Robert Jemison van de Graaff   [1901-1967]

Research Physicist

Robert Van de Graaff was the designer and developer of the Van de Graaff Generator. His generator was not a machine that generates the usual commercial electricity, but it was an electrostatic generator that produced enormously high voltages, some as high as seven million volts. The purpose of these high voltages was for research in nuclear physics and concentrated on particle acceleration. For the above reasons his machines were also called particle accelerators.

Van de Graaff was also an academic, spending most of his academic career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was very much involved with the development of his particle acceleration machines, and as a result was unable to spend much time on basic or theoretical research, and the resulting publications emanating from such research. Apparently as a result of the paucity of his publications, he only rose to the position of associate professor at MIT.

Van de Graaff grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he attended the public schools. His parents were Adrian Sebastian Van de Graaff and Minnie Cherokee Hargrove. Van de Graaff then attended the University of Alabama, and earned a B.S. degree in 1922 and a M.S. degree in 1923, both in Mechanical Engineering, from that institution.

Upon graduation, Van de Graaff went to work for the Alabama Power Company and stayed there for a year. He apparently felt that he wanted more out of life than just working as an engineer. So in 1924, he enrolled in the Sorbonne University in Paris, and attended lectures by Madame Curie on radiation. The Madame Curie exposure apparently whetted his appetite for radiation and nuclear experimentation. In 1925, he was chosen to be a Rhodes Scholar and went to England to study at Oxford University. From that august institution he received a B.S. degree in physics in 1926, and a Ph.D. degree in physics in 1928. While at Oxford he became aware of the possibility to disintegrate nuclei through particle acceleration at very high speeds.

In 1929, Van de Graaff returned to the U. S. and became a National Research Fellow at the Palmer Physics Laboratory at Princeton University. During the fall of 1929, Van de Graaff was able to produce the first working model of his electrostatic generator which produced 80,000 volts. Two years later, he was able to demonstrate an improved version of his original accelerator, which produced one million volts.

Shortly thereafter, MIT invited Van de Graaff to join them as a research associate, and promised him research support to further develop his particle accelerator. In 1933, he was able to demonstrate an advanced version of his particle accelerator which produced seven million volts. Although others had also produced particle accelerators, none of them approached the Van de Graaff model in terms of cost and efficiency. In 1935, Van de Graaff received the first patent for his invention. While at MIT, Van de Graaff worked collaboratively with MIT Professsor John G. Trump, an electrical engineering professor, and with Professor William W. Buechner, a physics professor.

During World War II, Van de Graaff was the director of the High Voltage Radiographic Project. The project was focused on the development of precision radiographic examination of U.S. Navy ordnance.

Following the War, in 1945, Van de Graaff received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the development of an improved particle accelerator at MIT. In 1946 Van de Graaff and Trump formed the High Voltage Engineering Corporation [HVEC] in Burlington, Massachusetts. Eventually HVEC became the leading supplier of electrostatic generators that were used in cancer therapy, industrial radiography and in the study of nuclear structure.

In the 1950’s, Van de Graaff invented the insulating core transformer. It generated high voltage direct current using magnetic flux rather than electrostatic charging. Numerous other methods were devised by Van de Graaff to control particle beams, so they could be adapted to individual research requirements. Through the use of Van de Graaff particle accelerators, physics researchers were able to accumulate vast quantities of information on nuclear disintegrations and reactions, which led directly to sophisticated theories of nuclear structure.

During his entire scientific career, Van de Graaff was the author of six journal publications, was awarded seven patents and received wide recognition for his particle accelerator. He was awarded the Duddel Medal of the Physical Society of Great Britain in 1947 and the Tom W. Bonner Prize by the American Physical Society in 1966.

Robert J. Van de Graaff married Catherine Boyden in 1936. The couple had two sons, John and William. Van de Graaff passed away on January 16, 1967 in Boston at age 65. At the time of his death there were over 500 Van de Graaff Particle Accelerators in use in more than 30 countries.

 

 REFERENCES

Robert J. Van de Graaff, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_J._Van_de_Graaff 

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