100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Cyclotron________________

Year of Invention: 1931

What Is It? An electromagnetic machine that accelerates atomic and sub-
atomic particles to near light speed.

Who Invented It? Ernest Lawrence (Berkeley, California)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Every discovery in subatomic physics after 1930 depended on a cyclotron or its offspring. The cyclotron, the original “atom smasher,” has been called the greatest subatomic research tool ever created and opened the world of subatomic (smaller than an atom) physics to detailed, systematic research. Our understanding of the subatomic world comes from what was learned on the cyclotron. This invention stands as one of the major tuning points for physics research.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Marie Curie cracked open the door to the subatomic world. Before 1900 scientists believed that the atom was the smallest possible particle, the basic building block of all matter.

Then Marie, with her husband Pierre Curie, discovered that tiny particles (radioactivity) flew out of some atoms. That meant that the atom could not be the smallest particle of matter. Something—possibly many somethings—must exist inside every atom!

Over the next 25 years, hundreds of scientists struggled to peer inside the atom and discover the new basic building blocks of all matter. They struggled to understand what structures made up an atom.

However, there was no way for scientists to intentionally smash open an atom. They had to wait for atoms (most commonly radium atoms) to naturally disintegrate.


How Was the Cyclotron Invented?

Twenty-seven-year-old Ernest Lawrence abandoned his undergraduate and early postgraduate studies in photoelectric research once he arrived at the University of California, Berkeley, campus in 1928. Instead, he jumped into the exciting new on-campus department studying nuclear physics. Berkeley theorists were hard at work deducing the inner workings of atoms from the scant clues they had been able to gather.

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