Q: Was the man who developed the electrical device that makes your hair stand on end from Alabama?
A: Yes. According to the online Encyclopedia of Alabama, Robert Jemison Van de Graaff (1901-1967) was a physicist who developed an electrostatic generator, named for him, that accelerated subatomic particles for use in nuclear physics research.
Electrostatic machines are used to demonstrate electrical forces and high voltage phenomena. They produce a low continuous current of high voltage static electricity.
Van de Graaff was born in Tuscaloosa and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Alabama.
After graduation, he spent a year as a research assistant for Alabama Power Company and then enrolled at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, the article says. In 1925, after winning a Rhodes Scholarship, he attended Oxford University where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in physics.
“While at Oxford, Van de Graaff became acquainted with the work of New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford, considered the father of nuclear physics,” according to the article. “Van de Graaff developed an interest in accelerating atomic particles to very high speeds for use in disintegrating the nuclei of atoms, a process that would enable scientists to study the nature of individual atoms. He then conceived of a process to deposit electrical charges on a moving belt and then accumulate those charges inside a hollow metal sphere.”
In 1929, Van de Graaff was a National Research Fellow at the Palmer Physics Laboratory at Princeton University in New Jersey who began developing a device for this purpose with the assistance of fellow scientist Nicholas Burke.
“Now known as the Van de Graaff generator, it consists of a long vertical hollow column with a moving belt inside and a dumbbell-shaped sphere at the top of the column that holds the electrical charge from the belt,” the article says. “His first electrostatic generator produced 80,000 volts. In 1931, he became a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an associate professor three years later. That November, at the first meeting of the American Physical Society, he demonstrated a model that produced more than one million volts.”
Working with John G. Trump and William W. Buechner, both of MIT, Van de Graaff improved his device to obtain higher voltages, more consistent particle beams, and a smaller design, according to the article.
“In 1932, he built a larger version consisting of two polished aluminum spheres mounted on insulating columns,” the article says. “In 1935, Van de Graaff, Karl T. Compton, and MIT vice president Vannevar Bush patented the design. His continuing work led to later generators that could produce particles with more than five million volts.”
The article says Van de Graaff contemplated a number of applications for his machine, particularly bombarding heavy atoms, like uranium and thorium, with protons.
“He thought that by doing so, these already unstable atoms might disintegrate into smaller atomic particles or might transform into new manmade elements (those with atomic numbers higher than 92) if their nuclei captured protons,” according to the article. “In 1937, the Harvard Medical School first used his machine to produce X-rays for irradiating cancer tumors. Later in his career, Van de Graaff developed methods to accelerate uranium atoms and then use them to bombard other uranium atoms, creating uranium ions with up to 50 electrons fewer than those of a normal uranium atom for use in highly accurate calculations of atomic properties.”
During World War II, Van de Graaff directed the High Voltage Radiographic Project, sponsored by the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development, according to the article
“In this position, he adapted his electrostatic generator for precision radiographic examination of U.S. Navy ordnance,” the article says. “During the 1950s, he invented the insulating-core transformer, which produced high-voltage direct current, using magnetic fields to accelerate particles instead of electrostatic charging.”
In 1946, Van de Graaff, Trump, and British engineering professor Denis M. Robinson established the High Voltage Engineering Corporation, where he served as the company’s chief physicist and later as chief scientist, according to the article. The following year, the company began its manufacturing operations and became a leading supplier of particle accelerator systems used in cancer therapy, radiography, and nuclear structure studies.