Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Orlando Lawrence (1901-1958)
After earning a B.S. from his home state's University
of South Dakota (1922) and a Ph.D. in Physics from Yale University
(1925), Ernest Orlando Lawrence joined the Physics faculty at the
University of California at Berkeley (1927). Here he soon invented
one of the most essential apparatus of nuclear physics: the cyclotron
(1931, patent #1,948,384).
At that time, particle
accelerators---devices used to shoot electrons, charged protons or
ions at atomic nuclei---were linear: that is, the particles were shot
at the target by a burst of static electricity along a straight path.
Lawrence and others realized that they could give the particles muchgreater speed within a smaller space if they could build momentum by
whirling them in a spiral before releasing them.
Lawrence made this possible by inventing the
"cyclotron." In this device, an electromagnetic field keeps
a beam of charged atomic particles in orbit within a structure made of
two opposed D-shapes, while a radio-frequency electric charge boosts
the particles' speed each time they cross the gap between
"dees." In this way, particles can be brought to very great
speeds before they are released to collide with the target. By
analyzing such collisions between charged particle and nucleus,
scientists learn much about the structure and characteristics of
atoms, and can even produce artificial radioactivity.
himself pioneered the use of radiation to combat cancer (he
successfully treated hyperthyroid), and paved the way for the
isolation of Uranium-235 (which allowed the U.S. to create the atomic
bomb). He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1939. In addition, he
founded the Lawrence Berkeley (1930s) and Lawrence Livermore (1952)
Labs: both are still internationally renowned nuclear researchfacilities. Later generations of particle
accelerators---synchrocyclotron, isochronocyclotron, superconducting
supercollider---can all be considered improvements to Lawrence's