Model of the large magnet for University of Chicago's cyclotron, 1948.
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Model of the large magnet for University of Chicago's cyclotron, 1948.Fritz Goro—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Model of the large magnet for University of Chicago's cyclotron, 1948.
Carving and shaping a cyclotron's enormous magnet, Pennsylvania, 1948.
A 2,200-ton magnet pole for University of Chicago's cyclotron, 1948.
Forging of an enormous steel beam that will be carved into slabs for use in the frame of a cyclotron, Pennsylvania, 1948.
Massive, forged steel beam that will be precision-cut into slabs for use in a cyclotron, Pennsylvania, 1948.
A steel worker in Bethlehem, Penn., drills holes in a massive, forged beam; the beam will form part of the framework of a large cyclotron magnet.
A man inspects a cyclotron's magnet frame under construction at Columbia University's Nevis Lab, Irvington, New York, 1947.
A cyclotron magnet frame at Columbia University's Nevis Lab, Irvington, New York, 1947.
A cyclotron, capable of accelerating particles at 160,000 miles per second, at Columbia University's Nevis Lab, Irvington, New York, 1948.
A bottle of champagne is delivered by crane for use in the christening of Columbia's cyclotron in 1948.
Columbia University's cyclotron, 1948
Before entering the christening ceremonies for Columbia University's cyclotron in 1948, guests check their watches to guard against the machine's enormous magnetic pull.
Columbia University's cyclotron, 1948
A chain of nails held together by the Columbia cyclotron's magnetic pull, 1948.
Columbia University's cyclotron, 1948
Dr. Eugene Gardner, 35, and Brazilian-born Dr. C.M.G. Lattes, 23, in the control room of UC-Berkeley's cyclotron, 1948.
Two silver ornaments — made radioactive after being bombarded in a cyclotron — leave their mark on exposed film.
Model of the large magnet for University of Chicago's cyclotron, 1948.
Fritz Goro—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
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The Cyclotron: In Praise of an Early Tech Marvel

Mar 13, 2013

In the world of technology, what's cutting-edge in the morning is often on the scrap-heap by noon. But some machines are so revolutionary, so innovative—so cool—that even years after they've been largely outpaced or even replaced by other, more efficient or more powerful devices, they can still amaze.

One such marvel is the early cyclotron: a huge, proto-atom smasher that led to, among other things, key breakthroughs in the study of subatomic particles and, in a sense, to the later Atomic Age itself. Here, LIFE.com celebrates the remarkable instrument, and the minds that conceived, refined and worked wonders with it when it was still at-once the sharpest and bulkiest of edgy tech.

[MORE: A 2007 requiem for Columbia University's famed cyclotron in the Times]

The way most cyclotrons work is, at heart, almost rudimentary: particles sped up by the enormous device's transmitter and magnet form a beam of energy. "When this beam is directed against a metal target," LIFE explained to its readers in a February 1940 issue, "enough of the particles hit the nuclei in the metal to cause atomic explosions, making them give off neutrons or other radiations. When other substances, in turn, are bombarded with neutrons, new substances are formed, which explode with radioactive violence. These artificially radioactive substances are of great use in biological research"—particularly, the article noted, the battle against cancer.

Cyclotrons were so much a part of the national conversation in the late 1940s, in fact, that in an advertisement in a 1948 issue of LIFE, Shell Oil not only touted its products' use in Columbia's Nevis Lab cyclotron, located 20 miles north of Manhattan in Irvington, N.Y., but actually took the valuable ad space to discuss how the machine worked:

With the energy of 400 electron volts, the cyclotron whirls its missiles 'round and 'round until they approach half the speed of light—and then flings them at the target. . . . The missiles—the nuclei of hydrogen atoms—are hurled at a "cloud" of other atoms. Some of these are hit, shattered, by an impact greater than that from any other cyclotron. One purpose: to find among the fragments new forms of matter.

The huge Nevis Lab cyclotron, LIFE pointed out, employing an image that would resonate with its readers a few short years after the end of World War II, contained "as much steel as a destroyer."

The cost of the machine? Two million dollars. Million. With an M.

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