing an electrostatic generator. In 1929 Van de Graaff returned to the United States and began work as a research fellow at Princeton University. Then in 1931 he moved to the post of research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he remained until 1960.

It was while at Princeton that Van de Graaff built the Van de Graaff generator which later he developed as an accelerator. This accelerator used the generator to produce voltage high enough to accelerate charged particles. It was used extensively as a tool in the field of atomic energy. An additional benefit was the use of generator as an X-ray machine for treatment of cancer. During World War II, his apparatus was important in the examination of the interior structure of heavy ordnance.

After the war, Van de Graaff and a colleague, John Trump, founded a company, High Voltage Engineering Corporation, to market the accelerator and X-ray generator. The market consisted of academic institutions, hospitals, industry, and scientific institutes. Van de Graaff was director of the corporation and in 1960 left MIT to devote his full efforts to his company. He died on January 16, 1967, in Boston, Massachusetts.

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