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.
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.